Indeed, Geraldine’s husband, Damien, was playing the pipes in the American Celtic Pipe Band. She was on home turf, or at least concrete.
The third woman, however, was a ways from home. Louise Dotson was from Florida and this was her first parade. She was in New York on a getaway trip that was to include her two daughters. One had made it to town. She was interviewing at NYU.
But Louise was without her other daughter and was a little reluctant to give too many details as to her whereabouts. “South West Asia” was all she really needed to say to explain everything.
If the 242nd consecutive New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade brought forth the first warm and sunny weather in many months, it was virtually impossible to forget the fact that the cloud of war hung heavy over an event that has cherished its military trappings almost as much as its bond with a saint of the church.
So there seemed to be an extra note of urgency in the piping and drumming. And did the Fighting 69th march a little faster?
And what was in the chatter between the NYPD helicopter that kept constant vigil over Fifth Avenue and the police commanders on the ground who had promised stepped up security for an event that is as about as open and public as they come?
It was 62 degrees as the parade stepped off sharply at 11 a.m. to cheers and loud applause from the crowds that had decided to put aside fears of war, if only for a few hours, and line the barriers with some consistency in numbers all the way from 44th to 86th Street.
But the sunny skies and warm temperatures that would later come close to 70 degrees were not the whole story. For the hundreds of thousands who marched or cheered there was no getting away from the fact that the United States was on the verge of war. Only a few minutes’ walk from Fifth Avenue, diplomacy had reached a dead end at the United Nations and the news was flashed that President Bush would be speaking to the nation a few hours after the parade marched into the history books.
But for the hours that it lasted, the parade was a welcome distraction for a city that will be getting fighter jet cover in the next few days, just as it did in the days and weeks after 9/11.
Many used the Irish patron saint’s day to pray for peace in church services that centered on the traditional morning Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly led one of the early political contingents, one that included the grand marshal James O’Connor, a top executive with the Ford Motor Company who traces his family roots to Tipperary.
Asked how he was feeling moments before he stepped off, O’Connor, looking jaunty and ready for his walk, was to the point: “Good, fine thanks,” he said.
New York Gov. George Pataki, his New Jersey counterpart, Jim McGreevy, and former mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Ed Koch walked in a contingent about 30 minutes behind the mayor and grand marshal’s group.
As they did last year, the marching members of the New York Fire Department carried 343 Americans flags, one for each firefighter lost on Sept. 11. The flag-carrying firefighters, with former Rep. Ben Gilman walking with them, drew cheers atop cheers. And as they did last year, the firefighters at one point turned south to face Ground Zero in a minute’s silent tribute.
An hour into the parade, clear sun broke through the thin clouds and bathed Fifth Avenue in a new light.
Down the side streets, where marching units formed up according to the parade line of march, some groups stood rock still in nervous anticipation while others blew pipes, beat drums and walked impatiently on the spot.
The young Irish dancers with the Tir Na Nog accordion band drew appreciative applause from their immediate 45th street neighbors, the Eastern Long Island Pipes and Drums.
The Offaly Association looked ready to set off, though the honor of being first county in the line of march this year was bestowed on Galway.
The first hour or so of the parade seemed to move at a brisker pace than usual. Perhaps it was the warmer weather, warmed blood and walking feet. Or perhaps it was some deeper urge to see the parade safely on its way before the broader world took an even nastier turn.
Faster it may have been but it was also long. By 5 p.m., with the rush hour in full swing, marchers were still proceeding up Fifth Avenue with city vehicles following closely, clean up and opening the cross streets one by one. The parade ultimately lasted close to seven hours.
Earlier in the day and a few yards north of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a group of Irish gays and lesbians, members of ILGO, protested their now annual exclusion from the parade from behind crowd barriers.
Some among their number waved placards opposing war against Iraq. One sign asked whether if Danny Boy were gay, would he be welcome at the parade. As if in answer, the Allentown “Redbird” High School Marching Band arrived at the point of protest playing, of course, “Danny Boy.”
If there was a prize for hardest playing band, it could well have gone to the Bronx-based New York Ancients Fife and Drum Band, led by Teresa Peragrini, who maintained a marvelous marching consistency along the green painted line in the middle of the avenue.
The band members hardly took a breath as they belted out everything from “Dixie” to Roddy McCorley and “Battle Cry of Freedom.”
Bands that played military tunes, whether 18th, 19th or 20th century, received especially loud cheers. At one point, onlookers sang “America the Beautiful” as a pipes and drums unit played along.
The songs of old wars were a remainder of war itself, as was the woman a little north of the reviewing stands selling a “protective hood” that promised to protect the wearer against “30 known gases on poison agents.” Most spectators preferred the spring air.
The crowds were never so dense that they could not be navigated on the sidelines, but they were spread out the full length of the parade. In former years the numbers often thinned out in the 60s and 70s, but not this year. Large numbers were on hand to cheer the marchers as they reached 86th Street, where the various bands joined in concertina fashion to produce a glorious climactic cacophony.
The parade itself was dedicated to five deceased chairmen of the parade committee, including the late Francis Beirne, who stood against the first efforts of ILGO to march in the parade under its own banner back in 1991.
The other four honorees were Roderick Kennedy, John Sheehan, Harry Hynes and the legendary Judge James Comerford.
The parade line of march included many visitors from Ireland, including members of the Garda Siochana, Dublin Fire Brigade and Irish Prison Officers Association, and was reviewed on behalf of the Irish government by Minister of State Mary Hanafin, who was positioned in the main reviewing area on Central Park East, about a half mile north of the cathedral.
In line with a growing trend in recent years, many parade goers wore Irish Gaelic, soccer and rugby jerseys. Armagh gear, not surprisingly, was in wide evidence given the county’s All-Ireland triumph.
Sporting victories, however, were more to the rear than the fore. What is likely in the days ahead played heavy in the air in Grand Central Terminal about an hour before the parade stepped off.
In the building’s great concourse, the Westchester Firefighters Emerald Pipes and Drums launched into a medley that included the World War I favorite “Over There.” Some in the crowd were mouthed the line “The Yanks are coming.”
It was prophetic moment on a St. Patrick’s Day when the miracle of spring was plainly evident, the miracle of peace yet elusive.