Volume 80, Number 41 | March 10 -16, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Illustration by Evan Forsch


Saint Patrick, the banner, the hat and the F.B.I.

By Alphie McCourt

In Ireland, in the new millennium, the Celtic Tiger roared, church attendance fell and the collection box pleaded for mercy. More recently, the Tiger slipped into decline. At last report he was spotted at the American Embassy in Dublin, picking up a student visa. The people of Ireland are not entirely surprised. There has been minimal unrest and not much by way of protest. Over centuries, the Irish have learned to be silent. Is it O’Merta? And, among the Irish, fatalism is a blessing. In times of great joy, they say, an Irishman is consoled by the knowledge, that around the next corner, a great disaster awaits.

And yet, in March of last year, in a big surprise, Pope Benedict apologized to the Irish people for decades of sexual abuse at the hands of the Catholic clergy. The Vatican, at last, was listening. (A cynic would see a connection between empty collection boxes and the pope’s apology.) But the pope made it personal. “I am truly sorry,” he said. (Recently, in Dublin, in a Christlike gesture, two bishops knelt and washed the feet of the abused.)

In a June surprise, the British prime minister apologized for the events of January 30, 1972. On that day, Bloody Sunday, in Derry City in Northern Ireland, a detachment of elite British troops fired on the participants in a peaceful demonstration. Fourteen people died. Some were teenagers; some were shot in the back.

Public figures, politicians among them, sometimes apologize. They utter the usual tripe about their own possibly “inappropriate behavior.” “Sorry” is beyond or beneath them. Not so David Cameron, the British prime minister. On behalf of his government, he apologized. And, on his own behalf, “I am deeply sorry,” he said. No ifs, ands or buts, just “deeply sorry.” Former Prime Minister Tony Blair initiated the inquiry. David Cameron finished it.

No one apologized to Saint Patrick for being kidnapped, and brought to Ireland as a teenaged slave. After years of slavery, he escaped. In 432, a bishop now, he returned. He could have sought an apology. Instead, he set out to convert the Irish to Christianity. The Irish had their gods. He had his. The High King could not accept the Holy Trinity. How could there be three persons in one God? “King,” said Saint Patrick, “look at this sprig of shamrock. There’s one stem with three leaves.” “Got it,” said the king. “O.K.,” said Patrick: In the same way, there are three persons — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. All three go to make up one God. Three leaves on one stem; three persons in one God. “Got it?” “Got it,” said the king.

The shamrock became a symbol of all things Irish but, nowadays, when you see a shamrock, you are sure to find a bar, a beer or, at best, an Irish gift shop selling toora-loora-loora. The three persons of the Trinity are hanging out somewhere else.

Often abbreviated to Paddy’s Day and, sometimes, in a gender bender, to Patty’s Day, Saint Patrick’s Day in New York brings green beer, corned beef and cabbage, and high winds. For some it means being drunk in the rain, drunk in the snow, and, with any luck, drunk by 4 p.m.

“Jeez, did we drink,” the adults will boast the next day, and list their disastrous exploits, as if they’ve earned a badge of honor. The catalyst for all this madness? The Saint Patrick’s Day Parade.

I have had some significant Saint Patrick’s Days. On my first Saint Patrick’s Day in New York, I had to earn my own badge of honor. Not long on the job, I was working for the First Boston Corporation, down in the Wall Street area, feeding frames into a giant gloppiter-gloppiter mainframe computer. On the day after Saint Patrick’s Day, I couldn’t face the mainframe. I couldn’t even face the mirror, never mind the ride to work. The following day was a Friday so I made it a four-day weekend. On Monday, I reported for work. “Go and see personnel. And take your coat,” they said. The woman who had hired me was disappointed. She had foreseen a bright future for me with First Boston. I was sorry to disappoint her but a man must do his duty.

By 1973 I was living in Larkspur, California, and working in a restaurant in the town. As Saint Patrick’s Day approached, I repeated my annual speech about the stupidity of the whole thing, about professional Irishmen and would-be Irishmen. Soon, people stopped listening.

On the evening before the day, Jenny walked into the bar. We had had a night once.

“Will we go for a drink?” I asked her. I finished work at seven o’clock. “Where would you like to go?” I asked.

“Your place,” she murmured, and the blood began to sing. Up through the canyon we walked, to find the door to my apartment slightly ajar. Cursing my own carelessness, I pushed open the door.

“Surprise, surprise” rang out from the small crowd gathered inside. They had had to listen to my preachments against all the Saint Patrick’s Day nonsense. Now I am to be punished. With beer, tequila, Chinese food and marijuana, we celebrated. We spent the next day, Saint Patrick’s Day itself, on Stinson Beach and, in the evening, we went over to Sausalito to hear some music. That was a fine Saint Patrick’s Day.

My one experience of marching in the Fifth Avenue parade was in the early ’80’s. My young daughter, Allison, loved parades, the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, in particular. It would be a treat if we could march. I had no connection with any organized Irish group and you couldn’t just join in and march. You had to belong. The “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy had not yet been invented but I used it anyway. I didn’t tell them that I come from Limerick.

As a wise man said, “What’s the use of being Irish, if you can’t be thick?” Yes, the members of the parade committee have the right to be thick, to be stubborn, to say no. Their forebears, and mine, had to fight their way up. They suffered discrimination aplenty, in jobs, in housing and in general. “No Irish Need Apply” kept them out of jobs and housing, but, somehow, they got past it. Along the way they shoveled tons of shite, built our bridges and tunnels, taught our children, policed our streets, fought our fires and performed, with distinction, in all the wars. And they participated fully in government, all the way to the White House. Now we have more or less arrived.

Why then, after all that, would the parade committee slam the door behind them? Is it a love of tradition? Is it fear that certain groups will turn the parade into their own version of carnival: that the hard-earned dignity and respectability of the organizers will go out the window?

With a workable peace process in place in Northern Ireland and the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy left in the dust, it is clear that miracles do happen. Surely, one day, the parade will be all-inclusive. And for those who can’t get over it, there’s always Irish Alzheimer’s. With Irish Alzheimer’s, they say, we forget everything — “everything but the grudge.”

As I said, at that time I had no official Irish connections or affiliations, so I called the United Irish Counties Association.

“Sure,” they say. “Come on and march with us.”

The assembly point is at 38th and Fifth. I am an Irishman, mind you, born and bred, but I think they saw me comin’.

“Would you like to carry a banner?”

“I haven’t carried a banner since I was 12 but I’ll give it a shot.”

It’s a two-man banner. I am wearing a flat-brimmed Stetson hat which I wear it when it rains, when I travel and on ceremonial occasions. The parade is televised. Pipe bands, police contingents, firefighters, marching bands, high school cheerleaders, all of them are brilliant in uniform and costume, in their contagious spirit and obvious pride. I’m sure a tape of the parade still exists. And I’m sure that there’s a special tape, stashed, no doubt, in the files of certain government agencies, with a clear image of the eejit in the Stetson. This is during the early ’80’s. Mine is the most inflammatory banner of all, the one that proclaims: “England Get out of Ireland.”

Meanwhile, up ahead, Allison grows tired and sits down, among the marchers, in the middle of 86th Street. My wife, Lynn, is stuck, until willing hands and voices, from behind and beside her, raise Allison to her feet and cheer her the rest of the way.

In 2006 we four brothers — Frank, Malachy, Michael and I — are invited to lead the “alternative” Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, in Woodside, Queens. This is a terrific affair. No matter your place of origin, your color, belief or sexual orientation, you are welcome. Children are especially welcome. It’s a festive, thoroughly enjoyable walk with great music and dancing and a few welcoming speeches. During the speeches, while standing next to a high elected official, I’m stuck for something to say.

“We’re probably under surveillance, by the F.B.I., right now,” I remark.

“The F.B.I.?” says the high official. “I doubt that the F.B.I. could even find us.”

There’s hope for us yet.

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