By Jim Smith
QUINCY, Mass. — The 46th annual Christmas Parade in Quincy, the largest parade of the season on the East Coast, was marked by controversy recently over the inclusion of an antique paddy wagon in the line of march.
Jack Meehan, national treasurer of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, met with parade officials last month in an attempt to keep the wagon, a restored 1912 Model T Ford, out of the Nov. 29 parade. Meehan and other AOH members argued that the paddy wagon reinforces negative stereotypes of the Irish as drunken, shiftless, belligerent cads who should be locked up.
"We decided that it was time to put that offensive image to rest," he told the Echo before the start of the parade, which drew about 250,.000 spectators. "We weren’t insisting that the wagon be excluded. We just wanted the offensive terminology removed. I think we were able to enlighten the committee members, although we didn’t get what we wanted."
Parade officials voted against the AOH petition after hearing from Meehan and Dan Winters, owner of the restored wagon, who said that vehicles used in China around the rice fields are called paddy wagons. Winters also claimed to have documents that indicate that in Mexico patrol wagons are called paddy wagons because of the padding used inside to protect the prisoners.
Meehan describes Winters’s claims as ludicrous and charges that the paddy wagon is a blatantly offensive symbol of anti-Irish bigotry.
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George White, the parade’s chairman, said that he and his committee gave the AOH a fair hearing.
"We spent a lot of time and effort trying to settle this, but there are very strong feelings on both sides," he said. "This will have to be resolved somewhere else."
An authoritative source on the subject, the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, tends to support the AOH thesis. It states that "paddy wagon" is a "nickname for the police patrol wagon used to tote lawbreakers off to jail [and] is a carry-over from the days when the Irish were low men on the social totem pole and hence fair game when a roundup of miscreants was needed to create favorable publicity for the law enforcers."
Although there was no public protest at the parade by the AOH, a lone demonstrator did manage to momentarily disrupt the procession when he stood in front of the paddy wagon with an Irish flag in his outstretched hands. The unidentified man was quickly persuaded by a Quincy police officer to let the wagon proceed.
Meehan, who has received criticism from some people who claim that his campaign is much ado about nothing, is not backing down. "We made it very clear to the parade officials that this is only Round One," he said. "This is a very important issue, and we will be back. If necessary, we’ll settle this matter in court.