St. Patrick’s Day in New York this year was about short-sleeved shirts hauled out of storage and men and women sweating while blowing into bagpipes. In some places along Fifth Avenue, young men and women were inspired to talk of summer plans, filled with promise. The women wore sleeveless shirts; some of the young men were in shorts. Somebody joked about forgetting to bring along sunblock. The hue of his skin suggested that such forgetfulness ought not become a habit now that spring sunshine had arrived.
Media coverage of the event followed the script they feel obliged to deliver every year: Scenes of revelers clutching beer bottles and slurring Irish ditties, bragging about their astonishing ability to process great amounts of alcohol. These are set-piece characters in the media’s seemingly conspiratorial, but actually merely lazy, attempts to convey “Irish-American culture” to the larger world. That such silly behavior exists cannot be doubted. That it somehow represents the lives and interests of many millions is absurd on its face. But it is reported as such all the same, and rarely questioned. A commentator in a New York newspaper demanded that Irish-Americans “rethink” the way in which they remember Ireland’s patron saint, but she seemed pessimistic that this would happen, because the feckless Irish actually seemed to enjoy drinking to excess, creating havoc and celebrating such unworthy characters as Bishop John Hughes.
Some years ago, a visitor from Ireland observed the festivities in New York and found much to offend him. The parade was too grim, he wrote. There were too many stiff necks and frowning faces, too many men and women in cheerless uniforms. A combination of these criticisms suggests an event in which stiff-spined police officers and firefighters march up Fifth Avenue with large frowns and paper bags filled with beer cans. After finishing the march, these unhappy men and women rampage the neighborhood while maintaining their military gait and their unearned sense of grievance.
On a day of short sleeves and promises of spring, however, it was hard to find marchers who fit either of the media’s stereotypes—unless, of course, one had a vested interested in such discoveries. The view from East 79th Street and Fifth Avenue, across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, offered a plethora of images that seemed wonderfully rich and complex and moving, and therefore far too challenging for the chroniclers of stereotype.
There was, for example, the sight of a grey-haired woman marching at the head of a contingent called The Gaelic League, whose members are Irish Americans of various ages who have dedicated themselves to the study of the ancient and perhaps terminally ill Irish language, and there was not a frown nor a bottle of beer among them. The woman leading them was a onetime grand marshal, Mary Holt Moore, and she carried herself with dignity despite evident discomfort. She wore an Ace bandage around her left ankle. She neither limped nor winced.
The men of Ladder Company 13, Fire Department of New York, watched the parade from the back of their truck, parked at the corner of East 79th and Fifth. On Sept. 11, Ladder 13 lost five members, along with four members of Engine Company 22, which shared quarters with Ladder 13 on East 85th Street. As the F.D.N.Y. Emerald Society pipe band approached the intersection, they slowed their steps and changed their tune. They played a dirge as they passed by the truck, and their pace was sorrowfully slow, baby steps. It was a large band, and it took several minutes to pass the truck, all eyes forward. Finally, when the last pipers were clear of 79th Street, they resumed their marching pace, and played more lively music. Few people noticed the tribute, except for the men in the truck, who stood quietly and thought about the friends they had lost. Oddly, there was no alcohol in sight, no rampaging Irish men and women, no lout trying to remember the words to “Danny Boy.”
On and on the marchers came, boys and girls from Catholic high schools that once were Irish but now are not. They were welcome as the striving successors to the Irish boys and girls who once lived in their neighborhoods. The crowds began to thin as the day wore on, and—yes—some people asked for directions to the nearest bar. Others pushed strollers, looked at watches and muttered about catching a train.
The marching wasn’t finished until the sun was gone. The subways began filling up not with grim avengers or drunken fools, but with happy people delighted to celebrate their heritage, their faith and a day in the sunshine.
They went home to watch their president tell the world that the end of winter would bring not joy but war. The bombs and missiles began falling in Iraq 48 hours later, and soon television brought pictures of horror and devastation. Friends and acquaintances hung on news or rumors of troop movements. Their children were in the gulf, somewhere.
Suddenly, the memory of a sunny St. Patrick’s Day on Fifth Avenue seemed very distant. And next year’s parade seemed part of an unknowable and frightening future.