Below is a link to a great newsreel (with all due allowance for a bit of Paddywackery) of New York’s 1939 St Patrick’s Day. In ‘The City of Strangers’ it’s the parade Garda Sergeant Stefan Gillespie finds himself marching in, whether he wants to or not… The day starts with Stefan just an Irishman in Manhattan, with not much to do except watch the parade, maybe drink a bit too much, and wish he was back at home. It doesn’t work out that way…
‘…as Stefan finished his breakfast, Detective Michael Phelan arrived. He was in uniform, and it was full NYPD dress uniform, with buttons and cap badge gleaming for the day that was in it. He sat down at the table, his face still showing the bruises from their visit to the Dizzy Club. The waiter brought a cup and poured him a coffee without any need for communication.
‘I take it you’ll be marching.’
‘I will,’ said Michael Phelan, full of himself once more.
‘I’ll maybe see you then. I’ll walk up to 5th Avenue and have a look.’
The sergeant pulled a crumpled NYPD cap from his pocket and pushed it across the table. Stefan folded up his newspaper and picked it up.
‘I thought your boy might like it.’
‘He will too. That’s quite something, Michael. Thank you.’
‘In the meantime you’ll be wearing it yourself,’ grinned the detective.
‘I’ll keep it for Tom.’ Stefan shrugged, reading nothing into it.
‘You will not! You’re going to be marching so.’
‘Should I should look out the Wicklow Association?’ laughed Stefan.
‘You can forget the County Wicklow, you’ll be marching with us.’
‘I don’t think so!’ Stefan sat back in his chair, shaking his head.
Michael Phelan smiled amiably and drank his coffee. He did think so.
Two hours later Sergeant Stefan Gillespie found himself in West 44th Street, off 5th Avenue, standing with Sergeant Phelan and maybe a hundred other police officers, beside the NYPD Mounted Unit. Further up were the soldiers and veterans of the Fighting 69th, then the Police Department Marching Band and the NYPD Holy Name Society. Behind, stretching back down 44th Street, as far as he could see, were the uniforms of firemen, marines, sailors, boy scouts, and a dozen high school marching bands. Hovering to one side, at the corner of 5th and 44th, were the dark suits and the dark hats of the Irish-American Legislators Association, the city and state and federal politicians who were important enough to march at the front of the parade. They were moving through the ranks of soldiers and police officers, pumping the hands of people they didn’t know, with smiles that, if a steady eye had anything to do with it, were every bit as sincere as their firm handshakes. Above the rumble of conversation and laughter, and the shouted orders of the marshals, there was the strangled wail of bagpipes tuning up; there was the snort of horses and the clatter of their shoes on tarmac. Unusually there was no noise of traffic. Cars, trucks, cabs, busses were a long way from 5th Avenue today.
On the other side of 5th Avenue, on East 44th Street, and along the route at the intersections at 45th, 46th, 47th, East and West, all the rest of Irish New York was assembling, in a city that ranked, after Dublin and Belfast, as the biggest Irish city in the world. There were the sashes of 32 county associations, from Antrim down through the alphabet to Wicklow; there were Ancient Order of Hibernians boards from Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Long Island, New Jersey and the Hudson Valley, and from Pennsylvania, Connecticut and beyond; school children and church congregations and Gaelic Athletic clubs were ready to step out, along with Clan na Gael chapters and Brian Boru clubs and the Friends of Irish Freedom; there were more uniforms, too, from fire departments, from the Port Authority, from sheriffs’ departments, from correction facilities, from the Coast Guard; there were ever more drums and ever more pipes.
Stefan really would much rather have watched than participated, but he had no choice in the matter. When he had reached 44th Street he was introduced to thirty or forty police officers whose names he wouldn’t ever remember, and to a few he would, including Michael Phelan’s elder brother, Aaron, and his father, Ernest. The Phelans were an important family in a police force where family, especially Irish family, mattered. Ernie Phelan, wearing the eagle insignia of an inspector on his cap badge, would lead out the Police Department guard of honour on to 5th Avenue; Aaron, a captain at Police Headquarters would be close behind. And then suddenly it was time; after two hours of standing around, all the waiting was over. The last cigarettes and the last cigars were stubbed out along 44th Street. The horses rode out on to the Avenue. Pipes and drums played.
The parade had begun.
Moving uptown from 44th Street, the 5th Avenue of Lower Manhattan, stretching down into the garment district below the Empire State Building at 34th, had already been left behind. The parade was a midtown-uptown affair, and a few streets on from 44th Street St Patrick’s Cathedral was firmly located where New York’s bluebloods still held sway; they weren’t much in evidence today though. Cardinal Spellman stood on the steps of the cathedral, blessing the marchers, and almost to a man, woman and child they crossed themselves as they passed him. There were few enough beside Stefan Gillespie who didn’t. He was conscious of it. There had been times in his life, when he was younger, surrounded by people doing what most Irish people did without thinking, that he had simply done it too, not to stand out. It wasn’t that anyone particularly noticed whether you did or didn’t; it was simply the consciousness that not being a Catholic brought, and had seemed to bring more and more in Ireland since his childhood; not quite fitting.
As the parade moved past St Patrick’s, on towards the Grand Army Plaza and the start of Central Park, this wasn’t the territory of most of the people who were marching, nor of most of those who lined the Avenue in their hundreds of thousands to watch, from 44th Street to halfway along the length of Central Park and 86th Street. If New York’s Social Register had retreated steadily north and east into Park Lane over the years, and was now heading beyond the city itself to Long Island, there were still old mansions in the streets off 5th Avenue; there were air-conditioned apartments and penthouses in the skyscrapers; there were grand hotels like the Waldorf-Astoria, the Savoy-Plaza, the St Regis; exclusive clubs where you wouldn’t want to be too Jewish or even too Irish to qualify for membership, and where, if you weren’t white, you might just get in to collect the garbage; there were museums and art galleries that still preferred their patrons to be on the social register and expected them to leave bequests in their wills; there were the shops and stores and restaurants and cafés and night clubs that required money, real money, if you wanted to indulge: Tiffany’s, Cartier, Saks, Bergdorf Goodman, the Rainbow Room, the Stork Club. But none of that mattered much on St Patrick’s Day. And the feeling that New York belonged to everyone who filled 5th Avenue, marchers and spectators alike, was hard to resist.
Stefan Gillespie was enjoying his Irishness more self-consciously than he ever did in Ireland, sharing it with everyone else. And wasn’t New York one hell of a place to feel you had as much stake in as anyone else, even for a day? Looking at the people around him, in the march and on the street, more than at the buildings, he remembered the words he had read in The New York Times that morning, about the opening of the World’s Fair, words the city’s mayor, Fiorello La Guardia had spoken a week earlier: The greatest display of all, at this great World’s Fair, will be New York City itself, with its 7,454, 995 inhabitants. For a few hours the Atlantic seemed much wider again to Stefan; the shrill rumour of war out of Europe slipped away. Maybe there was more to ‘Democracity’ in New York than just a cardboard cut-out after all. Just now it was hard not to believe it.
It was almost ten hours after Stefan Gillespie had set off along Fifth Avenue with the NYPD. St Patrick’s Day was over. It was one in the morning. Now the Irish consul-general walked beside him. They had reached the floodlight that illuminated the end of the alleyway, where it turned a corner to the back of the Hampshire House. A police photographer was taking pictures of a body that lay where it had fallen from a terrace some thirty stories up. Detectives and uniformed officers looked on. Flash bulbs lit the scene more brightly than the floodlight for a fraction of a second, then again, then again. Stefan already knew whose body he would find as he passed through the group of detectives. The man lay on his back on a mound of builder’s rubble, brick and broken concrete. He was staring up at the night sky above New York, his dead eyes wide open…
Read more in ‘The City of Strangers’
Meanwhile, enjoy the parade…