When Sean O'Neill dons his Irish tricolor sash today as the Grand Marshal of the 2019 Newark St. Patrick's Day parade, it will be far from the first time he got dressed up for the event.
"My mother would always say to me 'It's St. Patrick's Day. Go put on your green shirt,'" said O'Neill, 54, who was born and raised in the Ironbound section of Newark. "I would go to Mass with my dad and the rest of the family - five brothers, three sisters - then to the parade. It's part of who we are."
The Ironbound is now a place where you are far more likely to hear Portuguese and Spanish spoken in the street, not Irish Gaelic or brogue-inflected English. But when O'Neill grew up on Houston Street in the Down Neck of the 1960s and 1970s, the Irish were as much of a presence in the neighborhood as any other ethnic group.
Many of the local Irish were blue-collar workers who put in a hard day's work at the old Ballantine Brewery or Breyers ice cream plant down the block from their homes. In the summer, after they walked home from work, they would watch the world go by from their porches, a world without strangers, familiar and intimate to them.
"It was a truly neighborhood place," O'Neill said on Wednesday night, looking like an Irish James Bond in his tuxedo at the annual Friends of Brian Boru dinner in West Orange, where he was honored for being the upcoming parade's grand marshal. "Everyone knew one another when you walked down the street, or even whose car had to be moved. All together, it was a family."
O'Neill is a son of the neighborhood, his family's roots stretching back to the Irish counties of Cavan and Tyrone. His father, Albert, was the chief stationary engineer at the former S. Klein On the Square department store in downtown Newark. His mother, Dorothy, went back to work in her 40s as a cafeteria lady in the Newark public schools after raising her nine children.
O'Neill, a graduate of St. Benedict's grammar school and East Side High School, went on to be an operating engineer himself. He has been a proud member of Local 68 of the International Union of Operating Engineers AFL-CIO for 35 years. He is now the chief engineer at the Panasonic Corporation of North America, whose headquarters relocated to downtown Newark in 2013.
The Brian Boru dinner assembled names familiar in both Essex County and statewide politics - Giblin, Gill, Durkin, Cryan, McGreevey - a testament to how effectively the Irish gained, and maintained, power and influence in their new country after being blocked in their homeland.
They came to celebrate what is the 84th year of the Newark St. Patrick's Day Parade. O'Neill served twice as president of the Ironbound Irish-American Association, founded in 1934, two years before the establishment of the parade. But the truly important number for O'Neill is the more than 20 family members who will be in Newark to watch him lead the parade.
"People ask about how many Irish people are still in Newark, but it's not a matter of being in Newark. It's a matter of being where it all started," O'Neill said. "We're the granddaddy of all of the St. Patrick's Day parades in New Jersey. We're the oldest one, and for a long time we were the only one. We really need to get the word out about the Newark parade."
O'Neill will lead a parade whose route goes past the high-rise buildings that his co-workers, friends, and neighbors have kept standing for years. He knows that if Newark is going to continue to stand tall, it needs all of its people, many of them now living around New Jersey and the nation.
"There are challenges, but first you've got to reach out to the true, die-hard Newarkers who spread out all over the state," O'Neill said. "You've got to bring their children and their grandchildren here and show them what Newark has to offer. Then they'll see, and come back."
For O'Neill, being grand marshal of the Newark parade will be a flashback to his youth as much as it will be a look forward. He remembers parade season parties hosted by the Ironbound Irish at the American Legion post on Cortland Place, a place without strangers. O'Neill will see those faces again on parade day, on the street, and from above.
"Newark is my hometown. It means a lot to me," O'Neill said. "Growing up in the Ironbound, it's a real pleasure and honor for me to lead the parade where I was born and raised. I hope that my parents, and my brothers Albert and Brian, are looking down from Heaven and smiling when they see me do it."