SEASIDE HEIGHTS – The Ocean County St. Patrick’s Day Parade honored its founder John Sweeney of Lavallette in grand style during its 34th parade held on March 10.
Sweeney, who was the driving force of the parade for 27 years, died of lung cancer on Dec. 12, 2017. He was honored with a special float during the parade sponsored by Timothy E. Ryan Funeral Homes with design input from his family. The float was filled with family and his many friends and drew cheers during the breezy March day.
Thousands of families lined up on the borough’s emerald lined Boulevard to watch pipe and drums, mummers, bands, various organizations, marchers and more.
Borough Mayor Anthony Vaz remarked prior to the parade that “it has been 34 years and I was in the very first one as a young councilman. The parade has grown over the years and John Sweeney created it and made it better each year. It has become a very big day for Seaside Heights and the county.”
Vaz noted that the parade involved many pre- and post-parade event activities over the years that serve as fundraisers for it and have added to its fun. “John was always a true gentleman with a great sense of humor which he shared from the starting phases of each year’s parade planning to the final day of the parade.”
As per tradition, the day began with a traditional Irish Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church on the Boulevard and Grant Avenue. The parade itself started at noon and ran for 90 minutes. The route started on the Seaside Park border. It ended at Sampson Avenue (stretching one and a quarter mile long).
Sweeney had been quoted more than once over the many years concerning the parade’s running time. He said that it was vital that it be kept under two-hours as it always packed a great deal of entertainment.
“We want everyone to have time to get out and enjoy the boardwalk afterward,” Sweeney often said. The parade organizer was well known for his gold and green attire and pointed ears which he wore during the early years of the parade and at a pre-parade event known as “The Little Leprechaun” contest which was held for many years at the Casino Arcade on the borough’s boardwalk.
Sweeney not only assembled a committed committee of volunteers, made up of members of various ethnic backgrounds, to run the many facets of the parade each year, he also provided a lot of enthusiasm when it came to gaining major sponsors for each year’s parade. During his last year as chairman in 2011 he was proud to say that the parade had not experienced “one single bad incident in 27 years.” He always noted that his most devoted committee member was his wife Patricia.
Patricia Sweeney said among the many memories she has of her late husband’s long association with the parade that he always wore “his father’s top hat (Hugh J. Sweeney) who wore it in the Newark Saint Patrick’s Day parade which his father founded.”
She added that she and her husband used to go to the shore’s other notable St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Belmar before the Ocean Count Parade was founded.
“There was no place for the children to go after the parade and that’s when John said let’s start a family parade here in the Ocean County. He talked to Bill King Sr. about the parade and asked if he would help and Bill King, being the Scotsman, that he was, said ‘I will but I’ll stay in the background’…which of course he never did….that was the shamrock and thistle bagpipe band in the first parade,” Pat Sweeney joked.
Her sons John Jr. and Bob were among the many family members on the float. “We heard after he died from so many people who told us how instrumental he was to them,” Bob Sweeney said.
“He never did it for himself, he did it for Irish heritage and to help out others and get them involved in something enjoyable,” John Sweeney Jr. said.
The committee, headed by Tom King, named Toms River Mayor Thomas F. Kelaher as this year’s parade grand marshal. Kelaher wore a traditional white Irish cardigan for the occasion as he waved to the crowd in a convertible.
Ocean County Freeholder Virginia E. Haines met up with Pat Sweeney before the parade began on L Street Seaside Park. Haines was honored as its first Irish Woman of the Year. “My great grandfather John Shannon came to the United States in the 1800s and I am so proud of my family’s history,” Haines said. “Now, there are almost 130,000 Ocean County residents that are of Irish descent. It’s an honor to represent them and to be a part of this wonderful event.”
This marked the first time for Dan and Jean Erbeck of Howell to enjoy the parade. They brought their young daughter Makayla to the parade an hour early and bundled up for the day.
“We’re excited about this it will be a lot of fun,” Dan Erbeck said.
A little further up, Nidessa Cook of Toms River, her mother Kimberly Antonucci of Seaside Heights and their friend Shawn Pizzichillo of Toms River took up spectator spots on the Boulevard. Cook and Antonucci make this parade a St. Patrick’s Day season tradition. “This is the first time we dressed up though,” Cook said. She and her mom had matching green bows in their hair. Pizzichillo said “this is my first time for this parade. I usually go to Belmar.”
One of the parade’s fixtures is the cart peddlers who make sure spectators have the option to purchase inflatable leprechauns, hats, green sunglasses, hats and other items for the parade. Jerry Payne and Chuck Imbursio, who reside in northern New Jersey, said they’ve been part of this parade for the last decade.
“It’s a good parade with good people,” Imbursio said adding that he dyed his beard green for the occasion.
Nikki Esposito of Character Parties and Live Mermaids drew attention from spectators before the parade even began, since she was dressed in a mermaid costume, which consisted of a bikini top and her fish tail. “I’m freezing, its really cold but I’m marching today (actually she was wheeled in during the parade) with the members of Save Barnegat Bay who are a wonderful bunch of volunteers.”
By 11 a.m. the crowds were at full capacity at several Boulevard taverns including The Shore Thing Pub, Bamboo Bar and Klees Bar and Grill. The Bamboo posted a “Thank You John Sweeney” message on their building marquee. The sounds of Irish music could be heard at each of these establishments.
Various girl scouts such as Lavallette’s Troop 293 and Plumsted Troop 50018 were out in force selling their cookies at tables along the parade route.
Many residents and visitors see the annual parade as the kick-off of the spring season at the Shore. “This parade is a tradition linked with the county and the tourist season,” Vaz said.