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Preserving Traditions: Behind the Scenes at NYC's St Patrick's Day Parade

A Q&A with Parade Chair Hilary Beirne

The St Patrick’s Day Parade up Fifth Avenue in New York City is the granddaddy of them all - the oldest and largest in the world. On a normal year, 150,000 people march, including pipers, drummers, and dancers creating a festive atmosphere of pageantry - and they're watched by two million people! This classic parade up one of American's grandest boulevards is rich in history and heritage - but it may be even more historic than you realize. Here we take a look behind the scenes and have a chat with Hilary Beirne, the leader of the huge volunteer team that runs the parade, and also let you know how to watch the parade this year. It won't be the usual grand march, but the tradition lives on! 

CIE Tours: What makes the NYC St Patrick’s Day parade so special?

Hilary: What makes the NYC St Patrick’s Day Parade so special is the fact that it was established 14 years before the United States of America. Over the past 259 years it has survived, events such as the American revolution, the Civil War, World War I, the great depression, and World War II.  This year will mark the 260th time the parade has marched on the streets of New York City.

The New York City St Patrick’s Day Parade is so special to New Yorkers, in fact, that everyone in the city wants to be Irish for that day.  Eighty percent of New Yorkers wear something green on St Patrick’s Day regardless of their ethnic background. The parade is a New York institution and because of it, St Patrick’s day is celebrated all across the city.

CIE Tours: What can you tell us about the people who marched in that first parade?

Hilary: In colonial 1762, Britain ruled New York City, and their army contained many Irish conscripts who wanted to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Indeed, there were so many Irish conscripts stationed in New York,   the British officers allowed them to parade on the understanding, they would return to duty the following day. The soldiers were met by Irish expatriates living in New York and together they held the first parade near Wall Street and Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan.

CIE Tours: The 69th Regiment has an important role to play – can you tell us about that?

Hilary: This year will mark the 160th time that the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade will be led by the 69th Regiment. This is because the 69th Regiment was established by Irish emigrants and until recent years its ranks were all Irish. In the 1950s, the Parade was deemed so important to the Regiment's history, that March 17th was made unit day. This allows the commanding officer to call up the entire Regiment on St. Patrick’s Day to march in the New York City parade.

CIE Tours: Do you have a favorite tradition associated with the parade?

Hilary: Like most people from Ireland, I love to eat Irish soda bread, rashers (bacon), and Irish sausages on St Patrick’s Day. We attend mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral to honor the deceased members of the 69th Regiment and I really enjoy greeting the marchers and listening to the bagpipes. (You can bake your own soda bread using our special recipe from Ballyknocken.)

CIE Tours: CIE Tours: What’s it like to run the parade in these COVID-19 times?

Hilary: Covid-19 has made it quite difficult to plan events outside the normal channels. We are learning a new way of living, which is outside our comfort zone. All meetings were held virtually using zoom, and we are engaging technology in a much greater way this year. While technology is great, one disadvantage is that it has reduced the interactivity between people, especially during our meetings.

An advantage of the current COVID-19 environment is the fact that we have increased our engagement of social media. This will expose  the younger generation more to the history of the parade as they are heavily invested in such technology . We are  hoping to awake more of interest in Irish heritage and culture and in turn find the future leaders for the parade.


Hilary Beirne is C.A.O. of the NYC St Patrick's Day Parade, Chairman of St Patrick's Day Foundation, NYC, and an Honorary Member of "The Fighting 69th" Regiment.


How to watch this year

Of course it's a disappointment not to be able to watch the celebrations in person, but this year you don't have to travel to New York to take part. You’ll find all the details for virtually participating in the parade on the NYC St Patrick’s Parade website. Below is the schedule: 

Start at 8:30 with a live broadcast of the St Patrick’s Day Mass from St Patrick’s Cathedral.

At 10 AM, watch the virtual parade.

At 11, watch an hour-long streamed show on Facebook, featuring leaders from Ireland and the US, with entertainment by Andy Cooney and Moya Brennan, and greetings from the armed forces serving abroad. Find the link on the NYC ST Patrick's Day website.  

At 5 PM, watch a special TV broadcast with interviews of parade leaders and honorees, and luminaries like Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan.

At 7 PM viewers in New York will be able to watch a show called “St Patrick’s Day: A Celebration For All”.

Many people are sending in greetings and tributes – check them out on the St Patrick’s Day Parade website. (You can even add your own greeting!)


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