Remembering St. Patrick's Day's Other Irishman--Jack McCarthy

Jack McCarthy, The Face and The Voice of the St. Patrick's Day Parade

Holidays and special occasions are always noteworthy, especially so when you’re a youngster, when you’re the newest observer/participant when it comes to celebrating the red-circled days of the calendar. It’s not to say that holidays aren’t special for adults—they are—but they don’t have the potency they do when you first become aware of how special they are and of the symbols and the people associated with them. There was one such day for me as a youngster, when festivity and fun were mixed in with prayers and historical lessons and that day was St. Patrick’s Day, the 17th of March.  And for a time, in my childhood, the person who was at the center of St. Patrick’s Day was not just the esteemed St. Patrick himself (or my own father), but Jack McCarthy.

Yes, in my young mind’s eye, the man associated with St. Patrick’s Day was Jack McCarthy, the long-time host of New York City’s WPIX channel 11’s coverage of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Though I was vaguely becoming aware of Ireland’s holy saint at the time, I was on more knowledgeable terms with John Joseph McCarthy, better known to a generation of youngsters like me as “Cap’n Jack,” host of Channel 11’s coverage of Popeye cartoons and other such programming. Those were the days when children’s TV consisted of Bozo the Clown and Captain Joe Bolton (also on that channel) and Sonny Fox and Bob McAllister on WNEW Channel 5’s Wonderama show (a weekend extravaganza of children’s entertainment—that has never been equaled or matched since) as well as CBS’ legendary Captain Kangaroo, Bob Keeshan. Those were the days before Sesame Street and Electric Company came along on PBS. But anyway…as I was saying, just seeing a picture of Jack McCarthy and I instantly knew who he was; so to see him hosting a parade named after Ireland’s saint was something to experience and couldn’t wait to watch. So, it wasn’t that curious an association for a youngster of the 1960’s and the 1970’s to make. But as it turned out, it was a memorable one.

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Like many legends in the making, Jack McCarthy and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade seemingly just happened. When such fortuitous encounters happen, we say of such things that it was a “match made in Heaven.” But for Jack McCarthy and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, it was a “match made in Ireland,” as subsequent events were to show. The story goes that a couple of old cameras were found lying around the studios at Channel 11 and it was decided on a lark one March 17th to have Jack McCarthy go out and broadcast an hour of the parade to fill up some television time (remember, this was back in the 1940’s when television was still in its infancy). Since Jack McCarthy had had experience in broadcasting (particularly in sports announcing) he seemed a natural fit for this “tryout.” But just to same, like any good student, he wanted to “ace” his test and do a little research first. So off he went to the American Irish Historical Society “up the Avenue” (as Jack himself would say) and bone up on his heritage (as if he needed to!). And, as they say, the rest was history.

A television classic was born. Within minutes of the broadcast, the switchboard at WPIX lit up like a tree on Christmas morning. The show was a hit.  People were calling in for more and even more still and the message was relayed in Jack McCarthy’s earpiece: keep it up.  Trouble was, he only read enough research material to last for an hour’s show. So he did what any old broadcast pro would do: he reiterated what he previously said, he improvised, added fresh material, told stories, made observations on the surroundings, interviewed people, even sang a ditty or two with some good old fashioned jigs. So what was originally to be a 45-minute TV “filler” grew into the legend it became: a 5-hour extravaganza on Ireland and all things Irish.  And it was that bravura performance that made Jack McCarthy become synonymous with the St. Patrick’s Day Parade for the subsequent 41 years.

The greatest day in my young life actually came when I got the chance to smile, wave and cheer at “Cap’n Jack” one St. Patrick’s Day. It was 1969 and it was my first time ever attending a St. Patrick’s Day Parade. For an Irish-American boy like myself, St. Patrick’s Day was the Irish equivalent of July 4th, Christmas Eve and the Super Bowl all wrapped up into one—it wasn’t something to be missed, plus the hot dogs I pestered my father for that cost him a few of his hard-earned quarters: even at that age I wanted the New York experience, even if it came from a vendor’s cart. Even now, I can still remember the wonderfully warm aroma of the sauerkraut wafting up when the man lifted the lid to generously apply it across the mustard slathered on the slick casing that only a New York hot dog had.

But no—St. Patrick’s Day wasn’t about hot dogs (or even the corned beef and cabbage my mother stayed behind cooking for us and to have ready when we got home later). It was a religious holiday primarily and a cultural one in the bargain. Being March 17th, it was sure to be either cold, sunny, rainy, snowy, or a mixture of the lot; and fortunately for Dad and me, it was sunny and cold (make that breezy, which made it cold). I did not care; the excitement of the proceedings kept my eight year old self very much warm, not to mention the steaming hot dogs.  Dad and I (along with his friends) marched under the Cavan banner. Mom may have been from Mayo, but since she wasn’t there marching, it was the Cavan banner or back home. So was the beginning of my first march.

It wasn’t long before the object of my childhood fascination came within sight, if not within reach. True, the newly installed Archbishop of New York, Terence Cooke was there, blessing one and all, an imposing sight in his robes of office. But it was Jack McCarthy I wanted to see. And see him I did. He was stationed up in the cherry picker not far from the Cathedral with microphone in hand, his wavy white hair fluttering like the flag in the breeze.  I mustered my soon to be eight year old self up to my full height and belted out a cheery hello to “Cap’n Jack.” I was so far below he probably never saw me and my bellow of a greeting was likely borne away by the wind; no matter, my goal was achieved and I saw the man himself.  I had made my parade (and as things turned out, my last parade, at least for another four decades).

The time came, of course, when the winds of change even affected a parade and Jack McCarthy along with it. After a lifetime of devotion, he was either “retired” or pushed aside from anchoring the parade that he had given his all to. For 41 years (from 1949 to 1989) Jack McCarthy was the personification of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. He was a true gentleman who took great pride in his heritage as an American and as an Irishman—for he was equally devoted to both. He was an example for a generation of what it all meant, the suffering and the pride, the determination and the hard work it took for the Irish to become part of the American fabric and society. His Irish pride never degenerated into false bonhomie or bombastic claims to greatness at the expense of other ethnic groups. He recognized that the Irish (while not perfect) represented something more than just being Irish: they, as a race, represented in a sense, all the other races that also sought justice, dignity and respect—the Irish were the representative aspirational race.

Eventually, NBC took over coverage of the parade with other anchors (with a reduced broadcast schedule); but it was never the same without Jack McCarthy. He would die of prostate cancer at the age of 81 and would be buried in Scarsdale, New York.

But the memory of the man will always linger, especially on that day of days, St. Patrick’s Day. I will always remember his cheerful smile and obvious pride in his twin heritages and how tickled he was to be anchoring a parade that celebrated it all, how he felt about life in the “Big Shamrock” on March 17 and that there was no better place to have it than along “the Queen of Avenues”—Fifth Avenue.  It was his and he was theirs, even for a few hours. And I will always remember how he—without fail—would quote the Fenian John Locke’s poem about the exile, “Dawn on the Irish Coast,” also known as “The Exiles Return” at the beginning and at the end of the broadcast:

O, Ireland! Isn’t grand you look—

Like a bride in her rich adornin!

With all the pent-up love of my heart

I bid you the top of the morning!

And when he was finished, he handed the microphone over to a staffer, straighten himself in his greatcoat, turn his chin up and with a twinkle in his eye, proudly get in step with all the other marchers and follow that long green line up the avenue. And when the day was done, we saw the parade again in the evening as an hour wrap-up program, showing highlights followed by "Kennedy’s Ireland" or "Bing Crosby’s Dublin" and finally viewing the Irish movie of them all, "The Quiet Man."

But the day belonged to Jack McCarthy and in my memory, always will.

May God and Saint Patrick always bless you, Cap’n Jack!

And as you used to always say at the end of every broadcast: "May you be in Heaven a half hour before the Devil knows you're dead!"

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