out of step

A St. Patrick’s Day Without a Parade as Coronavirus Hits Tradition

FDNY members march in the 2019 St. Patrick’s Day parade.
FDNY members march in the 2019 St. Patrick’s Day parade. Photo: Virginia Breen/THE CITY

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Ordinarily, the pipes would be calling some two million revellers to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 17.

But coronavirus concerns have turned the route up Fifth Avenue, stretching from 44th to 79th Street, into a virtual ghost town with shops, restaurants and museums shuttered.

The first postponement in the 258-year history of the parade, billed as the world’s oldest and largest march honoring Ireland’s patron saint, left everyone from longtime participants to merchants to street vendors reeling.

“It reminds me in some ways of the mood after 9/11, but there’s a striking difference,” said Christopher Cahill, director of the American Irish Historical Society. “After 9/11, everyone came together and there was this movement of unity and outreach and kindness. This time, I see a risk of turning inward. I hope that’s not the case.”

Cahill, who for years provided color commentary on the televised parade, spoke late last week from the society’s Beaux-Arts mansion at 991 Fifth Ave., one block north of the march’s end.

He recalled a poignant moment during the 2002 parade, the first after 9/11, when all 150,000 marchers and all the spectators turned south toward Lower Manhattan for a moment of silence.

“Even with all those people, it became unbelievably quiet,” he said. “It was quite a powerful moment.”

‘Stay Strong’

This year, tradition is taking a backseat to crisis.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which usually celebrates a morning Mass before the march, has canceled all services.

Bagpipes will not be skirling “The Gary Owen.”

The famed “Fighting 69th,” New York Army National Guardsmen from the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment, won’t be leading the celebration as they have since 1861, when they were called to prevent violence against immigrant marchers.

Another parade tradition — the selling of Erin Go Bragh harp flags, “Kiss Me I’m Irish” pins and other Celtic kitsch — is also falling by the wayside.

Only last month, the National Retail Federation had predicted record St. Pat’s holiday spending by Americans of $6.16 billion. That no longer seemed remotely possible.

“No parade — everybody’s scared,” said a vendor from Flushing, Queens, who would only give his first name, John.

Street vendors say they’ll box up their Irish-themed merchandize until the St. Pat’s parade is rescheduled.
Street vendors say they’ll box up their Irish-themed merchandize until the St. Pat’s parade is rescheduled. Photo: Virginia Breen/THE CITY

Very few pedestrians passed his cart full of shamrock scarves, Tam O’ Shanters and green baseball caps.

“Yesterday, the whole day I make $40,” he said. “Normal for me, I make three times that, easy. But I still come to work. Stay strong.”

John said he would carefully box up his St. Pat’s merchandise and await the date of the rescheduled parade.

“It will be great,” he said, giving a thumbs up. “For now, I just come to work, stretch my legs. I can’t sit home. I am from Korea, and we are like the Irish: Never give up. Never be afraid. Keep going. God bless America!”

Pubs in the area were also hurting. At Connolly’s Pub & Restaurant, which boasts 40 beers on tap, the wait staff had time last Friday to watch President Donald Trump give an update on the government’s response to the crisis.

“It’s bad, and it’ll get worse before it gets better,” said the host, Vincent, who didn’t want his last name used. “We’ve had every private function this month cancel. Even if there were a parade, nobody wants to come into Manhattan.”

‘Difficult Decisions’

As the son of an expert in tropical and infectious diseases, Cahill saw global health crises firsthand during travels with his dad, Dr. Kevin Cahill, a humanitarian and former director of Lenox Hill Hospital’s Tropical Disease Center.

“These situations require some difficult decisions,” he said. “On a societal level, we’re in uncharted territory, and there’s a void, an absence, well, there’s just not a lot of good knowledge out there. Things keep changing.”

Christopher Cahill, director of the American Irish Historical Society, overlooks the Fifth Avenue St. Patrick’s Day parade route, March 13, 2020.
Christopher Cahill, director of the American Irish Historical Society, overlooks the Fifth Avenue St. Patrick’s Day parade route, March 13, 2020. Photo: Virginia Breen/THE CITY

The society, which has closed temporarily like so many other city institutions, is foregoing its usual parade reception for members, Cahill said.

Instead, the society is pulling together an exhibit “in which we pair the society’s music collection with various artifacts on display to place them in the context of Irish history and culture.”

The exhibit’s opening will be tied to whenever the parade is rescheduled. “We look forward to celebrating the 259th St. Patrick’s Day Parade with the entire city of New York at a later date,” said Sean Lane, the parade’s chair.

In the meantime, Cahill said the exhibit will include a bust of Thomas Davis, the 19th century composer of  “A Nation Once Again,” an anthem with the rousing nationalist lyric “Ireland once a province be/a nation once again.”

“It’s one of the most commonly played songs in the parade,” Cahill said. “And we’ll hear it again when this current crisis is over.”

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