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Five Things to Know About New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade

St. Patrick's Day bagpipers in the New York City parade

(Diana Robinson/Flickr)

Outside of Ireland, there’s no better place to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day than New York City. The traditional St. Patrick’s Day Parade has been held in Manhattan since before the American Revolution. Here are five things to know about the parade’s history:

1. The first celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in New York was held 14 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

On March 17, 1762, a group of Irishmen serving in the British army occupying the Province of New York marched to a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast at Hull’s Tavern on lower Broadway to mark the feast of their homeland’s patron saint. This was the first known reference to a St. Patrick’s Day celebration in New York City, though some speculate observances were held while Irish-born Thomas Dongan was governor. No written record of this survives, however.

The first mention of a parade appears on March 17, 1766, when a military procession, complete with fife and drums, took place as Catholic and Protestant Irishmen marched alongside each other to show their pride for their heritage. Back home, tensions were rising between the Irish and the British before the Irish Rebellion of 1798, during which the “wearing of the green” was seen as a sign of support for Ireland’s independence.

2. The parade used to travel through Greenwich Village, not Midtown Manhattan.

In its early days, Irish societies and parishioners would march from their respective meeting places to St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Mulberry Street. There, the Bishop of New York would observe the marchers from the steps of the historic church in Greenwich Village. In the early 1860s, the Ancient Order of Hibernians began organizing the various groups into one large parade.

The parade route that is used today was adopted in 1891. Marchers begin on 44th Street and proceed up Fifth Avenue, passing St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 50th Street and ending at 79th Street, outside of the American Irish Historical Society.

St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City in 1895

The St. Patrick’s Day Parade of 1895. This photo was taken on 57th Street looking east toward 5th Avenue. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York)

3. The “Fighting 69th” regiment has led the parade for 164 years.

As New York City’s Irish Catholic population grew rapidly in the mid-1800s, so did animosity toward the Irish. Nativists, or those who opposed immigration, would sometimes resort to violence to disperse Irish events. In 1851, a New York State Militia regiment composed mainly of Irishmen volunteered to march at the front of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade to protect the marchers. The New York National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 69th infantry, has led the parade ever since.

Before the parade begins each year, a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernian’s Parade Committee asks the 69th’s battalion commander “Is the 69th ready?” The commander and his soldiers reply that “The 69th is always ready!” and as they step off, the parade begins.

The 69th regiment has served in World Wars I and II, and during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The regiment’s bravery and ferocity at the Battle of Fredericksburg during the Civil War supposedly led Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to give the regiment its nickname, “the Fighting 69th.”

4. Women weren’t allowed to serve as grand marshal until 1986.

In 1982, parade organizers decided the grand marshal would be chosen through an election instead of being appointed by a committee. Three years later, Dorothy Hayden Cudahy, a radio broadcaster from Queens, N.Y., began her campaign to become elected Grand Marshal of New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Cudahy’s campaign was met with opposition. The new rules stated the marshal had to be a member of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians — in other words, a man. Cudahy’s status as a member of the Ladies’ Auxiliary didn’t count.

In 1986, the rules were amended to allow women to lead the parade and Cudahy was nominated for the position. She lost the elections in 1987 and 1988, but won in 1989, defeating Mary Moore, a special education teacher from the Bronx, N.Y.

The grand marshal for this year’s parade is Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Catholic archbishop of New York.

5. New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade is 234 years older than the St. Patrick Festival in Dublin.

St. Patrick’s Day was traditionally a solemn event in Ireland, where the feast has been marked since the ninth and tenth centuries. During the 1920s to 1950s, a military parade was held to mark the feast in the nation’s capital, and the bars remained closed for the holiday until the mid-1960s. During the ‘60s, floats and other forms of entertainment were gradually added to the parade and in 1996, the flamboyant St. Patrick’s Festival that we know and love today was held for the first time.

Today in New York City:

The 2015 St. Patrick’s Day Parade will begin at 11 a.m. at 44th Street and march upward to 79th Street. But the parade isn’t the only way to celebrate your Irish heritage on St. Patrick’s Day. Celebrate  with one of the following:

  • Grab a free book about Irish history from the Irish Arts Center. Distributors will be at various locations throughout the five boroughs.
  • Let rural Irish improvisers take you back to Old St. Patty’s Day at “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo: Improvised Irish Blarney,” hosted by Peoples Improv Theater. The event begins at 7 p.m. on the Striker Stage, 123 E 24th St.
  • Take the “Irish Outsiders” tour at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and learn more about  Irish-Catholic immigrants, their music and the obstacles they encountered as they adjusted to life in a predominantly German neighborhood.
  • Have a drink at some of the oldest Irish pubs in the city.

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