Irish flag outside O’Toole’s

Irish Spring

In New Haven, there’s always a gap between the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and the actual St. Patrick’s Day. This year, on Parade Day, members of the Catholic faith weren’t sure who their Pope might be. Days later, they knew it would be an Argentinian Jesuit who is taking the Irish-friendly name of Francis.

The New Haven parade may seem to some as the be-all-and-end-all of local Irish celebrations. But, according to the book Wearin’ o’ the Green—St. Patrick’s Day in New Haven, Connecticut, 1842-1992 by Neil Hogan (published in 1992 by the Connecticut Irish-American Historical Society), the city’s gone decades at a time without holding a parade. The first one was in 1842, but bad weather cancelled the ’43 parade. With only a couple of small-scale exceptions, there were no St. Patrick’s Day parades for the first half of the 20th century. It took decades more for the parade to gain the prestige it has today. There was no parade held in 1962, and it wasn’t able to paint a green stripe down the street in 1972. No Yale president had marched in it until 1978, when Bartlett Giamatti took up the charge.

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Other Irish-themed historical events have had plenty do with Yale. William Howard Taft III—who taught English at Yale and was the grandson of the U.S. President (and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) Taft—was named ambassador to Ireland in 1953. In 1981, Mayor Biagio DiLieto declared March “Irish Heritage Month,” which was marked in part with major exhibits of Irish painters at the Yale Center for British Art and editions of The Book of Kells at the Beinecke Rare Books Library.

While much more raucous than a library, we should all be pleased at how orderly and magisterial and downright upbeat the 2013 St. Patrick’s Day Parade was last Sunday. The city enforced “open container” laws and otherwise kept public drunkenness in check. Friday’s snow had been washed away by Saturday’s rain.

The parade, always the place to “be seen” if you’re a Connecticut politician, felt different this year because it’s the last one Mayor John Destefano Jr. will march in before leaving office at the end of this year. DeStefano may not be running again, but he was literally seen dashing down the parade route: stopping frequently to chat and shake hands with his constituents, then running ahead to find his place in the procession.

Parade day and St. Patrick’s Day are fine times to recall great on-the-march mayors from New Haven’s glorious past. Many of them were Irish. Of particular significance was John W. Murphy, who presided over the city in times not far different from ours today. Murphy served from 1931 to 1945, a record number of terms at that time. (DeStefano now holds the record with his ten terms.) Murphy was mayor during the Great Depression and the second World War. A former president of the New Haven Central Labor Council, he was supportive of labor unions. Such organizations have recently reasserted themselves as a key political voice in city politics. Murphy had to juggle needed city improvements, including increased pay for teaching and better school buildings, with economic realities.

Mostly, Mayor Murphy changed how people viewed ethnic minorities and the lower economic classes in the city. His grandson Mark J. Mininberg makes this point clear in his 1988 book Saving New Haven: John W. Murphy Faces the Crisis of the Great Depression (Fine Arts Publications, New Haven). In 1921, for instance, Murphy was head of the Board of Alderman and had to assume certain ceremonial duties from which Mayor David Fitzgerald (who suffered from a heart condition) had excused himself. Mininberg writes:

Murphy was asked to take the place of Fitzgerald in delivering the address of welcome to James Rowland Angell, who was arriving to become president of Yale. This time attired in his own new suit, Murphy prepared to do what no working-class Irishman had been able to do in the city’s history: he would address the Yale Corporation, the patriarch of Yankee culture. True, three Irish mayors (Driscoll, Martin and Fitzgerald) had made the trek before him. But those three had been Yale-educated attorneys, members of the Irish “lace curtain” upper crust. Loyal as they may have been to their ethnic group, they had never known the filth and drudgery of the sweat shop, the fear and degradation of poverty. Years later Murphy remembered striding proudly into the hall where he was to deliver his speech, past an Irish washerwoman from his ward.

“John,” she gasped in surprise. “How is it you’re in your Sunday best ‘n’ this be but Wednesday?”

“I’m going to deliver a speech here tonight,” he replied.

A look of horror came to the woman’s face. “Go home, John Murphy, there’s nothin’ here for ye. These people aren’t your own!”

It’s good to reflect on how class and race relations have changed in New Haven over the years. How the ghettoization of immigrants (including the Irish, who first arrived in the city from their native country as early as 1764, and came in droves during the hard times of the mid-1800s) was staunched. How neighborhoods evolved and diversity became a point of pride.

You can see it every day on the streets of New Haven. Like St. Patricks Day, this city is for everyone.

Written by Christopher Arnott. Photographed by Uma Ramiah.

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