“Marching in the St. Patrick’s Parade? There’s no feeling like it,” Kathleen O’Keefe insists. “It’s usually freezing cold outside, but you don’t even notice at the start because you’re so excited. A few years back it started snowing early and kept up the whole time. It was absolutely freezing, but there was no question, the show had to go on. The thing is, we weren’t worried about ourselves, we were worried that our bagpipes would freeze. Thankfully, luck is always on your side on March 17, and they held up.”
These days, Kathleen hasn’t been piping much at all, as she works in the financial department of a large firm and they’re hustling to close the 2005 books. “I barely have time to eat and sleep, let alone play the pipes,” she said. “But, that’ll change soon, just in time for the parade.
“My first parade I was so nervous — until I got into Grand Central Terminal. There were swarms of people all wearing green, white and gold — like there is all over the city that day — and everyone was asking if they could have their picture taken with me. ‘What the heck is going on here?’ I thought, ‘Don’t they know I’m an accountant and I work around the corner in a big office building and wear suits every day?”
If given the choice, Kathleen would play fulltime, as a professional piper — but for now, any chance to pipe will do. “My band is a non-profit, so any money we make from a parade or anything else goes to new uniform parts, paying the rent of our practice space, and equipment for the pipes and drums. I personally only play once or twice during the week, so I could certainly be a much better piper. Playing much more than that is difficult though, and it’s not like you can play the pipes at 8am in a New York City apartment building. You either have to go somewhere else to practice — a beach, a park, somewhere open — or wait until ‘normal’ hours to play.
Even then, you find out really quickly if your neighbors happen to be napping.”
In a city rich with Irish heritage, Kathleen has plenty of opportunities to play the pipes, but St. Paddy’s Day is by far the most important event. “My grandfather came over from Ireland and was a doorman on Lexington Avenue, just a few blocks over from the parade route. I can only imagine the fun that he had in the city with his pals on St. Patrick’s Day. I often think of him when I see a little old Irishman with his shillelagh at the numerous parades we play at and hope that I’m making him proud. I wouldn’t be in New York if he had stayed in Ireland, so I have a lot of great things to thank him for these days. I guess marching in the parade is my way of doing that.”
“The best part of the parade (and playing the bagpipes in general) is the friends you encounter along the way. Even if you get tired while marching and playing, the faces of the little kids cheering you on helps you get to the end, no matter how cold it is. They get so excited that we can’t help but continue playing. Not to mention, there’s always the knowledge that a nice cozy pub awaits us as soon as we are done, and that’ll warm me up every time.”
The Pint Man
The dark, Park Slope tavern was empty except for the three guys at the far end of the bar looking up at the mute images on the TV. Every now and then one of them took a swig of beer or dropped a comment, at which point another would nod.
“You could sort of think of this as the calm before the storm,” Kevin said as he set my Heineken in front of me. “$3.50, thanks. We get packed on the holiday, O’Connor’s bein’ a legit Irish bar and all, but most of the time we just see our regulars, which is fine because the people that come in here are more like friends than customers anyway.”
One of the quiet guys knocks his knuckles on the bar a couple of times and Kevin strolls down and produces another round for the trio. I take a look around the bar but the dimness makes it hard to see if anyone is sitting at the back booth. The tile drooping from the ceiling looks like it’ll give way at any moment, but no one else seems concerned so I let it go.
“The thing is,” Kevin continues as he returns, “it is not that St. Patrick’s Day has changed as much as it is New York is different. Back in the 70s and 80s, Brooklyn was a real neighborhood community — you lived on your block. I grew up in an all-Irish area and there were bars like this on every corner. They were the local spots where family and friends met to be together. People would go to the pub after Mass on St. Patrick’s Day to celebrate. The pub would put out corned beef so everyone was guaranteed a free meal; it was more like a real holiday. Now, because Brooklyn is so safe and people can for the most part go wherever they want, that sense of community that was part of the holiday has been lost. Let’s face it, March 17 is second only to New Year’s Eve as amateur night, though I think it is still better than New Year’s, because once people make it into an Irish bar they tend to stay there and party together. People aren’t barhopping all over the place.”
A couple walks in and the guy approaches the jukebox. A moment later punk music is blaring and the place wakes up. The girl lays a copy of Snow Country next to the guys watching network news and orders a whiskey and coke. The punk rocker joins, references some inside joke, and the group laughs.
“The view from behind the bar on Paddy’s Day is interesting,” Kevin explains. “You see people decked out in shamrocks falling down drunk who are no more Irish than they are the man on the moon. But hey, some people need an excuse, and we’re happy to oblige them — just don’t ask us to serve up any fucking green beer."
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