NEW YORK – More than 2 million people lined the streets of mid-town Manhattan to watch the New York Army National Guard’s 69th Infantry lead the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade for the 171st time on March 17.
Held every year since 1762, this year marked the return to total capacity after two years of being scaled back due to COVID-19. 2020 and 2021 saw only ceremonial marches to keep the tradition unbroken.
“Today is an important day not only for the 69th but for the city of New York,” said Lt. Col. Shawn Tabankin, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry. “The St. Patrick’s Day Parade was the first large-scale event that got canceled in 2020 and now it is the first large-scale event to come back.”
In 2020, the parade was canceled just a week before it was to happen. To keep the tradition going, roughly 50 parade officials, volunteers and Soldiers from 69th walked the parade route, a fraction of the thousands usually taking part in the parade.
2021 would also see the same scaled-back walk along the parade route.
“I think the city needs this parade; it really does,” Tabankin said.
New York City officials estimated that over 2 million lined the parade route that goes up to 5th Avenue from St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 51st Street to 80th Street.
That number, Tabankin pointed out, was roughly the population of the entire United States when the parade first started in Colonial times.
“It’s a huge honor,” said Tabankin about leading the parade. “You feel the weight of the legacy and lineage and honors on your shoulders.”
“But what a powerful feeling it is to have 700 odd Soldiers behind me calling cadence, echoing off the buildings as we’re marching up 5th Avenue,” he continued.
The parade is full of tradition for the Soldiers of the 69th, with each member wearing a spring of boxwood on their uniform which was first seen worn by the Union Army’s Irish Brigade in the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862 during the Civil War where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee also gave them their nickname, “The Fighting 69.”
Officers carry a fighting stick made of blackthorn wood and imported from Ireland as they are a mark of an Irish leader and gentleman. Tabankin himself wore the “Kilmer Crucifix,” which was worn by poet Joyce Kilmer who was killed in action during World War I as a member of the 69th.
“It’s huge,” Tabankin said of maintaining the unit’s traditions. “The Fighting 69th today has a reputation because of the veterans who came before us, so they need to know what they did to earn that reputation.”
Another tradition is the presence of two Irish Wolfhounds, the mascot of the 69th Infantry and representative of their motto, “Gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked.”
“It feels great,” said Spc. Joseph Lynch, an infantryman assigned to the 69th who led one of the Wolfhounds as an honor for winning the Battalion’s best warrior competition.
“These traditions mean everything to me,” Lynch said. “The 69th is one of the oldest National Guard units and being part of that, being part of the traditions, part of the parade itself and being able to walk through my city in this uniform means everything to me.”
“It’s a true honor,” he continued.
The Wolfhounds are raised and provided to the 69th by Eileen Flanagan. She has been working with the Battalion since 1988 after being invited by former 69th Infantry and 42nd Infantry Division commander, retired Maj. Gen. Joseph Healey.
“General Healey called us in. He had gotten to know our dogs and us through Rockefeller Center parade, he called us and asked us to bring two dogs for the mascot and we’ve been here ever since.”
Flanagan explained that with her family all from Ireland, she is more than happy to provide the Wolfhounds year after year and keep working with the 69th.
“It’s marvelous,” she said. “The regiment holds a special place in our hearts because it was originally the Irish regiment.”
“Today, we have a brother and sister pair, Billy, who has been marching for three years and Autumn, this is her first year,” she said of the four-year-old Wolfhounds.
Just ahead of the Wolfhounds was the regimental piper, Joe Brady, who started as the official piper in 1989 and marched alongside the battalion commander.
“There is a bagpiper tradition with the 69th; they always have one,” Brady said. “The then adjutant general, General [Lawrence] Flynn, asked me if I would take on the role officially,” Brady said.
“It’s just tremendous to be associated with such a decorated regiment,” he continued. “The relationships we’ve established over the years, there’s nothing like it.”
After 33 years, though, 2022 marked Brady’s last parade as the 69th’s bagpiper.
“This is my last year, I have someone here who will take over and who shares the dedication I have to the regiment and it’s just time to pass the baton,” he said.
This parade is also one of the last celebrations the 69th took part in before the rest of the year seems them deploying.
“This parade is special to us this year because many of these Soldiers have been on the front-line mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic now; we’ve been training up for our federal mission to deploy to Africa.”
Having led each year since 1851, when comprised of Irish immigrants, they were asked to lead the parade in case of anti-immigrant violence, and deployments won’t stop the 69th ever having a presence at the head of the parade.
“Thankfully, we have the Veterans Corps to stand in our shoes when we’re gone, so next year when we’re deployed, the vet corps and the regimental headquarters will step up and march for us,” Tabakin said. “Even when we’re not stateside, our veterans will do it for us.”