Saturday, March 17, 2012

St. Patrick’s Days Past

On The Day, I’d wake early at home in Brooklyn, having had a grand sleep, because I’d made myself stay in the night before with a book or the TV. To my mind, I was in training like fighters. Then, a light breakfast: there’d be Bloody Marys (Virgins for the Pledge-Takers) at the jumping-off location, the Blarney Stone on East 44th Street. Run a rag over the black shoes, pin the Shield to the Summer Blouse (don’t remember it ever being so cold that I had to wear the Winter Choker), pull on the white gloves, adjust the tilt of the eight-pointed uniform hat and out the door. One of us would take his car, leave it in designated parking for ‘Police Vehicles Only’ around the 108th Precinct in Long Island City, grab the Flushing #7 train two stops to Grand Central Station. No one in his right mind, especially a cop in uniform, drives into the City on St. Patrick’s Day.

East 44th Street belonged to the NYPD: we formed up in ranks along the street from Fifth Avenue to Sixth (New Yorkers call it “Sixth”, not “Avenue of the Americas”), filling it with hundreds of Irish cops in uniform, grouped by Borough of Command. The next street over belonged to the FD (New York City Fire Department), but it was the cops who stepped off first onto Fifth Avenue at noon, behind the thumps and wails of the Emerald Society Pipes and Drums Band – the pipers in kilts and tall black bear hats with a sprig of green – Himself, Det. Finbar Devine, Drum Major, all 6-feet-five of him, in the lead and counting cadence with his baton. We headed up Fifth Avenue to the wail of the pipes and assault of the drums thundering ‘The Garryowen’, ‘The Minstrel Boy,’ ‘The Wearing of the Green’. We were The Seventh Cavalry, high-flying with no need of a horse.

We marched up Fifth Avenue ten-abreast, feet and swinging arms keeping faith to Finbar’s time. We passed the Cathedral, its steps crowded with the faithful and The Cardinal. Ice skaters abandoned the Rockefeller Center Rink to get a gander at us. People crowded the balconies of East Side residences, hung out the windows of office buildings, ignored the horse-drawn hansom cabs outside the Plaza Hotel at 59th Street and Central Park. Our route was straight as a die for 42 City blocks, past the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 81st Street. Its steep stone stairway rising to the front door, hundreds of watchers filling its steps, when I looked left and up, I saw the Pyramid of the Sun in the dead Mexican City of Teotihuacan. A sharp right turn onto 86th Street and down to the end of the Parade Route at Third Avenue and 86th. No one was tired; the City lay before us; Irish cops were the Chosen.

Then an unhurried descent down Third with forays to Second Avenue along the way. Like the Pony Express riders in the Old West, we’d stop at way-stations to refresh the horses. Every Irish bar from 86th to 22nd Street received us. McFadden’s, The Mean Fiddler, Ulysses’, Ryan’s Daughter, Hibernia, Finnegan’s Wake, Nancy Whiskey Pub, the Failte Irish Whiskey Bar – to mention a few – and finally Molly Malone’s at 22nd Street, the unofficial end-of-tour, appropriately around the corner from the Police Academy on East 20th Street. We drank for free – “on the arm” is the term of art – at all these places. It was accepted as demeaning to ask a cop in uniform to pay for his drinks on St. Patrick’s Day. But we tipped the barmaids handsomely, sang the old songs gustily, and behaved decorously.

Perhaps I’m mistaken in some of that. After all, it was a very long time ago.

Robert Knightly


  1. I love a parade! For years I danced with the Pride of Erin Irish Dance troupe in the Philadelphia St. Patrick's Day parade, doing sevens-and-threes around City Hall. My partner was usually Sister Rose Agnes, a retired school principal. Every block and a half she would jump out of formation to greet one of her fellow nuns on the sidelines. She knew everybody.
    Nobody offered us free drinks; it was probably just as well.

  2. What a delightful small world. My first year working in NYC, my office was just west of 5th ave - so I rushed over to see the Huge St. Pat's Parade and tried to see the marchers above the taller heads! Who knows but I was one of your fans that day, Bob. We'll never know. tjs

  3. Oh, yeah, Thelma. I know. You were!...Sevens-and-threes, Kate??? The all-knowing Sister Rose Agnes: your new series?

  4. . . .or was it threes and sevens? Anyway, Sister Rose Agnes wasn't all-knowing, she was everybody-knowing. We got to the reviewing stand and she broke away again and rushed over to Cardinal Bevilacqua, standing among the bigwigs. After five minutes of conversation she came back. "Do you know him?" we said. "No," she said, "I just wanted to put in a good word for our order."

  5. What does sevens and threes mean? Never heard that ?? tjs

  6. Thelma, it's a step-dancing step, usually done to a reel (4/4 time). I'd have to show you. The dancer actually moves from side to side, so that if you're doing it in a parade you have to stop and do it. Your feet cross. It's, like, up two three four five six seven, and-a back front back, and-a front back front. That covers four bars of music. Then for the next four bars you go back again. If that makes any sense.

  7. Well now, Kate, come to the DL lunch this Saturday and show me in the Lex Restaurant how to do this and I'll bet you everyone there will buy both of us free drinks!!! tjs

  8. Can't! I have to be at the Princeton Public Library for local author day.

  9. Maybe we should have a special lunch meeting for this importsnt dancing lesson - the east side and Y folks could use the knowledge!! Shall i reswerve the space!!! tjs

    1. Hmmmm, you can why I need the double eye surgery!!! tjs