On one day a year, they congregated outside Old St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mulberry Street in New York City and marched in celebration. To some of these immigrant Irish and their American born children it was a religious occasion, but to most the gathering was an affirmation of their right not only to survive but to thrive in their adopted country.
That's what I sense on St. Patrick's Day - an echo from a time when the Irish were despised outsiders. And that's why I go along with the raucous energy, the excitement and even the green beer, the plastic shamrocks and the ubiquitous leprechaun.
I didn't always feel that way. When I arrived from Ireland, these manifestations of Irish-America were at best embarrassing. Back home, our own celebrations were rigid and religious; we did sport actual sprigs of shamrock but there was no beer, green or otherwise. The Parade up Fifth Avenue and the ensuing bacchanal seemed downright pagan by comparison.
I had other immigrant battles of my own ahead. The band, Black 47, was formed to create music that would reflect the complexity of immigrant and contemporary Irish-American life and to banish When Irish Eyes Are Smiling off to a well earned rest in the depths of Galway Bay.
This idea met with not a little resistance in the north Bronx and the south sides of Boston and Chicago; but when irate patrons would yell out during a reggae/reel "why can't yez sing somethin' Irish?" I would return the compliment with, "I'm from Ireland, I wrote it! That makes it Irish!”
With time and familiarity, Irish-America came to accept Black 47, probably more for our insistence that each generation bears responsibility for solving the political problems in the North of Ireland, than for recasting Danny Boy as a formidable gay construction worker.
I, in turn, learned to appreciate the traditions of the community I had joined along with the reasons for the ritualized celebration of our patron saint.
And now on St. Patrick's Day, no matter what stage I'm on, mixed in with the swirl of guitars, horns, pipes and drums, I hear an old, but jarring, memory of a people rejoicing as they rose up from their knees.
Our battles, for the most part, have been won; indeed, one has to search an encyclopedia for mention of the Know-Nothing Party or various 19th Century nativist politicians and gangs of bullyboys. Anti-Irish sentiment, not to mention Anti-Catholicism, is a rarity.
Might it not be time then for our New York St. Patrick's Day Parade to celebrate all Irish people no matter what religion (or lack thereof), sexuality or political conviction?
It's a broad step, I know. But with a just peace finally taking seed in the North of Ireland, might we not some day witness Dr. Paisley, Mr. Adams and various members of the Irish Gay community walk arm in arm up Fifth Avenue.
Impossible? Perhaps, but I, for one, would have wagered heavily 15 years ago that Sinn Fein would never sit in a Northern Irish Parliament. Times change, as do tactics and even rigid principles.
Whatever about Parade pipe dreams, we still must honor the memory of those who paved the way for us. Part of that responsibility is that Irish-Americans should never forget the new immigrants from other lands, legal and undocumented.
Many, like our forebears, are fleeing poverty and are striving to feed and educate their families. It would be the ultimate irony if an Irish-American were to look down upon the least of them; for to my mind there is no place in the Irish soul for racism, sectarianism, homophobia or even dumb old Archie Bunker type xenophobia.
I once heard Pete Hamill ask: "What does the Pakistani taxi driver say to his children when he gets home after 12 hours behind the wheel?" I can't say for certain but I'll bet he echoes many of the sentiments of those Irish who gathered outside Old St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mulberry Street so many immigrant years and tears ago.