St. Patrick’s Day Comes Early to the Rockaways

Snow was piled on the ground and temperatures hovered below 40 degrees for the first Saint Patrick’s Day parade of the year out in Rockaway, Queens, yesterday. But the residents turned out strongly anyway. Crowds of bright green lined the parade route, an antidote to the chill weather.

Saint Patrick’s Day is not until March 17th, but parades happen in New York throughout the month so that the same bands can march in all of them. That’s why Rockaways celebrates so early. For them Saturday, March 2 was the real celebration, nothing much happens on the day itself.

“It would have to be 25 degrees, 25mph winds and snowing. Then I’m probably going to stay in the house. Otherwise you bundle up,” said Owen Loof. “You do it for Rockaway.”

Not quite bundled up, Loof watched the NYPD section of the parade march by to supportive whoops from the crowds lining the route, dressed in a green suit covered in shamrocks. He also wears a green hat, and over his white shirt and green be-shamrocked tie he has a jumper with a leprechaun on it. Loof calls himself the ‘best dressed man in Rockaway’ and he’s something of a local celebrity for his colorful suits. He found the suit in Target and knew he had to have it. It was the last one and luckily it fit.

Loof grew up in Rockaway and has lived here most of his life—and he couldn’t imagine not coming out to celebrate. “It’s the Irish tradition,” says Loof, “you love to do it.”

After the parade, the school hall was packed with marching bands and young Irish dancers. Women distributed plates and plates of ham sandwiches and pickles that they brought in from home wrapped in cellophane. A row of giant, shiny, green and gold trophies lined the floor of the stage at the front of the hall, waiting to be distributed. Once everyone had eaten, they would be awarded to the lucky few for best band, best drummer etc.

“Today I woke up and I was just excited that the season’s starting,” says Matt Donovan, who is  part of Knights of Columbus Co. 126 Pipes and Drums marching band. Donovan has been participating since age 12, when his older brother, James, got him involved “to keep me out of trouble.” He’s 28 now and has a small shamrock outlined in black and filled with green tattooed on his hand.

Three generations of his family have been involved in the band. Now his niece, James Donovan’s daughter, will be the fourth. Donovan’s grandfather was buried in his Knights of Columbus kilt.

The band is booked for parades the rest of the season. They do a couple of others – on Labor Day, Mardi Gras – but their busiest time is March. “March madness” they call it. They’re marching in a parade on Staten Island on Sunday, and after the main New York Saint Patrick’s Day Parade on Saturday the 16th (the City doesn’t ever hold parades on Sundays) they’ll be taking a bus straight for the airport to fly to Cork, in southern Ireland, to march in the Cork parade on the March 17th. It will be their second time marching in Ireland. They also marched in Dublin in 2002. This year they didn’t submit their application for the Dublin parade in time.

The members are each paid $5 per march, so the free sandwiches are appreciated. But the pay has added up over the years so that they are able to cover their travel to Ireland from the fund they’d created.

Bob Murphy started the band in 1991 and recruited his first band members through the Knights of Columbus Castle, a Catholic men’s club. “I’ve just always loved bands’” he says. He was responsible for getting the Donovan brothers’ grandfather involved in the first place. He loves the camaraderie. He’s 82 now and will keep playing with whatever time God gives him, he says.

“I could use a new set of knees though.”

Michael Diviney, his extended family, neighbors and friends stood around a snowman they’d built in the front drive and christened “Jameson” after the whiskey, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. Saturday, according to Rockaway tradition, was the unofficial start of spring. So, of course, the family built the biggest snowman in the neighborhood to mark the day.

“There is no way this parade is not going on. Unless there’s a hurricane or something,” says Diviney. The clan watched the parade as it marched in front of their house and chatted to anyone who passed by. As the temperature dropped with the sun’s disappearing rays, people headed indoors – where they continued the festivities.

Inside the house was filled with green, white and orange: woven crepe paper streamers and green foil shamrocks threaded on string dangled from the kitchen and living room ceilings. On the kitchen counter were mounds of food for all the neighbors and guests who will stop by: home-made shepherd’s pie, ham, cabbage and bacon and potatoes. The fridge was well-stocked with beer, wine and whiskey. Shot glasses with green, white and orange jell-o are ready for later – the white was made with champagne.

“Family, friends, drink, heritage, remembering our parents. The parade means everything,” says Christina Reynolds, Diviney’s cousin who had driven in from Long Island for the day. There’s a sense of pride to being Irish in the Rockaways, she explains. Her own parents are no longer alive but she came to spend the day with her cousins and aunt. “They’d want me to be here.” For her, she explains, the parade means ‘home.’