By Ray O’Hanlon
Teenyboppers had nothing on them. "Over here, Maureen!" Maureen, we love you!" "Kiss me, Maureen!" Words to that effect, all the way up balmy Fifth Avenue. The Maureen of the moment was loving every minute of it.
Maureen O’Hara has long been a symbol of the relationship between Ireland and America. In the movie "The Quiet Man" that connection was portrayed as personal, intimate, natural. It was renewed last week during the 238th New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Renewed big time. Personally, intimately and oh-so-naturally.
Men of an age that you might think would render them sensible lost it in the presence of a red-headed screen goddess many of them had never met outside their dreams. As the most popular of grand marshals in recent years made her way up Fifth Avenue, they let rip with cries of adulation that might have surprised more than a few spouses.
This was a chance to hold hands one more time with an Irish-American past, even as the star of that ebbing time was steadily leading the greatest public manifestation of Irish America into a new century.
The lads, indeed, were having a good time of it under a generous spring sun that only served to warm the winter-frozen blood even more.
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There has always been great argument as to the number of people who actually watch the parade over its five, six or even seven hours. People come and go throughout the day of course. One headline described "Hundreds of Thousands." Another report offered a figure of two million, according to the organizers, and 275,000, according to the police.
But what’s a million or two between friends. The crowd did seem bigger than last year. And it stretched. Thick on the avenue in the 40s and 50s, a little thinner in the high 60s above the reviewing stand and through the 70s, denser again in the 80s and evident, too, along 86th street to a degree not seen in recent years.
And, of course, there was the television audience. NBC’s coverage topped the metropolitan area viewing figures for the 11 a.m. to 2.30 p.m. period. Viewers got an up-close-and-personal peek at the parade by virtue of one camera at the end of a long boom that swept out into the middle of the avenue opposite the main reviewing stand. Again and again it looked as if a marcher might get whacked in the nose but the boom would sweep skywards at the last moment, giving viewers a sense of the army of marchers reaching back down into distance toward 44th Street.
The parade organizers had dedicated the event to Irish immigrants of the 19th and 20th centuries who had built the Catholic schools in New York. The church’s top man in the city, Cardinal O’Connor, reviewed the parade from the steps of St. Patrick’s as he has done throughout the 1990s.
He told reporters that he was feeling "very nostalgic." He might be in retirement by next year, his place on the steps taken by someone else as yet unknown.
As for the schools themselves? Not a few of them, parochial and public too, were missing students, lost to the parade, the weather and the annual ritual of mingling with others of their own age in a setting where many everyday rules don’t quite apply. Many but not all.
The cops had warned of the dire consequences of drinking and brawling. One fight erupted on 47th Street and Broadway but was quickly ended by a posse of police.
The cops have been under pressure of late. But many parade spectators gave the lines of marching blue a special cheer. There was more than one placard expressing support for the NYPD, uneasy companions to the signs held up by Irish gay demonstrators opposite St. Patrick’s.
Other placards, sprouting like early spring blooms, included those proclaiming the appearance in America of the Virgin Mary. There was the usual crop of "England Get Out of Ireland" banners and, of course, the various county banners added another year to their storied history.
Ahead of the rest and showing the way was Kerry’s, depicting, appropriately, St. Brendan the Navigator. Kerry was the first county to walk because of its marching skills last year. They should be in the lead again next year if for no other reason than the Rose of Tralee, marching at the head of the Kerry contingent, managed the full course despite her shoes, which appeared anything but sole-friendly.
Behind the crowd barriers there was the usual debate. One woman was telling a slightly reluctant companion that she just loved parades. The companion was more inclined to a seat somewhere with a drink. But where to find such a thing. Not a drink. A blessed seat.
Another couple engaged in a lively discussion as to which parade was more fun, this one or the Puerto Rican one. A man was attempting to persuade someone at the other end of his cell phone signal that he really was at the parade. To prove it, he held up the phone as the pipes and drums of the New York State Police Emerald Society marched by. The person at the other end either loved the pipes or hung up.
One hundred years ago, as the 19th century was winding down, the parade was delayed for a while by a terrible fire in what was then the Windsor Hotel on Fifth and 50th. It was a day long remembered for flames.
Last Wednesday’s parade will be long remembered for Maureen O’Hara, and a host of men who lustily roared her on, like so many old flames themselves.