March 13, 2015
Mid-March provides a relief from the harshness of winter as we unfold into the crest of spring. It is also a time of celebration for Irish-Americans – a time of traditional food, Irish soda bread, corned beef, cabbage, and boiled potatoes dressed with parsley along with drink, good cheer, dancing, and parades. In some instances, life-long grudges are unconditionally waived until sometime after the seventh drink, when old slights or insults come to mind and arguments begin often resulting in fisticuffs absent the Marquess of Queensbury Rules – bottles, chairs and whatever is handy are often used to settle old scores.
Some would argue that this day of open frivolity defiles the legend of Ireland as the birthplace of poetry and literature – the land of Shelly, Yeats, Kiberb, Joyce, Kinsella, Swift, Wilde, Beckett, Russell, Shaw and scores of other great writers. Others would say, yes, they are our legacy, but the birth day of Saint Patrick is the day we celebrate that legacy. And, celebrate they do with gusto, these children with lapsed memories to that legacy. I, too, am guilty on that count.
I share with you Saint Patrick’s Day in my 17th year, taken in part from my memoir 1954 Adventures in New York, which is available through this site by clicking on “Works.”
Saint Patrick’s Day
For New York Irish Catholics, March 17th, Saint Patrick’s Day, is the most important day of the year, especially for young men and women coming of age. To this day, I remain astounded by the extreme level of foolishness, drunkenness, and amoral conduct tolerated in the name of the good saint. Don’t get me wrong for some years I was one of the leading scorers in all categories of outlandish conduct on this great Catholic day of celebration. We empowered ourselves with a special dispensation - a free pass without consequences.
The great parade up Fifth Avenue, in which I marched, from 1948 through 1950, as a member of St. Joseph’s Brigade was merely a backdrop for gayety and mischief on the parade route’s side streets. The event lures throngs of people to Manhattan, and participating in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade was a wonderful experience. The Brigade members assembled in St. Joseph’s Schoolyard in Astoria, Queens, about 9:30 in the morning, dressed in our baby blue gabardine uniforms with maroon piping, similar overseas caps, and white cotton gloves. Since it was usually a brisk day, I always wore a pair of my grandfather’s wool long johns.
We marched up 30th Avenue to Steinway Street and down the long two blocks past the early shoppers to Broadway, where we boarded a special train at the Steinway Street subway station. The train carried us to the parade assembly site on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street, where marching bands from all over the city, and the surrounding areas, congregated for hours waiting for our call to march.
Standing idly in the chilly air was a minor problem compared to the logistical challenge presented by thousands of young men and women desperate to relieve themselves before their units entered the parade. This was an era long before portable toilets were invented. If sympathetic building and restaurant owners didn’t make their toilet facilities available, there would have been piss riots before the great parade. Once we started our march, the cold was easier to endure, though putting my lips to a piston bugle’s mouthpiece in cold weather was always a challenge.
In my first two years, I played the bugle in the Brigade’s “B” Section. In the big parades we participated as the marching unit that preceded the “A” Section musicians. The “B” Section did participate, however, in band competitions throughout New York. When my skills improved, I joined the “A” Section, where I played the piston bugle alongside fife and xylophone players, cymbalists, and the snare and base drummers. We did well as a unit in band competitions, and overall it was a great experience during the second half of my grammar school days. One of the highlights came late in the 1948 Presidential Campaign, when I got a brief glimpse of President Harry S. Truman as I stood shivering in a cold rain on Queens Boulevard, near Lost Battalion Hall. The Brigade members were happy to endure our two-hour wait in a continuous down pour, since we were told that if the Republican candidate, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, won the election school would be mandatory on Saturdays.
Another highlight or, better stated, example of my risky behavior, came during a St. Patrick’s Day Parade when Mayor William O’Dwyer was under intense public scrutiny. Telephone taps revealed that O’Dwyer’s top appointees were accepting bribes from Harry Gross, a Brooklyn bookmaker, who was using police officials as enforcers for his collections. A dark shadow was cast over the Mayor and key members of his Administration. Suffice it to say it was a difficult time for O’Dwyer. As we approached the reviewing stand on 61st Street, I was marching on the Central Park side of Fifth Avenue. Just before the “A” Section began to play, I yelled out “Oh-da-wires are tapped.” While the Mayor’s associates laughed at my remarks, the Mayor smiled at me in a Cheshire cat manner. A parade official reported the incident, and at the following week’s Brigade meeting, our mentor, Father O’Rourke lectured us on appropriate conduct at public events. As I left the classroom, O’Rourke, revealed as a child-abuser 50-years hence, cuffed me solidly on the side of my face and told me to watch myself in the future. He also informed my father. Fortunately, Dad thought it was funny. He told me that all but one parade official had found it amusing, though inappropriate for a fresh kid from Queens to publicly mock the beloved Mayor of New York.
Aside from being a day of music and drinking, Saint Patrick’s Day was an important political event to express concerns about the ignominy of what was termed to be the still unresolved, “Irish Situation.” Hundreds of large banners declaring “England Get Out Of Ireland” were strategically placed and carried by members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, labor unions, and social clubs. Overall, it was a joyous day, but a day when tempers could readily flare, especially after a few drinks, when most of the participants would be itching for a fight.
Late that afternoon in 1954, John Mc Comb and I started at the terminus of the parade in Yorkville and worked our way from bar to bar picking up a growing crowd of friends from work, school, and our neighborhood.
At the Jaeger House, on 85th Street, the crowd was four or five deep from the bar to the tables on the opposite wall, and the laughter and crowd noise was appealing to no end. The sight of this happy crowd of friends was a high in itself. Suddenly there was a scream. The friendly banter was stilled for an instant, then, quickly followed by curses, shouting, the scrambling of feet, the screeching movement of chair legs on the wooden floor, the tinkling of broken glass, and the sudden lurch of people moving towards the epicenter of the mayhem. John leaned over to me and said, “I think we could make it with these girls, but my instincts tell me it’s time to leave.” Good advice, I thought and we made our way to the next watering hole, as we limbered up for a genuine Irish party on the West Side featuring corned beef and cabbage and other bland Irish dishes.
We arrived at a party room in the rear of a bar in Chelsea, in John’s words, “to find a room full of genuine Irish lasses dressed in taffeta dresses, buttressed by numerous crinolines, with their hair styled in ‘Toni Home Permanents.’” They were a sight to behold. Unfortunately, they had little interest in or patience with “narrow-backs,” the term given to first and second generation Irish Americans. We in turn, referred to them as “greenhorns.”
While John was dancing with an attractive redhead, I noticed another girl with red hair sitting at the side of the room. Tall and slender, her eyes averted mine as she either stared at the opposite wall, the ceiling, or the floor. I know that girl. Yes, it was Mary Foley from the Boulevard Gardens, the sister of John and Pat Foley. They lived two floors below me in an identical five and a half-room apartment. Unlike her brothers, Mary didn’t socialize in the neighborhood. I often saw her coming into and out of the building and was always puzzled by her aloof manner. She was mortified to be recognized by someone from the neighborhood. Sensing her embarrassment, I approached her cautiously and attempted to strike up a conversation. It was useless. Mary let me know with terse words, “I’ll have nothing to do with the likes of you.” That said, I took my leave and had an enjoyable time dancing with May Sheridan, a recent Irish immigrant who worked with me at the Equitable Life Assurance Society across from Penn Station.
May was pretty, funny, and wise beyond her years. She was a fount of wisdom, and an observant person. We would become good friends, and in the months to come I would enjoy many an interesting conversation with her. I left the party having developed a friend in May and, at best, an indifferent neighbor in Mary, who later turned out to have had serious mental issues.
During part of my time playing basketball at NYU in 1958-60, I would sometimes see May on Burnside or Jerome Avenues, in the Bronx, pushing her baby carriage with presumably her first of many children. I was going to and from basketball practice at NYU’s Bronx campus at the top of Burnside Avenue. It was May who recognized me, as I came down the steps of the elevated train station. She called out my name, and despite a lack of contact of almost four years she began the conversation as if we had remained in constant touch. She expressed her delight that I was trying to make something of myself, and offered assistance in finding a girl from Ireland to help me along. I declined her offer, noting that I had to see my way through college and law school before entering the Holy Sacrament of Matrimony.
When I married in 1964, it was to a wonderful girl with Irish roots, Mary-Margaret Donnelly. And, sometimes on Saint Patrick’s Day, I think of many old friends from New York, particularly May Sheridan, an unforgettable person with an effervescent personality.