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Bergen County Festival committee with Peter Ryan Irish Consulate General of Ireland. Photo by: Sean Dunne

What St. Patrick’s Day is really all about, community

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Bergen County Festival committee with Peter Ryan Irish Consulate General of Ireland. Photo by: Sean Dunne

With so much controversy surrounding the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade this year here in New York, it’s easy to feel a little afraid to have an opinion on a day that celebrates what it means to be Irish.

While there are always two sides to every story, the 2014 New York Parade will largely be remembered for sensationalism. Sensationalism from politicians refusing to march and pressures being put on other leaders to withdraw from participation.

While no group should be made to feel marginalized by exclusion, at the end of the day carrying a banner in a long line of people is a very minor part of what the Celebration of St. Patrick’s Day is truly about.

Ireland’s head of Government Enda Kenny came out this week with one of the truest statements in the war of words currently being exchanged.

I think this is a standout point in the debate, it’s about our Irishness and that has always been key to the celebrations. It’s a day that should not be remembered for protests, those wanting to march should march in their own right, in their own way.

With so much hype surrounding the New York Parade, I was happy to accept an invitation to travel to New Jersey recently to attend the festival launch in Bergen County. It was something that brought home what being Irish in America really means.

It wasn’t an argument about who is allowed to march in a parade, it wasn’t making people feel marginalized by the demographics of society.

What I found in Bergen County, New Jersey may shock some people…. I found a community. A community engaged in a festival to promote Irish heritage in a positive and united front.

A far cry from the Manhattan mud slinging that has played out across international media regarding this years parade. The folks out in New Jersey welcomed this somewhat novice to the power of the Irish American communities in the run up to St Patrick’s Day.

Having read so much about Mayor De Blasio’s decisions not to march and pressures on Irish politicians to withdraw, the Bergen County parade launch certainly reaffirmed the faith in what a St. Patrick’s Day celebration should be about.

The launch was alive with the anticipation of a much loved tradition, celebrating Bergen County and more importantly celebrating being Irish. Having lived in New York for around three months now, it reminded me a little bit of home.

The parochial sense of community and engagement that comes from organising a county fair or St. Patrick’s Day parade is what unites a community regardless of race, gender or sexuality.

Deputy Consul General to Ireland, Peter Ryan was in attendance and spoke of how important it is to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.

Thanking County Executive Kathleen Ryan for throwing open her doors for the launch night for a “Good Irish party” and for helping to showcase the very best of Ireland in Bergen county on June 28, he added.

“Ireland has friends in America because of all of you, you have honored Ireland in the way that you have helped Ireland for so many years.”

One young girl getting in the spirit of St Patrick's Day at Bergen County.

She said “It’s a way not only to introduce the Irish American Community to the other cultures in Bergen County but Also for those of us who are Irish or Irish American to celebrate our heritage.”

In essence those words of ‘celebrate’ and ‘Irish Heritage’ are the core representations of what St Patrick’s Day is all about and heading out to New Jersey gave me that insight into what we should focus on this year instead of the war that has been created.

Peter E Quinn chairman of the Bergen County St Patrick’s Day parade celebrates his 18th year being involved in the parade this year. His parents hailed from Co Donegal and Sligo so growing up Irish American is something he knows a lot about. “It’s something that’s always been part of my life, I have been involved in the Irish community all my life.

The parade this year has a big emphasis on family and he looks forward to the upcoming Bergen county fair which he believes will become a new Irish American tradition.

It was my first time to visit New Jersey and  Bergen County, I found the trip was much more than experiencing a launch night of the County fair and parade, it was engaging in a community and world which I work in on daily basis as a reporter of Irish American stories.These are the people whom we write about. The ‘Unsung heros, one might say.’


As I left the parade launch with Irish comedian Maeve Higgins, who was also in attendance, we set off in search of a bus back to Manhattan. As we walked the slippery Bergen County pavements in search of the bus terminal, I felt a tremendous sense of home in this small community. It gave an insight into the true Irish American identity.

Fearing we had missed the last train back to Manhattan our hopes were dashed again, as we watched the Manhattan bound bus pull off from the opposite side of the road as we stood trapped by a mound of Ice snow.

Not that we were trying to escape the New Jersey landscape of snow and Ice but it was a lot warmer on the bus than the bus stop we had to wait at.

While waiting at the bus, an American man asked us ‘Are You Irish’, perhaps our strong accents gave it away or perhaps it was my red hair, but here this man we had just met at a bus stop on a frosty February night began to open up to us.

Opening up in the fact that he had been brought up in foster care for most of his adolescence and how aged eight, he remembered his foster mother being heartbroken as she had wanted to adopt him and give him a home but was not allowed because of much of the red tape and bureaucracy surrounding family law.

Asking about Irish food, he joked that he enjoyed food a little too much, but he knew about the traditional bacon and cabbage dish that is infamous with St Patrick’s Day.

This stranger at the bus stop brought it home, being Irish in an American community is probably one of the most amazing experiences one can have. The Irish identity is something that touches so many people, and we are a people who people feel they can engage with. Our new friend at the bus stop is proof of this

St Patrick’s Day It’s a day to be who we are, Irish and we should be proud of that.

Do we really want 2014 remembered as the fallout from the New York Parade. I think we should look to examples of good old Irish tradition and spirit that I witnessed in Bergen County as an example of how to engage in a positive Irish identity.

My trip to Bergen county is perhaps the best insight into St. Patrick’s Day in New York I may get this year.

Check out some of the video footage from the Bergen County event from reporter Sean Dunne:

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