On Being Irish in Albany on March 17

Look. I’m from New York City where the Irish celebrate St. Patrick’s Day like it’s a Sacrament. How can you think otherwise when you’re marching up Fifth Avenue and within the first six blocks you’re passing the Grandstand at 50th Street on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, with the Cardinal in his Sunday best and all the politicos—even if just Irish For the Day—flapping their wings at you. And, of course, I’m in the uniform of an NYPD Sergeant marking cadence with the hundreds of cops moving with measured stride up the Avenue. I should mention that the last time I marched in the parade was thirty years ago. A lot of water under the bridge; today I’m lucky to be walking, never mind marching. And I now live in Albany, moved here five ears ago looking for a smaller city, never having lived anywhere else but the City.

No regrets, but I miss my Parade of memory: the pageantry, the pride, the bagpipes the bars. But not my fellow marchers, I have to say. When cops drank afterward at the Emerald Society Bash at the cavernous St. George Greek Orthodox Church on Ninth Avenue at 60th Street, then later at the Irish bars along Second and Third Avenues from 86th Street on down to the last stop, Molloy Malone’s at 22nd Street—we’d be shouting at each other over the din of the pipers parading up and down the aisles while ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’ blared simultaneously from jukeboxes. You got tired, hoarse and drunk, in no particular order. Being in my 40s, I’d grow impatient with my comrades, but make allowances for the policewomen.

Finbar Devine
So last year I went to Albany’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade downtown on Washington Avenue. There were a number of Pipe Bands but I found myself looking for, not finding, Detective Finbar Devine, the quintessential Drum Major of the NYPD’s Emerald Society Pipe and Drum Band, in kilts and tall Black Bear Hats with a sprig of green—Himself, all six-feet-five of him, directing the stately procession of the lads up Fifth. Finbar has been gone for some years now, but I will always see him on the Day in my mind’s eye. I didn’t last long at the Albany Parade, the cops annoyed me. College students bunched up at traffic intersections, spilling out in the gutter, blocking our view from the sidewalk. Two Albany cops on motor scooters zipped up and down the street barking orders ineffectually. It appalled me that the APD doesn’t know how to police a parade. In The Day, the NYPD posted officers on foot the entire length of the parade route at intervals of 25 yards on both sides of Fifth Avenue and down East 86th Street to the end on Third Avenue—forbidden to do aught but face the crowd and keep order. Yeah, I’m getting old but that still is the way it’s done. True, New York had 30,000 cops while Albany has just 350. But still…

Albany is still held hard by a Tammany Hall-style Democratic Party. Not surprising when you consider that the City has been run by a total of three Mayors in the past 72 years. Erastus Corning, the first, held sway from 1941 till his death in 1982. He was a very hands-on politician as was the real power behind the throne, Boss Dan O’Connell, who ran the Democratic Party like his private fiefdom for even longer, till he died in 1977. Next was Mayor Thomas Whalen, in office a mere ten years, till Jerry Jennings took over twenty years ago and shows no sign of leaving. Although there are some black leaders in Albany—all Councilmen or women—this is definitely not a New York City kind of City Council. By some sleight of hand in revising the City Charter awhile back, Mayor Jennings must approve whatever the Council passes. No wonder he is loathe to leave. Blacks comprise one-third of the population of Albany, which is 94,000-plus, but have zero political clout. The Irish and Italians, the longtime residents, wield local power. Whenever I take a ride in the black urban ghettos of this City—Arbor Hill, West Hill, the South End—I come away wanting to get Al Sharpton on the horn and tell him he’s urgently needed.

How describe the Irishness of Albany today? I’d say bland, washed-out. I had to drive nine miles to a venerable Italian restaurant in the Lansingburg section of Troy last St. Patrick’s Day to get a good plate of Corned Beef and Cabbage. Yet, there is a vestige of Old Irish Albany. I think of him as The Last Irishman, the novelist William Kennedy. He put Albany on the literary map in the early 1980s with his cycle of Albany novels: “Legs,” “Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game” and “Ironweed.” There’s no better guide to Albany’s labyrinthine politics than Kennedy’s novel, “Roscoe.” And for the global view, “O Albany,” his encyclopedic biography of his hometown.

Maybe I’m just at an age where a seat at the Ringling Brother Barnum & Bailey Circus beats standing room at any parade.

Robert Knightly