Each March, the Rockland County hamlet of Pearl River rolls out the red — ahem, green — carpet to host the second-largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York. The population of about 16,000 people quadruples, on average, for the day. The skirl of bagpipes and the pounding of drums provide a musical backdrop for a sea of green that descends upon downtown Pearl River.
The Rockland County Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) sponsors the annual parade, which steps off at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 19.
So what does it take to put on a parade such as this? Mary O’Sullivan, who co-chairs with fellow Hibernian William Lee, says it’s a combination of hard work and a good committee. Planning begins in November: the months prior are dedicated to fundraising, since the parade is funded by the AOH itself.
Oh, and don’t forget a heaping helping of Irish luck when it comes to the elements.
“Attendance depends on the weather,” O’Sullivan says. “Snow is better than rain.”
The parade is held rain or shine — even during an unconfirmed tornado one year. Now in its 55th year, it used to be held in various towns throughout Rockland County. But when the committee realized that Pearl River’s wide avenues and easy access to highways made it the perfect home for the parade, the decision was made to keep the march in one place.
Take a tip from a native, and stake out your viewing spot the night before. No, really: people set up their lawn chairs and blankets on Saturday night. In some parking lots along the route, you’ll find pickup trucks backed up to the curb, awaiting the next day’s party.
Not that things get out of hand. The law prohibits carrying an open alcoholic beverage, and the Orangetown police department brings in extra help to enforce it. “The police are incredible,” O’Sullivan marvels. “They have it down to a science.”
The 1.5-mile route itself is relatively short, given the grand number of spectators. Marchers line up at the Pfizer parking lot off Crooked Hill Road — no easy feat, O’Sullivan says.
“One of the challenges is keeping people where they belong,” she laments. “They’re in the fourth battalion, but they want to march near their friends’ band in the second battalion…” Needless to say, members of the AOH are strategically stationed in the parking lot to nudge the parade along.
Marchers proceed along North Middletown Road, then west down East Central Avenue — painted with a green line — and south down South Main Street, ending at the Pearl River Post Office.
Besides the bands, you’ll see local officials, fire and police departments in full dress uniform, school groups, Scouts, a plethora of honor guards, and other organizations marching.
The best place to watch the parade is near the reviewing stand on Central Avenue by the Pearl River Hook & Ladder, where the bands can easily be seen performing for the judges (yes, it’s an adjudicated parade, with trophies). But the wide sidewalks along the route provide plenty of other places to park yourself. You’ll find the requisite hot-pretzel carts, and vendors selling everything from green plastic trumpets to Seussian striped top hats.
If you’re hungry or thirsty, the pubs and cafes along the parade route will be open, albeit very, very crowded. For more urgent needs, there are port-a-johns scattered around; the aforementioned cafes and pubs might even let you use their facilities in exchange for your patronage.
How do you know the parade’s over? You’ll see a town highway truck at the end of the line of march, with a sign on its back that says “The End.”