Category: Archive

Remembering the gallant green

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

There were the absent members of the fighting 69th, far away in Iraq marking St. Patrick’s Day in a place where no shamrock ever took root. And there were the absent members of the New York fire department, not so far away on the steps of a famous building where a sea of green had taken very firm root.
What’s the parade without a row? some asked. Still, this one was a doozey.
Ten years ago, as the protesting members of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization banged their drums and waved their placards, it would have been a brave shaman indeed who would have predicted the identity of the parade’s largest excluded group, its most vociferous absence, in 2005.
But not to neglect the more total absence. The fighting 69th was present and correct on the avenue. But only a fraction of it.
The parade doesn’t start in the normal sense. It sort of unleashes itself northward from 44th Street as the clock strikes 11.
Leading the charge is the mounted police escort, closely followed by the marching companies of the 69th.
In normal times there are hundreds of soldiers in those ranks. Last week, there were dozens because the 69th was fighting again.
The parade was dedicated to the United States in a time of war, so there were always going to be a few teary eyes and heavy hearts at the sight of the 69th rear guard leading the unit’s veteran’s corps, upward and onward, along the long green line up Fifth Avenue.
Both were in play at the pre-parade Mass in St. Patrick’s cathedral when the names of those 69th members killed in Iraq were read to the capacity congregation.
While parade watchers doubtless took note of the diminished 69th, fewer eyes would have noticed a soldier close behind the rear guard who was so young looking that he would have been carded at every bar in the city, on this day and any other.
Sgt. Ryan Kelly was wounded in Iraq in a bomb explosion in July 2003. Kelly lost his right leg below the knee.
Despite his injury, Kelly marched alongside comradely namesakes, members of the “Kelly Gang” charity group that included ex-Marine Ray Kelly, the city’s police commissioner.
“It’s a perfect day to march. Much cooler than Iraq anyway,” Sgt. Kelly said moments before the parade began its progress into the history books.
The parade was led by another military veteran, Denis Kelleher, a grand marshal whose march through 66 years of life had taken him from a dot of a village in Kerry to a point at the head of a parade that bills itself as the oldest and largest in Kelleher’s adopted country.
Grand marshals get to walk the parade route once. Some, by choice, walk the route twice. Some may even claim three tours of walking duty even while finding it hard to get anyone to believe them.
But two is certainly not uncommon. Kathleen Casey, president of the Clare Society, was ready for her double duty.
“I’ll walk with the United Irish Counties and then Clare,” said Casey with a glance at her sensible shoes.
Veterans of the parade know by rote the main marching units. Most, like the Archbishop Stepinac High School Band, one of the hardest working of the day, it seemed, lead themselves with big banners proclaiming their identity.
But there’s a knack to the game of spotting the less familiar and heralded units such as the Irish police, the Garda Siochana, the Dublin Fire Brigade, indeed the London Fire Brigade, and the contingent of Irish lifeboat crew members.
But you can always spot the sailors, U.S., or in the case of the 244th parade, Irish seamen and women.
The blue-and-white clad Irish mariners were ashore from the Irish naval vessel, L.E. Roisin, in New York for the week on a courtesy visit.
Land leave for the crew had them marching before they could relax in a Manhattan hostelry.
“It’s cracker. Way better than we even expected,” crew member Fintan Conaghan said of the parade.
Conaghan, from Achill Island in County Mayo, and his comrades had just finished their walk and were steaming south down the sidewalk toward a snug harbor, or at least a snug.
The Roisins didn’t need a compass, sextant or chart. Just a name, a street address, not to mention the prospect of a homeward Atlantic crossing, in order to fire them up for the immediate mission.
Concrete, while lacking the mysteries of the ocean deep, made for suitable plain sailing.
While the beginning of the parade pointed to the absence of soldiers, the end of it, close on 86th Street, highlighted the absence of many firefighters infuriated by the ban on FDNY members wearing their tradition green berets.
Firefighters in civilian clothes, but sporting the forbidden green headgear, stood on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum, outside the parade but still very much at it.
They let their feelings be known as department brass walked by. Many marchers cheered and saluted their defiance.
“I’m glad you did what you did,” said a woman spectator to one protestor.
“We had to. Thank you,” the firefighter replied.
A quick survey on the issue seemed to leave department brass swinging on the ladder on this one.
“I think they should have something better to do with their time,” said Maureen Ayres of Pearl River. She was talking about department chiefs, not the green-bonneted protestors.
“My [late] husband was a New York city firefighter for 21 years, a deputy chief, and I’m sure he’d say that after all the department has been through a green hat is not going to make any difference,” said her friend, Eileen O’Dowd.
Ellen Brennan agreed. “With all the important things going on it’s a petty thing,” she said of the doff the green order.
Green, however, has a habit of winning out at this time of the year. Five and a half hours after it began, the parade had not just covered 40-plus blocks, it had spanned the seasons.
A winter’s morning had surrendered to a spring afternoon. The 244th parade gave way to the 245th a year hence.
Time enough to sort out the thorny issue of the green yarn. Then again.

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