Society History

By Patrick F. O’Brien
17 March 1999

The chronicles of the Public Safety Emerald Societies is relatively short in comparison to the history of the Irish in America. All through the annals of America, the Irish played an important role in shaping the United States. The Irish in America, not only made history, they consumed it. They are one of the premier success stories in the land of immigrants.

However, in the early days of America, the Irish immigrants were not always welcomed. They were the first ethnic group to live in the slums of the cities. Furthermore, the Irish were also the first ethnic group that were publicly discriminated against for jobs. It was common practice for employers to state “Irish need not apply”, so the only jobs they could get were low paying, back breaking work that few wanted. However, through determination and hard work the Irish overcame these and other obstacles. One profession that the Irish gravitated to were the Police and Fire Departments.

In the late part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century, police jobs were undesirable because of the low pay and few benefits. In the fire departments it was worse; there was no pay because it was largely made up of volunteers. The Irish took up these professions because it was a way to become a part of America, a way to be accepted by mainstream America and a way to give back to their new found country. By the beginning of the 20th century, not only were the Irish fully immersed in the police and fire departments, they were in charge of them! The Irish transformed the job of watchman and fire watch into the organized police and fire departments of today.

Over the years the Irish started many of the traditions that are still in existence today. The Irish-American police officers and firefighters would march in mass in full uniforms at various community parades and the biggest contingent would always be in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. These men were very proud of their Irish heritage and equally as proud of being a police officer or firefighter.

One of the time honored views the public identifies with the Irish are the bagpipes. The Irish have made the bagpipes the adoptive instrument of the police and fire departments. The bagpipes were a revered musical instrument played in both Scotland and Ireland. In the middle ages in Scotland and Ireland, the bagpipes were used to rally the troops into battle, usually against the British. The fighting factions in Celtic lands used the bagpipes to assemble troops just as the United States Cavalry used the bugle. The English outlawed the bagpipes in Ireland (1366) and declared them an “instrument of war”. Anyone caught playing the bagpipes or harp was put to death. The bagpipes were also used during the funeral ceremonies when burying their fallen comrades. In the early days when a police officer or firefighter was killed in the line of duty, the Irish forefathers within these departments ensured that their fallen brothers were buried with full honors. In keeping with Celtic tradition, the Irish would play “the pipes” to bury their fallen. Today, that tradition transcends ethnic, racial and religious lines and the bagpipes are played at police and fire funeral regardless of race, color or creed. The Irish have made the playing of the bagpipes a part of the fabric of America and bagpipe bands an institution in many police and fire departments across the United States.

With a strong sense of patriotic pride to their new found country, the Irish started another tradition during the 1908 Summer Olympic games held in London, England. Patrolman Martin J. Sheridan, of the NYPD was part of the American Olympic team. Martin Sheridan was born in 1881 in County Mayo, Ireland and immigrated to New York in 1901 and joined the police force in 1906. During the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, athletes from all the countries would show their pride and march in the “Parade of Nations”. During the 1908 games there was a lot of animosity and bad feelings between Britain and the United States. Initially, Patrolman Sheridan was to bear the American Flag, however, at the last moment another Irish-American teammate , Ralph Rose, was selected. It was felt that Patrolman Sheridan, with strong Irish feelings, would not show proper respect toward the King of England. Protocol of the day dictated that each nation’s flag would be dipped as it passed the royal reviewing stand. Tradition has it, during the parade, Mathew McGrath, another Irish-American teammate went up to the American flag bearer and said words to this effect…”dip that flag and you will be in a hospital tonight”. The flag was not dipped which caused an international incident. During a news conference, Patrolman Sheridan spoke for the entire Olympic team; he pointed to the American flag and said “this flag dips to no earthly king”. The precedent was set which is still followed today during the Olympic Games.

The public perception of the ever present Irish cop on the beat was more than just a stereotype, it was a fact. Up to the mid 20th century, the Irish dominated the police and fire departments. These departments were largely made up of either Irish born or 1st or 2nd generation Irish. The Irish produced more chiefs of the police and fire departments than any other ethnic group in America. Furthermore, they were at the forefront of the labor movement in these professions, as well as many others. However, two events in the 20th century changed that phenomenon; the depression in 1929 and World War II. New ethnic groups started to join the public safety ranks. The Germans, Italians, Polish and African-Americans joined the police and fire departments and eventually formed fraternal associations. Organizations were also formed for officers of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish religions.

By the second half of the 20th century, the Irish in the police and fire departments felt they were losing their identity and proud traditions. By the early 1950?s, other ethnic organizations were flourishing and creating a fraternity of brotherhood amongst its membership. In 1953, members of the New York City Police Department formed the first organization for Irish-American police officers. Thus on March 16, 1953, the first Emerald Society was founded. The New York City Police Department Emerald Society was formed to help foster the spirit of Irish heritage within its members and to promote and preserve their accomplishments. The first president of the Emerald Society was Henry J. Fitzgerald. Soon after, the New York Fire Department (FDNY) formed an Emerald Society. Word spread about the new Irish organization and Emerald Societies and other units were formed by the New York City Corrections (‘55) as well as the Transit (‘56) and Housing Police Department (‘58). By the end of the 1950?s, New Jersey and the Essex County Police & Fire Emerald Society were formed (‘58), this would be the first Emerald Society with both police and fire under one organization.

The 1960?s saw new Emerald Societies formed outside New York City, Suffolk (‘67) New Jersey (‘68) and Nassau County (‘68) Police Departments on Long Island, as well as Westchester County Police established Emerald Societies. In 1965, the Port Authority Police organized an Emerald Society which included police officers from both the states of New York and New Jersey.

Also during this decade, a new dimension dawned upon the Emerald Society, the establishment of an official police bagpipe band. Prior to 1960, there wasn’t any formal organized police or fire bagpipe band in the United States. Once again, the NYPD Emerald Society rose to the occasion and formed the first fully uniformed and equipped bagpipe band. The Pipe and Drums of the Emerald Society of the NYPD made their debut appearance on March 17, 1960 as they marched down Fifth Avenue in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Finbar Devine of the NYPD was a founding member of the Emerald Society and the inspiration behind the bagpipe band. He led them as their Drum Major that historical day, as well as for the next 35 parades until his death in 1995. Sgt. Finbar Devine was an imposing man of stature -6’4?- and over the years he became the quintessential Irish New York City Police officer who was loved and admired and a sought out figure at all of the parades. Over the years, due to popularity, other police and fire Emerald Societies, along with many public safety agencies across the United States, have established bagpipe bands.

In the 1970?s, Boston Police (‘71) established an Emerald Society followed by Rockland County, NY (‘72). Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, both police and fire departments formed an Emerald Society in 1973, then the Emerald Society movement began to take hold in the mid-west also, as Chicago, the Windy City, established the Emerald Society of Illinois in 1975. At the end of the decade, New Haven (‘79) formed the first Police Emerald Society in the state of Connecticut.

Due to a large contingent of Emerald Societies concentrated in the New York City area, a regional organization was formed in 1975, called the Grand Council of United States Societies. The Grand Council included police and fire as well as civilian Emerald Societies. The civilian Emeralds Societies included professionals from the Board of Education, Transit and Housing Authorities, Public Utilities and telephone companies, the Department of Sanitation and private bus companies. The Grand Council provided a forum for all the Emerald Societies to meet and share information. This regional concept proved to be the model for the formation of statewide organizations, as well as the forerunner to a larger national movement which would start twenty years later in Washington, DC.

Nine new Emerald Societies were established in the 1980?s. Rhode Island and West Haven, CT came aboard in 1982. New Jersey started three more Emerald Societies in Cape May, Mercer and Union counties. Three new fire Emerald Societies were also started, firefighters of Washington, DC (‘80), Nassau County (‘86) and Jersey City (‘87). In the nation’s capitol the Police Emerald Society of the Washington, DC area was formed in 1986. This Emerald Society had a unique membership as it came from three jurisdictions: Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. The nation’s capitol is considered a federal city and therefore membership was extended to any Irish-American law enforcement officer in the United States. In the beginning, the Police Emerald Society of Washington served a dual purpose; serving the local law enforcement community as well as law enforcement communities across the county which did not have an Emerald Society.

The last decade of the 20th century proved to be the most significant and also the most historical time in the Emerald Society movement. Unprecedented growth happened during this time. Since 1990, thirty-two new police or fire Emerald Societies were founded nationally, five times the amount of any previous decade. The primary reason for the significant growth was due to the formation of a nationwide organization called the National Conference of Law Enforcement Emerald Societies. The influence of the Emerald Society movement had grown from two states in 1958 to twenty-one states by 1998. New Jersey saw the biggest increase of Emerald Societies with seven, followed by New York with six. The reason for the large increase in the “Garden State” was due to the establishment of a statewide organization called the Grand Council of Police & Fire Emerald Societies of New Jersey which was founded in 1994. New societies which were formed in New Jersey include Passaic County (‘91), Middlesex and Ocean Counties (‘93), Camden County (‘94), Middletown (‘95), Monmouth County (‘95) and Bayonne (‘96). New York already with the largest contingent of Emerald Societies added Nassau County Sheriff’s (‘90), Suffolk County Sheriff’s (‘94), Westchester County Corrections (‘94), Drug Enforcement Administration (‘94), Federal Law Enforcement Agencies (‘95) and New York State Court Officers (‘95). The East Coast Corridor spread north and south forming Emerald Societies in Delaware (‘90), Vermont (‘95), Prince Georges County Firefighters (‘95), Baltimore (‘96), Pittsburgh (‘97), Atlanta, GA (‘97), South Florida (‘97) and Worcester, MA (‘98).

The Emerald network moved off the east coast and started moving west by adding Emerald Societies in Wisconsin (‘90), Minnesota (‘92), Wichita, KS ( ‘95), St. Louis MO (‘97), Omaha, NE (‘97) and Heart of America, KS (‘98). The movement finally reached the west coast with the formation of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Emerald Society in 1992, followed by the San Francisco Bay Area Law Enforcement Emerald Society in 1998. Not to be left behind, Texas, the Lone Star State, also weighed in with their Irish heritage. Deep in the heart of Texas, members of the Austin Police Department started an Emerald Society in 1997, followed by their brothers to the north, Ft. Worth/Dallas Public Safety forming their Emerald Society in 1998.

The crowning moment in the Emerald Society movement came with the formation of a national organization. This vision came from Patrick F. O’Brien, who was the President of the Police Emerald Society of Washington, DC. The idea was the inclusion of all Public Safety Emerald Societies nationwide. The main goals were to bring the Emerald Societies together and to start new ones, improve communications between the societies, to work in concert with each other, to promote and preserve the accomplishments of the Irish-Americans in the Public Safety professions and to provide a unified voice for the Emerald Societies to the Congress of the United States as well as other governmental entities.

Patrick F. O’Brien, a lieutenant with the United States Park Police, pursued his dream and persuaded his own Emerald Society to support and financially back this worthwhile and far reaching endeavor. On May 14th, 1995, during National Police Week, an exploratory meeting was held in Washington, DC. Eighteen Emerald Societies from across the country gave unanimous consent to move forward in forming a National Emerald Society. After that historic meeting, in a spirit of brotherhood and remembrance, the Emerald Societies and Pipebands marched to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial for a small memorial service. That marked the first Memorial March which became an annual event during National Police Week. The official establishment of the National Conference of Law Enforcement Emerald Societies (NCLEES) occurred on October 28th, 1995. On that date in the city of Philadelphia, twenty-one Emerald Societies unanimously passed a resolution approving the national by-laws, thus creating the national organization. On May 14th, 1996, in the nation’s capitol, the first National Executive Board was elected by the Board of Directors. Patrick F. O’Brien was elected the first National President. Congressman Thomas Manton of Queens, NY and a former member of the New York City Police Department, administered the Oath of Office to the National Board.

Since that momentous occasion in 1995, the National Conference has been moving forward with it’s directed mission. Since it’s creation, NCLEES has assisted in establishing fifteen new Emerald Societies in thirteen different states. Each year during National Police Week, the National Conference sponsors the annual Emerald Society/Pipeband March and Service at the Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. The Memorial March and Service has become an integral part of the National Police Week activities.

Since its humble beginnings almost fifty years ago, the Emerald Society movement has reached new heights. The Irish have a long and proud history in the Public Safety professions. A glance through the rosters of any police or fire department in America will be filled with Irish names. Unfortunately, so are the walls dedicated to the men and women who have given their lives in the service of these noble professions. The Emerald Society is here to preserve that legacy and to ensure that America never forgets!

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