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Marching with Irish pride


Two West Linn officers participate in NYC St. Patrick's Day Parade

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Officer Mike Francis, left, and Sgt. Neil Hennelly, who are both Irish, marched in the New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade. Two West Linn officers just returned from a trip to police mecca — the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Officer Mike Francis and Sgt. Neil Hennelly joined 26 other officers from the Portland metro area for what they call a trip of a lifetime. Hennelly is a New York native, having grown up on Staten Island, and both are of Irish descent.

The St. Patrick’s Day parade is New York’s, and perhaps the world’s, largest parade with 250,000 marchers and 2 million spectators. A large portion of the marchers is law enforcement and firefighters who turn out in throngs to support each other and embrace their brotherhood.

The trip became a reality for Hennelly when he was approached by Gresham Sgt. Terry O’Keeffe (who is also Irish) and encouraged him to join a group of local officers who were going.

Hennelly roped Francis into joining in on the trip, and together they used vacation time and spent a whirlwind St. Patrick’s Day weekend in New York City.

“St. Patrick’s Day in New York is less than a religious holiday; it’s a city holiday,” Hennelly said, adding that the city repaints the lines on the parade route from the standard yellow to green for the day. “This parade and celebration is steeped in tradition.”

The parade dates back to 1762 and honors St. Patrick, the patron saint of the archdiocese of New York and Ireland. Hennelly once marched in the parade as a child with his grandfather, but he had never been back to New York City in uniform.

Francis said there is a lot of history and tradition involved in the parade, which does not allow floats or motor vehicles in it.

Throughout the weekend, Francis and Hennelly met officers from all over the United States and even a group of Irish officers who were marching in the parade.

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - A sea of law enforcement filled the streets of New York City just before the parade was set to begin.

“You don’t know a soul, but you share a common profession and you’re brothers,” Hennelly said. “It’s a pretty awesome experience.”

In the parade, they marched near the front of the line mixed in with the nearly 800 New York City officers and in front of the bag pipers. Countless New York officers thanked Francis and Hennelly for coming out for the parade and were impressed that nearly 30 officers from the Portland area were there.

Francis said the New York officers he marched with were “just real genuine people.”

And the crowd? Both Francis and Hennelly said the parade-goers were amazing by screaming and clapping and holding up signs.

“The crowds were fantastic,” Hennelly said. “This has been on my ‘I have to get this done list’ forever.”

After the parade, the New York City Emerald Society hosted a party on the pier for nearly 8,000 officers. Emerald Societies are organizations based out of larger cities and that are composed of police officers or firefighters of Irish heritage.

As part of their trip, the officers packed in a lot of sightseeing. At the top of the list was the 9-11 memorial. Hennelly said he grew up watching the twin towers being built and he knew many people and officers who died in the terrorist attacks that day in 2001.

“It was a very moving experience,” he said. “It’s an amazing space. It should be mandatory every American go there.”

Whether it was Canal Street, Wall Street or Central Park, Francis and Hennelly were continually impressed by the generosity and kindness of the people of New York.

“No matter where we went, everyone just bent over backwards to help you,” Hennelly said. “They’re very kind and nice and willing to help.”

Hennelly said his favorite part of the experience was socializing with officers during a breakfast before the parade and being repeatedly thanked for coming.

“They were all overwhelmed we came that far to support them,” he said.

For Francis, the parade itself was the highlight.

“It was the sense of community with all of these people, including the cops,” Francis said. “We’re here for the community, but we’re here for each other.”

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Sgt. Neil Hennelly, left, and Officer Mike Francis stand in front of a police vehicle from Staton Island, where Hennelly grew up.