Irish WNY / The parade team
Yearlong planning and passion
John Morrison, Brigid Knott, and Garry Johnson of the UIAA
Photos by Nancy J. Parisi
A large committee plans the annual Saint Patrick’s Day parade in downtown. Three key members are Brigid Knott, Garry Johnson, and John Morrison—all United Irish American Association of Erie County (UIAA) executive committee members. The trio grew up in Hamburg, Lackawanna, and South Buffalo, respectively.
The UIAA, celebrating its seventy-sixth anniversary this year, is the governing body that produces this annual public event. Getting hundreds of marchers down Delaware Avenue (from Niagara Square to North Street) takes much meticulous organizing: here’s a rare behind-the-scenes look at how this green-hued magic happens.
Knott, Johnson, and Morrison emphasize that the Saint Patrick’s Day parade is meant to honor Irish heritage, religious practice, and civic pride. Leprechauns and green beer may be part of the fun, they assure, but they’re not what the core of the parade is about for these planners.
“My father and mother were both born in County Clare,” says Knott, “and my father was involved with the parade from the time that he came to this country. He got here in ’47 so he started working on the parade in ’48 or ’49. I started working on it when I was a kid, helping him. I started out by being a corresponding secretary, selling membership cards to UIAA for a dollar to help defray the cost of the parade. I addressed 800 or 900 envelopes in the early days”
Morrison says that “there are events throughout the year to help raise money for the parade; a parade is expensive. We have to get liability insurance that the city requires, and every band gets a stipend to help with their expenses.”
“And we also coordinate the volunteers,” says Johnson, “about seventy-five of them.” Knott pulls out from a folder a well-worn copy of an overhead diagram of the spokes emanating from Niagara Square. On each of the spokes is a parade division, the way that bands, floats and politicians will step off in an orderly fashion.
“All of the people in the parade line up around McKinley Monument, that’s where the bulk of the volunteers are working, to tell groups where to line up, who they will follow up the street, what order they’re in, and when they’re going to take off,” Knott says, adding, “and there are the people who help the crowd stay off Delaware Avenue, to keep the parade route open.”
“Basically the first division is the old time Irish groups, and the second division is also Irish groups, the parishes, and the dancers,” says Johnson. “They would all like to be in the first division–but then we would have no one at the end of the parade,” Morrison says, laughing. “It’s a cold day and they want to be done first,” says Johnson. “People who can stay warm in their own vehicles are in later divisions,” says Knott, “and clubs are in later divisions.”
They explain how a usual parade days flows. “It starts early, we call each other at 7 o’clock in the morning, after checking the weather. If it’s a good weather day, there are very few phone calls and we go according to plan. If it’s a bad weather day, there will be a lot of cancellations, or we’ll be making adjustments to spread bands out. Pipe bands can’t play when it’s less than forty degrees,” says Knott.
“It’s a fast-paced day,” says Johnson. They explain that a mass is held at Saint Joseph Cathedral nearby on Franklin Street at 10:30 a.m. and that there’s a command post where people can stay warm. The day before parade day, planners post “no parking” signs, and on Sunday morning errant cars are towed off Delaware Avenue. “Her brother, Curly, makes sure all the cars are pulled off,” says Johnson, of Knott’s brother.
The three say that they don’t sleep much before the parade, “there are a lot of things going on in your head.” And after the last division has rounded the corner at North Street, there is a “nice quiet thank you party” for all the planners and volunteers immediately following. Clean-up takes place on Monday morning, bright and early.