Gerhard and Connors

Forward March

On March 17, 1842, members of the Hibernian Provident Society gathered at eight o’clock in the morning on the southwest corner of Chapel and State Streets. An hour later, led by the Band of the New Haven Blues, they marched to the city’s only Catholic church, Christ’s Church (now St. Mary’s Parish), then located at Davenport Avenue and York Street. It was New Haven’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade.

177 years later, the Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade will step off again, on Sunday, March 10th, in front of an expected crowd of many thousands from all over Connecticut and beyond. Leading the way will be Grand Marshal Courtney Lundgren Connors of Hamden, the 10th woman to hold that title in the parade’s long and uneven history.

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An Iliad at Long Wharf Theatre

From 1842 until the late 19th century, the parade was a New Haven fixture along with other traditional celebrations devoted to Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, including banquets, performances, masses, speeches and dances. But celebrations of the saint’s day likely began well before that year. “As early as the 1650s, city records reveal that there were Irish workers employed in the city’s first manufacturing concern, the iron foundry on Lake Saltonstall,” writes Neil Hogan in The Wearin’ o’ the Green (1992), a history of the holiday in New Haven. “t is likely the rude cottages of these early immigrants reverberated with the sound of the fiddle and the dancing of jigs and reels on St. Patrick’s Day long before anyone thought about parading through city streets to honor their patron saint.”

Three decades into the parade tradition, amid a postwar economic downturn and concern for the abject poverty of tenant farmers back in Ireland, some members of the city’s Irish societies felt that money spent on the parade might better be put toward addressing poverty at home and abroad, and in 1878 the parade was put to rest. For a long while, New Haveners traveled to New York City for their St. Patrick’s Day parade fix.

The parade made a spotty reappearance in the 1920s, but the tradition didn’t truly reboot until 1956, when, “for the first time in longer than almost anyone could remember,” St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated on the streets of New Haven. The parade followed a blizzard that had dumped over eight inches of snow the day before, with drifts as high as four feet, according to Hogan.

One of the greatest changes the modern parade has seen is the role women like Connors now play. Many served first as the parade’s queen or her honor attendant (“Miss Ireland” or “Miss Irish American,” depending on their birthplace) and eventually as parade committee members, officers and grand marshals, breaking through the century-deep ranks of men and claiming a place at the table.

One of them, New Haven’s Katie O’Keefe Gerhard, was crowned parade queen in 1977 and stayed on to work on the queen selection committee. At the same time, Terry Gallagher Crouth had made inroads as the first woman president of the West Haven Irish American Club and the first woman to serve on the parade committee, Hogan writes. When Gerhard, Crouth and several other women began attending parade committee meetings, Gerhard says, it was “kind of scandalous.” But once men got over the initial shock of pregnant women showing up at their meetings and women taking charge, she adds, they realized “it was kind of time for them to just take a step back and say, ‘Yup, things are changing, and if we want to maintain the integrity of our parade, that’s our future.’ And they embraced it.”

Another decided change has been the parade’s growth over the years, Gerhard says. Once a “grassroots Irish community” event, crowds these days are as diverse as New Haven. The program includes “big-name entertainment”—this year, the pipes and drums of the Fire Department of New York, for example—as well as multiple bands from local schools and a live TV broadcast, for which Gerhard serves as a commentator. The corner of Church and Chapel Streets are renamed for a day in memory of someone who contributed to the Irish community, this year the late Theresa Hinckley of Hamden. A relatively new Family Fun Zone on the green offers music, crafts, outdoor games, a magician and more. The idea, Gerhard says, is to involve the entire community and keep the parade family-friendly. (Police will enforce regulations against “public drinking from open containers, disorderly behavior and sale of alcoholic beverages other than in licensed establishments,” the parade website warns.)

“We constantly have to reinvent ourselves,” says Connors, who, as grand marshal, has already served in three major parade committee offices leading up to the honorary role. The all-volunteer parade committee, made up of about 30 active members from greater New Haven’s four Irish clubs, holds 20 fundraising events every year, from the sale of $2 parade buttons to $100 parade ball tickets in order to pay for entertainment, police overtime and a host of other expenses. Corporate sponsorships help as well.

It’s a massive undertaking, but both Connors and Gerhard say it’s worth it. Connors recalls the childhood thrill of waiting for her father, a New Haven firefighter, to march around the corner where her family always stood. “I was so proud of my dad… He used to jump out of line and give us a hug or a kiss. It was so exciting,” she says. At the encouragement of her grandmother, Connors reached for the title of parade queen and was crowned honor attendant in 2007, giving her the chance to be in the parade with her dad. He plans to march with her again this year at the head of the parade.

Today, like Connors’s family, New Haven’s intergenerational Irish clans convene on the same spots along the route that their forebears staked out in the early days, and parade offices and duties are passed down from parents to children. “It’s so much more than just a parade,” Gerhard says. It’s an expression of Irish pride that’s grown to embrace the entire city, which embraces it in turn.

Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade
Sun 3/10 at 1:30pm
Along Chapel St from Sherman Ave to Church St, to Grove St, to Orange St

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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