HOLYOKE — Throughout its history, the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Parade has become a staple of the city and for the region in its celebration of Irish heritage.

Hosted on March 16, 1952, the first parade was a true community effort with assistance from the Holyoke Police and Fire Departments, as well as the cities parishes and Catholic schools. What began with a modest $200 donation has ballooned into an iconic holiday tradition.

So iconic, in fact, that along with Mardi Gras, Mount Rushmore, the Daytona 500, among many others, the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Parade has been designated a Local Legacy by the Library of Congress.

The parade is famous not only for the party it is but also for its showcase of prize-winning floats, marching bands from the area, the famous Mummers String Bands and notable Irish celebrity visits and has become the staple every March.

Russell McNiff Sr., a 50-plus year member of the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Committee, told Reminder Publishing it was intimidating for him when he first got started working on the committee because he was working with many of the parade’s original organizers. As a lifetime Holyoker, McNiff wanted to get involved in the tradition.

“I think that’s one of the things I’m most proud of because I was able to have a foot in their camp and as I moved up thought the organization, I got to learn that history,” McNiff said.

McNiff added his experience was the foundation of what the committee is today and that the many people involved present day have helped keep the community around the holiday celebration strong.

“They’re very creative and dedicated as much as anybody I’ve ever seen, and it gives me as a long-term member comfort knowing the future is rich,” McNiff said.

McNiff, who worked as a banker during his career, has served in a variety of positions for the committee and on almost every subcommittee involved. In 1973 he was elected president of the committee at 29 years old, the youngest president to be elected in the committee’s history.

McNiff has been honored as well during his time working on the committee as in 1975, he was given the O’Connell Award in recognition for outstanding service in fundraising, and in 2005 he was the parade grand marshal. The grand marshal is the committee’s highest local honor given to a person of Irish ancestry who has distinguished themselves as a loyal person to the St. Patrick’s Committee, their career, their family and their Irish ancestry.

A common theme McNiff talked about when reflecting on the parade’s longstanding history was how the city has constantly rallied together and showcased the tight knit community Holyoke is.

One example came from discussing the parade’s 25th anniversary in 1976, when the parade was almost set to kick off when it had to be cancelled after a reported tornado sighting in Northampton and that it was heading toward Holyoke.

“We had a tornado that day,” McNiff said with a laugh. “It was quite interesting. We never finished the parade. We had spent so much time loading it up with special attractions. It never materialized but the risk was there, and it became a dastardly day.”

According to “Fifty Years of Marching Together 1952-2001: A Social History of the St. Patrick’s Committee of Holyoke Massachusetts Parade,” a book written by Catherine Dower Gold, the decision was quickly made by the Parade Committee at the time in conjunction with then Chief of Police Fran Sullivan to instruct the pubic to vacate the streets for the safety of viewers and marchers. The tornado never did come to Holyoke that day, but a torrential downpour followed, and the parade was off. The only unit to complete the parade in the rain was the South Hadley Marching Band.

An excerpt from the book explains spirits remained high the rest of the day.

“Although the parade had ended, the spirit of the committee could not be dampened. At the Yankee Pedlar reception after the parade, Bernie Lavelle, a past president and future parade marshal, was heard to boast, ‘that was the best half of a parade that I have ever seen!’”

Another memorable moment in the parade’s history was the centennial year for the city of Holyoke in 1973. That year in the fall following the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the city hosted a parade for its 100th birthday. By the next year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, there had been three parades in the city over a year.
Getting through COVID-19 and canceled back-to-back parade’s in 2020 and 2021 is also a connective piece of the parade’s history, and an example of the community coming together to battle through challenges.

McNiff remembers seeing how quickly the community showed up for one another during that time, especially when stay at home orders first began and the parade in 2020 had to be cancelled within two weeks of the parade.

“I would say 99% of people and businesses that had agreed to sponsor the parade and the events and the bands — I mean it’s an expensive operation — they all said to keep the money,” McNiff said. “It really speaks legion to the value that’s placed on our work. That’s comforting.”

McNiff added the economic impact that comes in not just from the from parade but also the entire weekend is always a huge benefit from the celebration that comes in the dreary winter months. Its social impact added, the value of the holiday celebration is clear in Holyoke.

The 2024 St. Patrick’s Day Parade will be on Sunday, March 17, at 11:10 a.m.

Over the seven-plus decades of this community celebration, McNiff is proud to have been a member and to have lived through so many great memories of the parade, as well as being a part of its growth for a community that he thinks deserve it.

“We’ve always received 100% cooperation from the city. The social impact that we have in the doldrums of the winter is great for the city,” McNiff said. “When you think about the challenges that we faced over the years [as a committee, and as a city], that we persevered and found ways to survive them, a lot of it makes you stronger and teaches you not to give up.”