A bit of the auld sod in New York

FLYING 3,000 miles to drown the shamrock, blurt out the cúpla focail and watch a St Patrick’s Day parade seems a strange way for an Irish holidaymaker to spend hundreds of euro.

What if that parade was marching along fab Fifth Avenue?

What if it was celebrating its 250th anniversary, with two million spectators? What if Manhattan was your oyster? Well that would be a different story.

St Patrick is not only the patron saint of Ireland. He is also the patron saint of the archdiocese of New York, and gives his name to “America’s parish church” — St Patrick’s Cathedral, whose 100-metre spire is dwarfed by Midtown’s monster skyscrapers.

The parade goes beyond paddywhackery. Unlike Ireland’s St Patrick’s Festival, whose fireworks and funfairs date from 1995, New York’s first St Patrick’s Day parade took place 250 years ago — 14 years before the Declaration of Independence.

In 1762, homesick Irish ex-pats and soldiers serving with the British colonial forces gathered on Lower Broadway to speak Irish, sing songs, play music and wear green. It has grown into the largest Paddy’s Day parade on Earth.

Today’s march kicks off on 44th Street, at 11am, when 200,000 participants begin filing up Fifth Avenue in a sober and conservative display. For all the green bagels and mayors re-christening themselves ‘O’Bloomberg’ for the duration, the pipe bands, fraternal societies, fire-fighters and boy scouts operate to a stiff code of conduct. No floats are allowed. “Green hats, sneakers, or other ‘odd ball’ dress is not permitted,” state the guidelines for participants hoping to march behind the Fighting 69 — the National Guard’s 69th Regiment.

The 250th anniversary parade is an excuse to visit this spectacular city in spring. But it gives rise to an intriguing idea: an Irish-themed visit to the Big Apple? New York is too big to ‘see’ or ‘do’ in a visit. Its eight million inhabitants speak 100 languages. It’s possible to theme a trip on architecture, food, a borough like Brooklyn or Broadway shows.

So why not its hidden Hibernian gems? The sight-seeing on such a trip could only start in one place. Half of Americans can trace their family history to someone who passed through the Port of New York at Ellis Island, and the first of those was Irishwoman Annie Moore.

Moore, who is remembered in statues on Ellis Island and the promenade at Cobh, Co Cork, was the first official arrival at Ellis Island, on New Year’s Day, 1892. Travelling with two little brothers on the SS Nevada, she married, had 11 kids and lived on the Lower East Side, before dying of heart failure aged 47. Hers is just one of 12 million stories echoing about the Immigration Museum.

In Battery Park, where boats depart for Ellis Island, watch out for the surreal sight of a 19th century stone cottage under the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan. The cottage, together with rocks from each of the 32 counties and dozens of types of Irish flora, forms the city’s Irish Hunger Memorial.

Because emigration is such a feature of Irish life again, a tour that asks you to imagine you are a new arrival, the chance to examine old passenger records, or simply stumbling across an old ruin from Attymass, Co Mayo in the middle of Manhattan, can have a surprising impact. No doubt, the ancestors of many of those recalled in these places will be marching in the parade today.

Another thing you can bet many of the onlookers (if not the lapel-pinned participants) at the parade will be doing this afternoon is quaffing their way through the city’s Irish pubs. These are hit-and-miss — ranging from identikit Oirish fit-outs to spit-and-sawdust dives — but there are a few gems.

Take McSorley’s Old Ale House — an East Village tavern established in 1854, and boasting no less than Abraham Lincoln and John Lennon among its illustrious clientele.

Or what about the Galway Hooker in the West Village? Sure, there’s the odd sign declaring that “work is the curse of the drinking classes,” but the barmen are friendly, the music isn’t bad, and it’s more upmarket than the stage-Irish shenanigans at your average Scruffy O’Hooligan’s.

Another rung (or six) up the cultural ladder is the Irish Arts Centre in Midtown, where novelist Belinda McKeon is in conversation with Meghan O’Rourke on Apr 3, and Julie Feeney plays from Apr 25-29 and May 2-6.

Or, you could book the Broadway show that took longer to complete than the Belfast Agreement — Spiderman: Turn off the Dark, with music by Bono and The Edge.

There’s no shortage of Irish influence in foodie circles, either. The recently opened Harlem Tavern, serving everything from bourbon-braised beef short ribs to market fish, has Dubliner Darren Pettigrew at the helm.

In Lower Manhattan, William Street’s Bailey Pub & Brasserie pairs ‘Boxty’ Irish potato cakes with oak-smoked salmon ($14) on a menu infused with French flair.

On the Lower East Side, Donal Brophy is the designer behind Mary Queen of Scots.

“Things can get very crazy when you first open,” says the Malahide man, who co-owns the bar and restaurant known for its Scottish and French fare. “It’s important to keep your eye on the prize; the fabulous people are very fickle and will be on to the next hot spot two weeks later.”

Seasonality and farm-to-fork are on-trend in NYC, Brophy says. “Customers know what is in season and will turn their nose up at strawberries in December.” But much and all as New Yorkers love the new, they will return for the personal touch, and wait staff who know what they’re serving.

So, there’s my case for an Irish trip to New York (Úll Mór Tours, if you will). But even if you want to avoid the parade and the paddywhackery, spring is an excellent time to visit — the weather is in a comfortable space between the nose-chiselling cold of winter and the pit-stinking heat of summer, the tourist throngs remain off-peak, and the city’s green areas are sprouting into action.

In Brooklyn, April is the time to see cherry blossoms in the botanic gardens (bbg.org; $10). The month culminates in the Sakura Matsuri festival of Japanese culture, a blend of origami workshops, tea ceremonies and martial arts, and about as far from green Guinness as it’s possible to get.

Flights

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) has flights from Dublin to NYC from €249pp each way. United Airlines (united.com) and Delta (delta.com) also fly direct from Dublin to New York.

Where to stay

Fitzpatrick’s Hotels (fitspatrickhotels.com) has a ‘Visit Ireland in New York’ package bundling two nights at the Fitzpatrick Grand Central Hotel with dinner, full Irish breakfast and two tickets to the New York Tenement Museum, from $289/€220 plus tax per night.

St Patrick’s Day Parade

The 250th St Patrick’s Day Parade (nycstpatricksparade.org) starts at 44th Street and marches up Fifth Avenue, finishing at 86th Street around 4.30pm. The best viewing spots include the upper steps of the Met or, to avoid the crowds, pick a standing spot north of 66th and Fifth.

What to see

To get to Ellis Island, take a Statue Cruise from Battery Park (statuecruises.com; $13/€9.90). Another boat trip offering excellent views of the Manhattan skyline and Statue of Liberty (currently closed for works) is Circle Line (circleline42.com), whose 75-minute Liberty Cruise costs $27/€20.60.

Where to eat

Mary Queen of Scots (115 Allen Street, maryqueenofscotsnyc.com) is Donal Brophy’s downtown restaurant — it serves Scottish and French fare.

Where to shop

Apple is on the march with a new iPad — see what all the fuss is about at the Upper West Side store at 1961 Broadway. Open 24/7 and always jammers, it’s a pure retail experience. Another shop I love in NYC is B&H Photo video (420 9th Avenue), the hive-like technology store run by Hassidic Jews.

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