I hope you will not think it hopelessly chauvinistic if I suggest that we no longer celebrate St. Patrick’s Day but St. Patrick’s season, at least in the Northeast. On the day itself, March 17, New York City will hold its oldest and grandest parade. But because so many neighboring towns and municipalities want to honor the saint and the heritage the saint symbolizes, parades and dinners take place in the weeks leading up to March 17 as well.
Other cities, Chicago, Savannah and Boston, for example, have proud traditions associated with St. Patrick’s Day, but perhaps the New York City parade holds pride of place among these celebrations.
On March 17, the cardinal archbishop of New York will preside at an 8:30 a.m. Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, with political leaders and representatives of county associations in attendance. The mayor of the City of New York will start the day with a reception at Gracie Mansion, and other government leaders will host breakfasts at various locations before the parade “steps off,” in the favored phrase, around noon.
New York City mounted police officers (a group dear to my heart) will lead the first contingent down Fifth Avenue; and for the rest of a long afternoon, a wonderful variety of school bands, county delegations, uniformed firemen, high schools and universities will follow the green stripe painted in the center of the city’s grandest avenue from 44th Street to 86th Street.
Marching in the parade, as opposed to watching it on television or from the sidelines, is a more personal, even familial, experience. Those who view the whole parade no doubt can appreciate the grand variety of bands and bagpipes, schools, city and county associations, that make up its full length. The cardinal archbishop and other ecclesiastical dignitaries stand on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and receive the salutes of the different contingents marching up Fifth Avenue. Like the dignitaries in the official reviewing stand at 68th Street, they not only view the parade, they seem to preside over it. Along with the thousands of ordinary spectators lining both sides of the avenue and watching the parade go by, they can observe and appreciate its variety, while enduring its length.
When you march, you see only the group that is marching in front of you and miss the wondrous variety of the parade. But marching has its own surprises, when old friends, with whom you may have lost contact, shout from the sidelines and you can exchange long-overdue greetings.
The well-worn cliché is that everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, and, truth to tell, a great variety of people from different national and racial backgrounds will wear something green on that day in a good-natured response to the city’s largest (and longest) ethnic celebration. At the risk of sounding too solemn a note, perhaps the truth behind the cliché is the special character of New York City as the quintessential American city precisely because it is a city of such lively diversity.
Those Norman Rockwell paintings of Thanksgiving dinners in Middle America do not really capture the distinctive American proposition that one nation can be formed from many peoples, e pluribus unum. An argument can be made that New York City, the port of entry for so many new Americans, is the most vivid embodiment of this American experiment. The appealing paradox of St. Patrick’s Day in New York City is that we can celebrate our diversity even as we celebrate one particular national heritage. While green may be the color of the day, I’d like to think that it is not the only color we are celebrating.
For many years, banners calling for “England Out of Ireland” would inevitably appear at various points in the parade. Since the Good Friday agreement of 1998 and the start of the long journey toward peace in Northern Ireland, such a protest has become more and more irrelevant. This year, when a new power-sharing government is about to be established in Northern Ireland, that journey toward peace is reaching its final destination. Much work remains to be done in healing the memories of discrimination and violence, but ordinary citizens on both sides of the division in Northern Ireland will at last be freed from the paralysis of the past and have a chance to build a peaceful future instead. May hope and history rhyme, in the words of Seamus Heaney.
G. K. Chesterton once wrote of the Irish, “All their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.” It was not an unsympathetic caricature, but it was a caricature. For no people know better than the Irish that wars are not really merry, and songs need not always be sad.