Rethinking St. Patrick’s Day in Montauk (Again)

Last year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in Montauk included all the trappings that have come to define the Wearing of the Green celebration over the years: bagpipers, drummers, dancers, crowds. Mind you, not the crowds of 35,000-plus that had descended on Montauk in the years prior, but a number just over half that. Which was more or less the intention as the parade celebrated its 50th year. As the parade kicks off its second half-century in a matter of weeks, questions remain as to what kind of crowd merrymakers and merchants alike can expect—or even want.

What began as a small affair with a handful of people walking down Main Street in 1962 grew over the decades into the second largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York State (trailing only Manhattan’s). It became so popular that about five years ago the Long Island Rail Road started promoting a “parade train” to shuttle revelers from New York City, Queens and other points west out to Montauk. Crowds swelled, and so did problems.

The parade train carries some 1,500 passengers, many of them young revelers drinking for the three-hour ride and spilling off drunk at the end of the line. The LIRR has designated these special trains as alcohol-free, but with relatively few MTA police available to patrol and enforce, that train ticket had been an invitation to go wild. Nobody has to drive, nobody is checking ID, and there are not enough police to prevent the resulting boozing and brawling from marring the parade for families and others who don’t see St. Patrick’s Day as a license to liquor up.

Last year, for the first time in its half-century history, parade organizers Friends of Erin attempted to curtail the craziness by moving the start time from the traditional early afternoon to 10 a.m. If they started before the trains arrived, the logic went, there would be less of a problem.

There was conjecture leading up to the parade on March 25, 2012 that the LIRR might add more early trains to still deliver thousands of drunks to the parade’s doorstep, but in the end the 50th annual parade drew an estimated crowd of only 20,000, down from some 35,000 the year before. The cold, gloomy weather didn’t help, but the LIRR certainly played a role as the start time cut down on the overzealous partygoers who may have imbibed too much green-tinted beer on their journey to Montauk. For many, it was just as well.

Rowdy behavior was down, but so was spending at area businesses. Then, almost immediately following that disappointing (to some) turnout, it was announced that the 2013 parade would be held on April 7—a full three weeks after St. Patrick’s Day. When that date drew backlash for being too far from the actual holiday, the parade was moved to St. Patrick’s Day itself, March 17.

There has been support for the move in the community, but there are some drawbacks, Montauk Friends of Erin acting president Joseph Bloecker says. “The parade this year is going to be a little smaller than in years past, mostly because our parade is going on at the same time as six or seven other parades, which reduces the amount of bands we could have.”

The 2013 Montauk St. Patrick’s Day parade will start at 11: 30 a.m. What impact this will have on attendance remains unknown, but initial estimates put the influx around 35,000 attendees to watch the parade kick off at Edgemere Road, then make its way to Main Street, where it finishes up near the IGA. While the parade itself doesn’t start until 11:30 a.m., the Montauk Chamber of Commerce will be serving hot clam chowder, donated by local merchants, starting at 10 a.m.

The challenge once again is to balance a start time that will allow crowds to patronize local businesses yet keep unruly behavior to a minimum. And that may be harder than usual. There is concern that this year’s NYC parade on Saturday, March 16 will be just a warm-up act for Montauk. Revelers will start celebrating on Friday night in the city, the theory goes, keep it going through the NYC parade on Saturday afternoon and into Saturday night, then head out to Montauk on the Long Island Rail Road on Sunday morning. How many LIRR options there are remains to be seen.

“The Long Island Rail Road is in the process of finalizing the schedule of service it will to provide on the day of the Montauk St. Patrick’s Day Parade,” says Sal Arena, Media Liaison for the MTA-LIRR. “The MTA police will have a presence out there, that’s for sure. We will have a plan soon, but nothing’s written in stone as of now.”

The current LIRR schedule runs through March 3, and  the weekend and holiday schedule lists a 7:45 a.m. train that will arrive at 10:46 a.m. and a 9:45 a.m. arriving at 12:46 p.m. Should this remain, we will assume for now that the 12:38 a.m. train, pulling into Montauk at 3:57 a.m., won’t be that popular, but after a day or two of drinking in NYC, who knows?

“This is nothing new, the festivities have been going on for 51 years,” says East Hampton Police Chief Ed Ecker. “The MTA—although they haven’t been out here every year—over the past five years has been a tremendous help to us. They have officers riding the trains, they have a command post set up at Montauk Train Station. They supply a lot of equipment and manpower, so they’re very helpful to us.”

The Montauk Friends of Erin have also issued rules related to those taking part in the parade that put an emphasis on family, which goes in line with the earlier start time. “All parade participants are asked to refrain from drinking any alcohol before and during the parade,” the guidelines state. “Please remember that this is a family day and that there are young children and ladies waiting in the line of march and we should set an example for our youth.”

In conjunction with these guidelines, according to Bloecker, the hope is that the still-early start time will help keep the parade “under the radar” among those who may be inclined to start trouble. “I think the MTA police and our organization were much more successful last year with the earlier start time in keeping people away from the parade that we don’t really want here,” Bloecker says. “Even though our start time is an hour and a half later, I hope that continues this year.”

Tell us what you think about the LIRR and the Montauk St. Patrick’s Day parade in the comments below.

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