David Usborne: Our Man In New York

St Patrick's is a moveable feast, but don't mess with the brewers, even in Holy Week
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The Independent Online

I shall be tipsily waving the flag of a certain European country this evening, celebrating its long history with plenty of national booze and, I trust, a few of its more delectable eats in the company of hundreds of its proud citizens who for myriad reasons find themselves displaced this side of the ocean these days.

It's in my diary. March 17: "La Grande Soirée de la Francophonie" in New York. "Manhattan's conversations will take on a distinctly French accent" on this night, the invitation confidently asserts. Mais, qu'est-ce que c'est cette nuit? Did Sarkozy move Bastille Day forward just like the United States last weekend unilaterally leapfrogged the rest of the world moving its clocks to summertime three weeks early?

No, not that. It seems that this is an annual bash when France honours a person or institution for helping evangelise its culture and tongue in North America. The winner this year is the City University of New York in whose buildings we will be gathering. Bravo. So maybe this is not a conspiracy, as I was beginning to suspect, to snub the Irish, for whom 17 March also has a certain significance.

Certainly, if Britain had organised a "Bagpipes and Big Ben Night" in New York today that would have been the allegation. But even we are not that insensitive. And who in their right mind would try to compete with the Irish in America on St Patrick's? They turn the Chicago River green, clog city arteries with parades and their public house merriment is such to make Bourbon Street in New Orleans seem tame.

Truth is though, this year things are slightly out of kilter. While the 5th Avenue Parade – green stripe painted down the tarmac – will begin this morning as usual at 10, in other places celebrations have happened already. In Savannah, Georgia, where St Patrick's Day has become a big tourist draw, most of the fun was last Thursday. Boston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee had their parades at the weekend.

All this, of course, is because of the awkward and rare coincidence of St Patrick's Day with the start of Holy Week. (First time, since 1940.) The city fathers of Savannah decided that everyone having a rollicking good time today would not put them in good graces with the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Edward Egan of New York knows better than to mess with the civic side of the St Patrick party. He would have had the Irish pub owners storming his doors. For them it means a blessedly extended weekend of hard Guinness pulling. He plans not to join the parade this morning but watch it from a respectable distance as it passes by St Patrick's Cathedral.

But even if the squabbles about barring gays and lesbians from the parade have erupted like every other year, things will be different because of who else will be absent. State politicians always take front-row spots as the caravan weaves through the city – Bloomberg, Clinton, Governor Spitzer to name a few.

Ah, yes, Governor Spitzer. He is the clue to this particular problem. It is at midday that his resignation will take effect and anyone who is anyone in New York State will have to be in Albany to witness the swearing of his successor, David Paterson. But I dare say the parade will go off just fine without them.

What is Holy Week about if not forgiveness? Someone in the torrent of media comment last week about the disgraced Mr Spitzer and his call-girl liaisons dared mention also that this is a land of second chances. And so it is. I have chanced across evidence twice just today.

First I spied the posters on bus shelters for a new movie called Drillbit Taylor about an amateur body guard. There, broadly smiling and one foot raised in kung-fu pose, is its star Owen Wilson, the actor who only last year attempted suicide. No crime committed, but a swift comeback nonetheless. Then there were the newspaper ads for the Easter flower show at Macy's with special guest Martha Stewart. The speed with which Ms Stewart has left her prison days behind her is surely startling. Mr Spitzer seems unlikely to go to jail for his sins, but it's hard to predict how fast his rehabilitation will be. Watch for him to be a guest on CNN's Larry King Live. It will be the first signal that it has at least begun.