Friday, March 11, 2011

Corner Club keeps St. Paddy's in the forefront

By Mary Rickard

Wearing white caps and kelly-green vests, members of the Irish Channel Corner Club will march down Uptown streets in Saturday’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, doling out green carnations, kissing the ladies and sipping a pint. But besides being a traditional social club, the Corner Club has played a vital role in the community for almost a century.

This year’s upbeat parade theme is: “Bottom’s Up; Cause There Ain’t No Place to Go But Up.”

Founded back in 1918, The Corner Club’s mission has always been that of taking care of the neighborhood, said Seann Halligan, whose father, Danny Halligan, joined in 1968. Earlier members held rock ‘n’ roll dances and bingo games to fund services at Charity Hospital or St. Michael’s Special School. Members now host an annual golf tournament to raise funds for the school. The club has always been willing to offer assistance to neighbors in need, whether or not they were Irish, he added.

And Corner Club members haven’t all been Irish. The Irish Channel – that area lying between Jackson and Louisiana Avenues and between Magazine and Tchoupitoulas Streets – was populated in the early 20th century by a mix of Irish, German and Italian residents.

“I didn’t know I wasn’t Irish ‘till I left the Irish Channel,” said Raymond Campos. His father was a milkman for Cloverland Dairy, delivering bottles on the Irish Channel route. He later moved his Italian family into the neighborhood.

“I’m walking with these guys when we were 14-year-old kids,” said Campos, a Corner Club member for 50 years.

Decades ago, the St. Patrick’s Day march would start at Parasol’s Bar on Constance Street in the heart of the Irish Channel. The bar’s German owner, Charlie Passauer – known to all as Charlie Parasol – a club member and its 1961 Grand Marshal, would put kegs of beer in the street and jazz music played by The Dixieland Saints for a block party.

In those days, there were bars on every other corner, so the parade would travel from one tavern to the next, sampling free mugs at every stop. In the sixties, Campos counted 50 neighborhood bars in the Irish Channel, he said.

Now, the club carries its own kegs of light beer on a trailer to rejuvenate marchers who consume about 75 cases during the two-hour walk. They tried drinking Irish beer, but “Guinness is a tough beer to drink and march,” said John Gallagher III whose great-grandfather helped found the club.

The Irish Channel was traditionally home to city workers, including fire fighters and sanitation workers. At least 15 active firemen are currently among the club’s ranks, including 2011 Grand Marshal Ryan Neely, captain at Engine #1 on Magazine Street.

“Irishmen are firemen, police, priests, criminals or politicians,” joked John Gallagher III, himself a New Orleans fireman. He formed a friendship with New York City fire fighters when a task force came to relieve local firemen after Hurricane Katrina. The New York City Fire Department is sending a different kind of assistance this year with 20 members of the Emerald Society and Bagpipers. Bagpipers and drummers participated in New Orleans’ parade two years ago.

“The guys fell in love with it,” said Liam Flaherty, FDNY captain and Emerald Society drum major.

The Corner Club began with seven members, including Edward Gallagher, but was forced to disband during the Great Depression. After World War II, Edward Gallagher’s son, John “Bubby” Gallagher, now 88, helped reorganize the club.

Bubby Gallagher was an 11th Ward leader and the city’s assistant director of sanitation when garbage was still being picked up in horse-drawn wagons. He’s marched in every parade since 1947 when the club was revived.

The club’s headquarters moved a couple of times until it was firmly established 30 years ago in a corner building on Second Street that had previously been an Italian grocery store. The hall’s wood paneled walls are covered with flags, banners and fading photographs of the membership, dating back to 1928

Though the Corner Club has always been male, “not too many women are lining up to get in,” John Gallagher III remarked. Members’ wives, girlfriends and daughters regularly pitch in to sew costumes, make flowered canes and prepare meals.

This week, Pam Foy will be delivering tissue paper flower canes to club members to carry as they march. The canes are white, green and orange – the colors of the Irish flag.

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