For 260 consecutive years the Irish and Irish-Americans of New York, and indeed the world over, have puffed their collective chest out and marched en masse up Fifth Avenue in an annual celebration of Irish heritage and culture.
Recently, the Covid-19 pandemic threatened to lay waste to the consecutive years streak, although mini-marches in 2020 and 2021 kept the run alive.
But Covid was not the first time the parade has been under threat. Throughout the parade’s long history there have been many times that saw the future of the parade in jeopardy.
One such period came in 1998, when the City of New York withdrew funding for several parade fixtures, such as the grandstands on the avenue and the famous green line that is painted to mark the parade route each year.
In answer to that challenge, a relatively new group in the Irish American firmament, The Knights of St. Patrick, stepped into the breach.
Now, as we approach the 2024 parade the Irish Echo spoke to one of the founders of the Knights, the group’s current president, John Tully.
Tully recalled: “Our primary mission was to support the New York City St. Patrick's Day parade. At the point of our founding, it was in quite a lot of trouble. And so, a small group of men and women came together to provide financial support.”
“And,” Tully explained, “that's what we've done for 35 years.”
The Knights of St. Patrick is a non-profit organization that is independent of the parade itself.
While the “big” parade remains the organization’s primary concern, the Knights, Tully exlained, “are trying to expand our charitable giving.”
Tully reeled off a list of groups that have benefited from the Knights' largesse over the years.
“We typically give other smaller gifts throughout the year. We've supported Solace House, Emerald Isle Immigration Center, the Irish Arts Institute. We give out smaller (gifts) to Irish American cultural and educational institutions.”
“But this year,” Tully said, “we kind of expanded. We're looking into a new area, and that is St. Patrick's Day parades around this city, and metropolitan area.
"This year we've voted to donate funds to Brooklyn, Bay Ridge, the Queens parade, and the Rockaway, and Mineola parades, Yonkers, up in Woodlawn, and to Pearl River.”
Tully, and his fellow Knights of St. Patricks, “felt like these parades, they're much more financially challenged these days. And they are keeping the spirit of St. Patrick, and Irish America alive throughout the metropolitan area, and they need help. So we want to expand our support.”
Brooklyn born and raised, Tully, a retired lawyer and father to a son and daughter, sadly lost his wife ten years ago. He has always had an interest in Irish-American affairs, thanks primarily to his paternal grandparents, who, Tully notes, “were right off the boat.”
“I knew them well, and loved them,” Tully said of his grandparents, Phillip Tully and Margaret O’Halloran.
“On my father's side,” Tully said, noting that his mother's side, “were a little more removed, like great grandparents.”
Tully remembers his forebears with affection.
“My little grandmother came out of Galway, and I'll always remember her; for me, she was a phenomenal woman. And my grandfather was a big, quiet man out of Cavan.”
Asked why he chose to get involved in Irish and Irish-American groups Tully thought for a moment before answering.
“It was sort of implanted into me, there's just a kind of love. And you can't describe it sometimes, but it's just there.”
And for Tully, “New York is the center. You live in other places like Texas and Louisiana; I mean, that's all just America,” Tully chuckled. “In New York, you feel it.”
And so Tully’s involvement in Irish affairs kicked into high gear when he moved back to New York after work kept him away for a number of years.
“I'm a Brooklyn born fellow,” Tully explained, “and I lived in the city, but I spent about twenty years in the South for work.”
Returning in 2004, Tully first joined the Ancient order of Hibernians, Division 7 in Manhattan, where he served as president, “for a while.”
To his list of Irish-American groups Tully added: “I would say St. Francis College in Brooklyn, because we were founded by a couple of brothers out of Galway, back in 1859. And I'm on the Board of Trustees, the chairman of that for a bunch of years. I'm involved with the Emerald Isle Immigration Center. And I'm currently the board chair of that. And then also the Irish Institute in New York. I'm on the board there.”
It makes for quite a list.
“That only happened after I moved back in 2004,” Tully said. “So I missed a lot of years.”
It sounds like a hectic schedule but Tully shrugs. “I'm retired. I'm retired.”
For Tully, the Knights of St Patrick will always be first and foremost about the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
“The parade will always be our biggest donation. That's where we want to be. If they need the funds, we’re there.
“And,” Tully adds, “we try to expand: this year was more than last year, which was a toe in the water, where we picked only two parades. This year, we're up to seven parades. We want to support Irish-American cultural and educational institutions. That to me, that's a great thing.”
“I mean, this thing is selfish,” Tully concludes modestly.
“We have a great celebration on the day, we have our sashes, we go to Mass, we go to the luncheon. And we celebrate the day, but we're doing some good, right?”