By Ray O’Hanlon
He was standing alone, stamping his feet, ready for the off. But Dr. Kevin Cahill, grand marshal of the 239th consecutive New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade, was smiling — to himself and anybody who cared to notice.
Indeed, he looked like a kid who had just been told that he could have the last cream bun on the plate. St. Patrick’s Day on Fifth Avenue will do that to you. The press might be insensitive, rude, ignoring your big moment completely, engaged in a shark-like feeding frenzy only yards away. But what the hell. The president general of the American Irish Historical Society, the first physician ever to lead the parade, didn’t need the press right now. He was enjoying his moment, though not in the sun.
A few yards away, the forest of microphone booms gave explanation to Cahill’s solitary state. Rudy Giuliani was holding court. Not the mayoral version of the man, but the likely U.S. Senate candidate. Gov. George Pataki was also about, standing tall in his Aran sweater. But he too was being ignored. Walking wasn’t enough to get you noticed in this parade. You had to be running for something.
The clock ticked a minute past 11. The parade, famous for its punctuality, order and precision, was now in uncertain territory. Politics has its own pace and politicians, even elected ones, love to dictate. But not even Senate candidates, not a battalion of journalists, armed to the teeth in booms, camera and recorders, would stand in the way of the Fighting 69th. When the regiment began to step up Fifth Avenue, all else was swept aside — at least as far as the crowd barriers behind which huddled, enthusiastic spectators waved and cheered despite the wet sidewalks, the raw wind and, in time, the snow that would make St. Patrick’s Day 1999 and its 70-degree-plus temperatures but a fading memory.
The 69th, with its battle streamers going back to the Civil War, hosted a former foe. Tucked between its various sub-units was the band of the Virginia Military Institute. The ghosts of Sherman, Grant and Lee were on parade too, only drawn up this time in one rank.
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History apart, this was also a day for politics and politicking, old friends and absent friends. Comrades too. Giuliani and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the other magnet for the booms, worked their way northward from 44th Street in the hope that the route might ultimately turn sharp south, all the way to Washington.
Old friends were all around. Some of them were former grand marshals. They walked in the group described in the parade line of march as "The Outstanding Grand Marshals of the 20th Century." Two of the three women to ever lead the parade, Dorothy Hayden Cudahy and Mary Holt Moore, walked with the "Outstanding" contingent. Unlike Clinton, the object of less-than-chivalrous booing, Dorothy and Mary drew only bows. One woman’s warm reception was another’s political baptism of fire.
The 239th parade, as with the 238th, had an exotic touch, a truly overseas element amid all the Irish Irishness and American Irishness. Last year it was the pipers and drummers from Tokyo. This year it was the pipers and drummers from Galicia in northwestern Spain, resplendent in uniforms and dresses of black, crimson and a dark shade of green to match the dark shade of sky.
A memory of brighter skies was provided by the blue-clad veterans of the Korean War to whom the parade was offered in special tribute.
There will always be absent friends on March 17. Willie Joe Cunningham was absent, top-hatted and betailed in Hibernian heaven though he doubtless was. The ailing Cardinal John O’Connor, an "Outstanding" former grand marshal himself, had been the subject of considerable pre-parade concern and speculation. His presence at the pre-parade Mass and on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral had been prayed for, almost willed, by many thousands. But he didn’t make either. It was, as the many subsequent reports on the parade all agreed, a big dampener on a damp day.
Still, even with his eminence absent, the weather unkind and the crowds, not surprisingly, thinner than last year, the historical force that is the New York St. Patrick’s Day could not be stopped. Even though some of the marchers looked like they had reached the summit of Mt. Everest by the time they reached 86th Street, there was never a moment’s doubt that parade No. 239 would be logged in the history books in due time and in good order.
Paraders and letter carriers have much in common. Neither snow, nor sleet, nor rain . . . nor Senate races, for that matter.