By Ray O’Hanlon
It was a minute that all who were there will not soon forget.
It was a minute, maybe a little more, when all who were there discovered what people mean when they say that their hearts go out to the grieving.
And you could almost hear the beating hearts of the thousands on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan last Saturday at 12:30 in the afternoon.
At that moment, the 241st St. Patrick’s Day Parade, 90 minutes into its street-by-street progress northward into the history books, stopped and turned. It turned and it faced south. And all who were watching it turned and faced south. South toward the World Trade Center and the still lingering void in the life of a storied city, in the hearts of all who call it home, and all who believe in its greatness.
It was minute to say nothing and a minute to say it all.
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As the last music and chatter faded, the flapping of flags was all that could be heard outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It was a silence even deeper than that that saluted the Great Hunger dead several years ago. It was silence rooted in present time, not the past. Everybody had a stake in it. And everybody embraced it.
And then it was over.
The tribute to the 9/11 dead and torn was the sacred centerpiece of the parade on a day that brought mixed emotions to all who marched, or cheered from the sidewalks.
And cheer they did for the first marching group and the last. And in between there was the clear realization that some who would have marched were not there.
Those absent were most poignantly represented by 343 American flags carried in close formation by probationary firefighters.
It was a last-minute idea and many parade onlookers were unaware of the “probie” detachment’s inclusion.
But it took people only a second or two to realize what the flags represented. There were tears and lumps in throats as the probationary firefighters marched in lockstep up the avenue.
The parade, as is its habit, was punctual to the second and stepped off at 11 a.m. from 44th Street and Fifth under skies that threatened rain but held it back.
The tall figure of grand marshal Cardinal Edward Egan, blackthorn stick in the hand usually reserved for a crosier, pressed ahead into the slipstream of the fighting 69th, surrounded by his aides and enveloped by the applause of the crowds pressing against the line of crash barriers.
In the cardinal’s wake came the politicians and city leaders and this year’s pole position county, Donegal. Among the political and official marchers were Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, Gov. George Pataki, former Gov. Hugh Carey and everyone’s favorite Aran sweater model, Ed Koch.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton attracted a scrimmage of press photographers and shrieks from some fans in the crowd.
Rep. Joe Crowley stepped out with remarkable fervor considering the memories he was carrying. Crowley had marched every year with his firefighter cousins John and Mike Moran.
John was gone this time and Mike was absent. John, a battalion chief, perished at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Mike, whose invitation to Osama Bin Laden at the Concert for New York has since become legendary, was in the Atlanta parade, where he was one of three grand marshals.
“It was an incredible, moving and emotional day,” Crowley said later. “I was just below the official reviewing stand during the minute’s silence and I could see the 343 flags behind me. And when the silence was over the roar that rushed down the avenue was incredible.”
The reception for all politicians was positive on a day when political affiliation took a back seat to a shared purpose and emotion.
It was positive, and a bit more, for former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as he approached the reviewing stand at 64th Street.
The extra lusty cheers for Giuliani were matched in turn by the sustained vocal embracing of marching New York cops and firefighters who were in turn reinforced by overseas contingents, not least the Dublin Fire Brigade and the Garda Siochana.
The cries of “up the Guards” must certainly have sounded unusual to the visiting Irish policemen. They rarely hear the like of it on their own turf.
But New York is a city that has rediscovered the nobler virtues embodied in a blue uniform.
And a pair of brown overalls. In a remarkable meeting of dress uniform and working gear, the first ranks of marching firefighters approached St. Patrick’s Cathedral only to discover one of their own, an FDNY engine truck, going about its business on Fifth Avenue after receiving an emergency call.
Firefighters marched and firefighters worked. And very often they simply met and hugged.
“It was tremendous. There was a lot of sadness and joy. This was our first big outing, the first time that we all got together like this since 9/11,” said Bill Whelan, president of the Fire Department Emerald Society.
Cardinal Egan led the minute’s silence when he reached 64th Street.
In truth, the silence didn’t need a leader as such, though it certainly impressed one in particular.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a moment like it in my life,” Ireland’s president, Mary McAleese told reporters a short while afterward. “There was a real strength and a lovely respect about it.”
Her strength almost failed her when the flag-carrying firefighters arrived at the reviewing stand.
“I could barely bare to watch it,” she said. “Myself and others around me, our legs almost lost their strength. I don’t know how they did it,” she said in reference to the young firefighters.
McAleese likened the moment of silence to the day of mourning in Ireland on Sept. 14, three days after the attack on America.
That, she said, was the day when Ireland spoke with one voice. “We were the only country to have a national day of mourning.”
Sept. 11, she said, was an attack on a value system shared by Ireland and America.
“There’s no doubt where Ireland’s heart lies. America is the best friend Ireland has on the globe and the Irish people know that,” she said.
McAleese confessed that she never had expected to be outside of Ireland for St. Patrick’s Day. But she said that in the aftermath of 9/11 she quickly realized that she had to be in New York for this one.
And so Mary McAleese stood and watched on a day when a parade turned from a walk into a rush to embrace anew the spirit that keeps America itself moving forward in sad times, and in happier times.
“There is a lot of tiredness and sadness and yet in the next breath you can see the fire, the passion and determination has been distilled into a very special spirit,” the Irish president said.