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Lodi’s Irish connection

City Councilman Bob Johnson’s grandfather once led famed New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade — amid controversy

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Posted: Saturday, March 16, 2013 12:00 am

Today in New York City, a great parade is being held with roughly 150,000 participants marching down Fifth Avenue in a massive celebration of all things Irish.

New York's St. Patrick's Day Parade is the largest parade in the world — and it carries an unusual link to Lodi, through Councilman Bob Johnson.

Johnson's maternal grandfather, Timothy Healy, served as Grand Marshal of the renowned parade in 1916. But the parade that year, and Healy's position at the front, was not without controversy.

That's because Healy and his supporters pulled a political fast one, and they had to prevail in court before winning the right to stage and lead the parade that year.

"Nearly all the men on my mother's side of the family were deeply involved in unions," Johnson said Friday. "Apparently my grandfather was involved in politics, too. I know he was a friend of Teddy Roosevelt's. He and my grandmother once spent the night in the White House as Teddy's guests."

Johnson has Irish heritage on both sides of his family. Three of his four grandparents were born in Ireland; a fourth is believed to have been born there as well, but the records are not definitive.

"They basically came here with nothing, and over their lifetimes they did pretty well," he said.

Healy was born near Limerick. In New York, he became head of the International Brotherhood of Stationary Firemen and Oilers, whose members tended the boilers that heated New York's buildings.

Eventually, apparently through his political ties, he held the title of coroner for the city of New York.

Healy was a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, or A.O.H., which organized the St. Patrick's Day Parade, the largest Irish cultural event in New York. The parade was first held in 1762, and it grew steadily into a mix of culture, politics and even religion, as the Archbishop of New York traditionally reviewed the parade and addressed the massed crowd before it dispersed to celebrate.

But in 1916, members of the A.O.H. were split over Britain's continued role in World War I, which involved greater and greater casualties among Irish soldiers fighting for Britain. The traditional leadership of the A.O.H. backed the British in the war, with Healy and the rank and file opposed.

The differences led to some shenanigans regarding the parade.

A few weeks before the event, as was its custom, the establishment of the A.O.H. arrived at the New York Police Department's headquarters to take out the permit for a parade on March 17 down Fifth Avenue.

They were informed that a permit for that place and time had already been taken out — by Healy and his union supporters.

The A.O.H. regulars were incensed. They went to court trying to stop Healy and his upstarts. That request was tossed out, however, so the so-called "Healyites" staged the parade. The affair kicked up substantial commotion, and was covered extensively by the New York Times.

Healy died in 1930 at age 64, before Johnson was born. As he was growing up, the former Lodi mayor heard stories about his grandfather and, as both a youth and an adult, he attended many of the parades himself.

While Johnson has no direct memory of his grandfather, he does have a memory of the parade.

Johnson's father, Robert Johnson, was active in Irish organizations in New York and was enthusiastic about the parade.

When Johnson was courting his wife Carolyn, Johnson's father asked her if she would like to attend the parade. Carolyn, of course, said yes.

She agreed to meet the elder Johnson on 50th Street at the appointed hour. She arrived, and Johnson's father escorted her down a flight of stairs, through what seemed like an underground maze, and then back up into the sunlight.

Carolyn found herself on the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral, only feet from the Archbishop, watching the parade from the best seat in the house.

"Guess my old man had some clout," Johnson said. "And he must have liked Carolyn; he never let me sit in that spot."

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