In the beginning there were four men — Mike Egan, Jocko Hayden, Joe Pugh, and Elisa Ammon — and it was on St. Patrick’s Day 1947 that they decided to march from one end of Montauk’s main drag to the other. They ended up at what is today the Shagwong Tavern, and an institution came to be.
Or not quite. It would be 16 years before the first official St. Patrick’s Day parade would be held in Montauk. In late 1962, the Friends of Erin organized with the expressed purpose of launching a proper tradition to honor old Ireland. There were a dozen in all, the forefathers of today’s parade sponsors. They rounded up a drummer, asked the Montauk Fire Department to join in, and set to marching on the street, heads high. At the head of the line of march was Mike Egan, the very first official grand marshal. The total cost for that first outing was around $150, according to legend.
By the late 1970s as many as 10,000 people would swell Montauk’s downtown to watch the annual parade. In terms of numbers, the historic peak was reached in 2003, when an estimated crowd of 45,000 swarmed the hamlet. Attendance may have dipped from that number since, but not by much. (2014 parade information)
In the early days, the parade followed the original west to east route, then turned north on Edgemere Road. Today, it is reversed, beginning near the Montauk Firehouse and ending near the Second House Museum, which provides a bigger staging area for the large number of participants.
Over the years, floats have reflected their times, including 1983’s “Wild Irish Evacuation Plan,” which decried the planned Shoreham nuclear power plant. A float in the 1990s by the Promised Land Salvage Company, masterminded by Gordon Ryan, a local lawyer, promised its own Whitewater investigation, a bane of the Clinton White House. Another year, Mr. Ryan’s crew blasted an effigy of Saddam Hussein from a mock missile launcher.
Other floats have been just for laughs, like 1987’s “Porgy and Bass” and a Budweiser Clydesdales send-up with a nag with mop heads tied to its legs standing in for the famous horses. The actual Budweiser team appeared in the 2003 parade after multiple entreaties by the Friends of Erin. One 1970s float depicted a barroom, accompanied by several local women who passed cups of beer to spectators.
There’s even a ghost story associated with the parade. Some say that the spirit of Dennis Kelly appears in his usual chair at the Shagwong on the night before St. Patrick’s Day as strains of the Dolan family singers are heard in the air.
Notable participants over the years have included United States Senator Charles E. Schumer and members of the Long Island Congressional delegation, and former State Assemblyman John Behan, a Vietnam veteran who was the grand marshal in 1979.
Controversy also has erupted several times, notably when a woman in a hot tub mounted on a float took off her top and another time when a spoof of the singer Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction was deemed too risqué. A disgruntled parade-watcher even mounted a one-man campaign over what he said were out-oftune bagpipes among some of the marching units. And there have been times when the troubles in Northern Ireland were a backdrop, including in 1977, when objections were raised about an English Union Jack flag that appeared in the parade.
In more recent history, the Friends of Erin, local police, and the Long Island Rail Road have cooperated to keep watch on those who may be looking to have just a little too much fun.
Despite the wild popularity of the parade, the Montauk Friends of Erin has often had to scramble to meet expenses. This year, not including police overtime, the cost may reach from $30,000 to $35,000, Joe Bloecker, the president of the Friends of Erin, said. A big chunk of the budget goes to pay fees for some of the marching bands. Although clown-costumed volunteers work the crowd seeking donations to help make ends meet, most of the money comes not on the actual day but at the lunch and gala, which precede it.
As with any large annual event, there will be ups and downs. In 1991 the Friends of Erin chose Mike Murphy as the grand marshal. He died a few days before the parade, and in his memory, no replacement was chosen. On a happier note, Douglas McClure proposed to his then-girlfriend, Jill Osterholm, by unveiling an 11-foot banner on the very first float of the 1995 parade. As the crowd cheered and urged her on, “Yes!” she said.