Brooklyn’s Celtic Knot: The origins of Kings County’s three Saint Patrick’s Day parades

st patricks day parade history
Left to right: Scenes from the Bay Ridge Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, the Brooklyn Saint Patrick’s Day Parade and the Gerritsen Beach Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. All three marches will step off this month, paying tribute to the borough’s Irish-American roots and culture.
File photos

As the emerald month of March begins, Brooklyn’s biggest Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations — a trio of parades across the borough — are gearing up for kickoff. Each line of march pays tribute to Brooklyn’s rich Irish heritage in its own way, but all share a similar sense of Celtic (and community) pride.

Parade-goers can expect a little of the same at each march — from green-clad marchers to hardworking honorees, bagpipers and more — though, each parade has its own distinct flair.

All of them orchestrated with care by locals, each of the borough’s Saint Patrick’s Day parades foster a sense of unity and cultural celebration, as they actively contribute to and support the vibrant neighborhoods where they take place.

Park Slope’s fusion of tradition and trend

In the trendy streets of Park Slope, the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade — dubbed the Brooklyn Saint Patrick’s Day Parade — has a distinctive character. Known for its eclectic mix of residents and a rich history of cultural diversity, Park Slope infuses the traditional Irish celebration with a contemporary flair. The parade, now in its 49th year, brings together residents of all backgrounds to celebrate Irish heritage.

“Our parade’s mission is to honor the honor the patron of Ireland, Saint Patrick, to remember the Battle of Brooklyn and to pay tribute to the Irish for their many significant and historic contributions to our Borough, City, State and Nation,” Brooklyn Saint Patrick’s Parade Co-Chairperson Mary Hogan said in a statement to Brooklyn Paper.

What began as a way to commemorate the 1776 Battle of Brooklyn at The Old Stone House on Fifth Avenue soon became what it is known today: the borough’s longest-running Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. But, the theme of each parade has continued to focus on a historic person, place or event. (Themes have ranged from “How The Irish Saved Civilization” to the 2004 Centennial and even the New York City subway system — built, operated and organized by Irish workers and labor leaders.)

Irish eyes were smiling at a past Brooklyn Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. File photo by Arthur de Gaeta

“‘Faith, Heritage, History, Tribute and Remembrance’ is the core of the Parade, highlighting the vast contributions of the Irish to the Church, to the uniformed services, to labor and the law, to public and civic life, to education and healthcare,” Hogan said, paying homage to late parade historian Joe Ferris — who was the parade’s Grand Marshal in 1978.

“We are proud to continue in Joe’s footsteps by each year adding to this document as the tradition continues,” she wrote in the march’s extensive oral history, which she shared with Brooklyn Paper.

This year, parade-goers can expect to see a fusion of traditional Irish music and modern tunes as the celebration makes its way through the brownstone-lined streets of Park Slope on Saint Patrick’s Day itself. Year after year, community groups, local businesses, and schools unite in a colorful display of unity, bridging the generational gap and offering something for both the young and the young at heart.

Irish step dancers pound the pavement at a past Park Slope parade. File photo by Arthur de Gaeta

Gerard L. Keogh, Esq. will serve as grand marshal of this year’s Brooklyn Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. He’ll be flanked by fellow parade marshals Ray Aalbue, Brian Laffey, Deirdre O’Hea, Randy Litz, Chris Hart, Maureen Byrne O’Neill, Barbara Wasserman and Liam Flaherty.

The Brooklyn Saint Patrick’s Day Parade steps off at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 17. The parade route begins at the corner of Prospect Park West and 14th Street. For more information, visit the parade’s official Facebook page.

Rooted in pride: The Bay Ridge Saint Patrick’s Day Parade

Nestled along the southwestern shores of Brooklyn, Bay Ridge has been a haven for Irish immigrants since the late 19th century. The Bay Ridge Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, nearly three decades old, traces its roots back to the strong Irish presence in the community. What began as a modest procession in 1993 has evolved into a grand celebration of Irish heritage, attracting thousands of spectators and participants.

The brainchild of the late Gene Reilly, owner of the former Lief Erickson Pub on Fifth Avenue, the Bay Ridge Saint Patrick’s Day Parade has since honored countless notable Ridgeites, and hosted a number of bands and organization — many of whom have continued to participate year after year, adding to the multi-generational magic of the march.

“The 29th edition of the Bay Ridge Saint Patrick’s Day Parade once again promises to be spectacular from start to finish,” Parade President Richie O’Mara told Brooklyn Paper. “From our kickoff mass at Saint Patrick’s Church to the blessing of the parade’s memorial headstone commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising to the Honoree’s Breakfast Reception to the march along Third Avenue…we have much to be excited about!”

The Bay Ridge parade is also rooted in both Irish and American history, and each year pays tribute to those lives lost in the 1916 Easter Rising, also known as the Easter Rebellion, during which Irish nationalists launched an armed revolt against British rule in Ireland.

Parade-goers clad in green at a past Bay Ridge Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. Photo by Arthur de Gaeta

The Bay Ridge parade features traditional Irish music, step dancing, and a sea of green-clad marchers, including local schools, community groups, and distinguished guests. The route winds through the heart of Bay Ridge, echoing with cheers and laughter. This year’s 29th edition of the parade promises to be a spectacle of pride, showcasing the resilience and spirit of the Irish-American community in Brooklyn.

Another source of pride for parade organizers is the committee’s — and the community’s — dedication to funding Catholic education in Brooklyn.

“A source of pride for this parade is its support of local Catholic Education institutions via our Education Fund. Each parade, we provide a graduating girl and boy from each local Catholic grammar school a scholarship grant for high school,” O’Mara said, thanking Barbara Slattery “for so faithfully chairing this effort for us since its inception,” raising nearly $70,000 to date.

Daniel Flynn will lead this year’s march as Grand Marshal. Flynn’s fellow marshals include Will Gillen, Michael Lennon, Thomas McDonagh, Michael Fitzpatrick, James Hart, Karen Puckhaber, Marianne Curran-Fezza, Karen Prizzi and Tressa Deady-Kabbe. This year’s Irish family of the year is the Coughlin family, while Janice and Joe Martinez are this year’s “Honorary Irish Persons of the Year.”

st pats parade
A young parade-goer celebrates the day and her community at the 27th annual Bay Ridge Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. File photo by Arthur de Gaeta

This year’s parade, O’Mara added, is dedicated posthumously to James Keenaghan “of Kitty Kiernan’s fame.”

“For more than 30 years, James served as publican of Kitty’s — self described as “the first Irish pub on Third Avenue” in Brooklyn,” O’Mara said. “James was a staunch supporter of the parade for over three decades, and his spirit will undoubtedly provide the wind at our backs as we march forward this year.”

The Bay Ridge Saint Patrick’s Day Parade steps off at 1 p.m. on Sunday, March 24. The parade route begins at the corner of Third and Marine avenues and stretches down Third toward Bay Ridge Avenue. For more information, visit brparade.com.

Gerritsen Beach: A coastal Celtic affair

Nestled on the southeastern edge of Brooklyn, Gerritsen Beach boasts a tight-knit community with a deep connection to its Irish roots. The Gerritsen Beach Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, now in its 14th year, paints the coastal neighborhood with a sea of green. The parade, organized by volunteers and community leaders, captures the essence of a small-town celebration with a strong Irish heartbeat.

As bagpipers march along the waterfront and families gather on porches, Gerritsen Beach radiates a warm and welcoming atmosphere. The parade route, featuring local schools, sports teams, and community organizations, is a reflection of the close-knit relationships that define this coastal community. This year’s celebration — being held in loving memory of Tom and Dolores Donovan — promises to honor tradition while embracing the evolving face of Gerritsen Beach.

Bagpipers step off in Gerritsen Beach. File photo by Arthur de Gaeta

After years of marchers doing the work for free, local resident and activist Jim Donovan organized a fundraiser in 2022 to help pay bagpipers and dancers for their hard work. The GoFundMe has since helped crowdfund for the celebration, which brings out a mighty, albeit much smaller crowd than its fellow Brooklyn St. Paddy’s parades.

Still, Donovan says the spirit is there — many marchers still participating simply “out of the goodness of their hearts.”

The Gerritsen Beach Saint Patrick’s Day Parade steps off at 1 p.m. on Saturday, March 30. The parade route begins outside the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post at Whitney and Gerritsen avenues.

The uniting spirit of Brooklyn’s Celtic celebrations

Though each parade carries its unique flavor, a common thread unites these celebrations — a sense of community and pride in Irish heritage. As Brooklyn prepares to don its greenest attire, the Saint Patrick’s Day parades in Bay Ridge, Park Slope, and Gerritsen Beach stand as testaments to the borough’s commitment to honoring tradition, fostering community bonds, and ensuring that the spirit of Saint Patrick’s Day continues to thrive for generations to come.