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Calling Any Cop Named Patrick

The Far-From-Respectable Origin of a Jersey City Tradition
by Gene Scanlon
Gene Scanlon (Left) and Patrick Kenny, the First Grand Marshal of the Jersey City Saint Patrick's Day Parade on the occasion of P. J. Kenny's return visit to Jersey City in 1998
The annual St. Patrick's Day Parade along Kennedy Boulevard is such a tradition in Jersey City -- with its legions of bagpipers, shamrock-wearing priests, antique cars, Miss Colleen contestants and much else that you might suppose it had gone on forever. In fact, it dates back just three decades, and its beginnings were not what you might call respectable.

It was born in the Bergen Bar on the eve of St. Patrick's Day 1962. I should know; I was there. Five of us -- sad sons of the Ould Sod -- were drowning our sorrows, lamenting that Jersey City, unlike neighboring Newark and New York, did not have a big parade to honor Ireland's patron saint. There were shouts of approval, and I was promptly named committee chairman. After ordering a round for everybody, I began a meeting that within minutes threatened to degenerate into a punch-throwing donnybrook.

It started with Tom Lally's suggestion that a certain politician be designated at the outset as the parade's grand marshal.

"You must be mad!" shouted Jim McLoughlin, slamming his fist on the bar. "He's the biggest crook in creation!" He then named a member of. the City Council, evoking an equally emphatic reply from Joe (Dapper) Fallon:
"Now wouldn't that be a thundering disgrace, him marching up front, the heathen!"

And so it went. Even Jim McCloskey's nominee, a heavy-brogued County Corkman who was also a monsignor, was rejected out of hand. With tempers running high by then, McCloskey might have been ejected from the bar if he hadn't been a co-owner of the place. After a dozen or more nominations, not one getting so much as a second, I shouted for attention and made a proposal: "Let's call Dublin police headquarters, making it person-to-person to any policeman named Patrick. The first one we contact, we invite him to lead our parade. Who can argue with that?"

Nobody could, So it was that at about 9 P.M on the eve of St. Patrick's Day 1962 (although it was atready 2 A.M. on the Grand Day itself in Ireland), a phone rang in Dublin Castle, Garda Patrick J. Kenny answered it and accepted an invitation by the Jersey City St. Patrick's Day Parade Committee to lead its march on Sunday, March 17, 1963. Officer Kenny, then 41, father of six, had only one question before accepting the invitation: "Can I bring me wife?"

P, J. and Nancy Kenny landed at Idlewild Airport on March 7. (It became John F, Kennedy Airport after the President's assassination eight months later.) And on St. Patrick's Day, Garda Kenny, 6 foot 3, with a red mustache and in full uniform, stepped out alone, in military stride, leading more than 20,000 marchers. Nearly a quarter-million spectators along the two-mile parade route cheered them on.

The Jersey Journal said in an editorial that it was the grandest celebration the city had ever given itself. Taverns ran out of beer, and all-night diners ran out of food. The Kennys, who had been given a sendoff from Ireland by President Eamon De Valera, were received in Washington by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. (President Kennedy was in Costa Rica.)

The Kennys still live in Rathfarnham, on the outskirts of Dublin. A picture of them with Johnson hangs in their living room.

Last St. Patrick's Day, on one of my frequent trips to Ireland, I watched some of the Dublin parade with P. J., and then we headed for Mulligan's Pub, where we raised pints of lager to Tom Lally, Jim McLoughlin, Dapper Fallon and Jim McCloskey. They're all gone now, but 34 years ago, a "no" vote by any of them would have killed the phone call that led to a parade that is by now a grand tradition in Jersey City -- and to the adventure of a lifetime for all Irish cop named Patrick and his wife.

Gene Scanlon, a former reporter for The Jersey Journal and public relations director for Jersey City, was the city's parade chairman for 14 years.

Originally appeared in The New York Times, Sunday, March 17, 1996

08/18/2012 11:10 PM
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