“I Don’t Want to Be Pushy, But There is No Reason to Wait”: Dorothy Hayden Cudahy and the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade
Lá Fhéile Pádraig Shona Daoibh! In case you don’t speak Irish, that means “Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!” from the Archives of Irish America at Tamiment Library. While not a legal holiday in the United States, St. Patrick’s Day has been widely celebrated since the late 18th century as a recognition of Irish and Irish American culture, with parades, religious observances, eating and drinking, and prominent displays of the color green. Charitable societies in Boston and other cities organized the first observances in colonial America, and New York City hosted the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1762. These early celebrations helped shape Irish American identity, contributing to a sense of community, shared cultural identity, and often, providing a venue for expressing political sentiments.
Tamiment Library is lucky to have in its holdings the personal papers of one individual who not only changed the history of this celebration in New York, but also exemplified this focus on community: Dorothy Hayden Cudahy, an entertainer, radio host, and parking enforcement officer who became the first woman to be named the Grand Marshal to the New York City parade.
Born in the city in 1922 to County Kilkenny and Sligo natives, Cudahy and her husband John were active all their lives as members and officers of numerous local Irish American social organizations, including the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, the United Irish Counties Association, the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Irish Institute, and the County Kilkenny and Clare associations.
In the 1950, the Dorothy Hayden Entertainers, a group of musicians, dancers, and singers, performed in various venues across the country, including seven performances of Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town television program. Dorothy’s father, James Hayden (known as “Smiling Jim”), was a prominent MC and columnist for the publication the Irish World. He began broadcasting the Irish Memories radio program in 1928 over local station WEVD, ending his shows with the sign-off, “Good night, good luck, and God bless you all.” Upon his death in 1943, Dorothy took over hosting duties and continued the show until the late 1980s on WNWK-FM. The weekly program consisted of news briefs, music (both commercial recordings and live in-studio performances), advertisements, and occasional interviews. In addition to musical entertainment, Cudahy was mindful of the need to present political, social, economic, and religious news concerning Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the United States in a fair and sensitive manner, calling upon a wide range of figures and personalities for insights on these subjects.
Cudahy had a history of breaking gender barriers: in 1960, she became one of the first woman parking enforcement officers for the New York City Department of Traffic; in 1984, the first woman president of the County Kilkenny Association; and in 1989, she made history as the first woman Grand Marshal of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade. She had previously campaigned for the honorary position four times – the first time she was told that women were not eligible to even be considered. In response to this traditional provision, she remarked with a combination of humility and assertiveness, “I do not wish to be pushy, but there is no reason to wait.” During one of her unsuccessful campaigns, she announced in a press release, “I think that it is time that the St. Patrick’s Day Parade recognize the efforts of the Irishmen but also the Irishwomen who gave so much of their strength, intelligence, and character in creating the free and democratic society we live in.” (Press release, 1985; Dorothy Hayden Cudahy Irish Memories Collection; AIA 001; Box 1, Folder 5; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University) Finally, in 1989 she led the parade on 5th Avenue.
Though the primary city parade has become controversial in recent years, observances of the day itself continue with vitality, acting as one of the most prominent and recognizable celebrations of Irish American heritage and cultural identity. Have a safe and happy St. Patrick’s Day! Sláinte!