The greatest march in the world

I am one of the luckiest people in this world as I have seen this parade from every angle possible.

Starting in 1964, as a young lad from Knockbridge, County Louth, I called in sick to my job as an electrician's helper in the Biltmore Hotel so that I could march proudly up the avenue.

I had heard from my aunt Minnie, who had been in New York for 40 years, how great a day it was and how proud the Irish were on Saint Patrick's Day.

I arrived to meet the wee county gathering at about 1 p.m. How surprised and honored I was when Stephen Garvey and Mike Wogan approached me and asked if I would take the ropes and help carry the Louth banner. I already had the letter composed in my mind that I would write to Daddy and Mammy back in Knockbridge. It would say that their emigrant son, on his first trip up Fifth Avenue, was going to carry the beautiful "Mary of the Gael" banner up the avenue.

To this day I can remember the wall of cheers that we got when we came off the side street. We had a fantastic high school band in front of us as we headed north. Now, at home in Knockbridge, we lived beside a Minnie Berrils, who, as they say, went with the moon. She had an old piano and at times day or night she would bang out "O'Donnell Abu."

So as soon as they got on the avenue what did that band strike up but O'Donnell Abu. My god it brought the memories rushing back of odd times in the little cottage in the townland of Newtown in the parish of Knockbridge. I was homesick thinking about it. It was as if Knockbridge and New York had been knitted together in time.

My joy soon turned to oh-no, not again. You see, the only tune the band had was O'Donnell Abu. If you a spectator it was great but marching behind them it was the only thing I heard from 44th to 86th Street. I always figured it was Minnie Berrils' revenge. Anyway, alongside Tommy Fitzpatrick on what was a very windy day, I settled under "Mary O the Gael" to carry the banner up the famed route

I marched every year with Louth after that. They were the proudest of days on the Queen of Avenues. Little did I know through these succeeding years what the Saint Patrick's Day Parade had in store for me.

In 1991, I was asked by John Dunleavy, a member of the parade committee, if I would work with Liam Murphy as a spotter for the TV coverage of the parade.

I was on the avenue watching the units march by when Liam got a call in his headset asking if I would go to the announcers booth. It turned out the coverage was not going all that well. Up I sat alongside Andrea MacArdle who I had known as Annie the redhead from the Broadway show, "Annie."

I talked with her for about half an hour about Ireland, sports, anything that would be of interest to the viewers watching at home. I did not know it at the time, exactly 20 years ago this year, that I was making my television debut for St. Patrick's Day in the years that would follow.

The next year when they needed an announcer Jimmy Lynch had suggested that I could fill the job. My wife Treasa had insisted that I keep calling a man called David Maher who had taken over the producing of the parade. I finally got a hold of him,. He wanted to use me as a researcher for the parade.

I spent many hours working on the parade. The night before, I kid you not, at about 6 p.m. on March 16, he asked me if I would like to announce the parade tomorrow.

I jumped at the chance, so with Treasa beside me I was off and running. Treasa has been my eyes for 20 years on the avenue. She knows as much about this parade as anyone. Each year she speaks to tons of people who march to get information on their groups.

It has been a winning combination, so much so that she now deservedly sits beside me in the booth and imparts her vast knowledge to the TV audience.

This all came about under the watch of now parade chairman Dunleavy.

John has stood beside me to ensure that I was always in the broadcast booth since he took over the key role as leader of the parade. In 2006, he approached me and asked if I had the chance would I be grand marshal. I was absolutely speechless, which is not something that happens very often.

I told him how honored I would be and my whole family would be if this were to happen. I could not believe that my name would even be in the running. Yes, I knew that their was process that would take place and I was praying that I survived all the tests.

Well, when the whistle blew in 2008 I was wearing the sash that proclaimed me grand marshal of the New York Saint Patrick's Day Parade. I had gone from a young lad of 17 holding the ropes on the Louth banner in 1964, to the man who was leading the parade in 2008.

It was an amazing turn of events. The 2008 parade is still fresh in my mind. I don't recall every step of the way. I do remember spotting friends and family in the mass of faces as I went up the avenue, and earlier in St. Patrick's Cathedral.

I kept saying to Treasa, is it true, is it really true? To top the day off, John Dunleavy had replaced me in the WNBC broadcast booth with Treasa.

So, when I took my place in the booth, I was not only the first grand marshal to announce the parade on the day he led the parade, but along with the girl from Cobh, County Cork, became the first husband to announce the parade alongside his wife.

To this day, it seems like a dream. The only bad feeling I had during it all was thinking of the many millions of great people who walked this great avenue and who deserved it much more than I did, but who never got the opportunity to feel what I was feeling. It also was a terrible feeling when I got to about 75th Street. I now knew that my march as grand Marshall was coming to an end.

Still, the fact that I was grand marshal of what I consider to be the greatest parade in the world will never come to an end.

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