St Pat’s For All parade in New York ‘restoring the Irish welcome’

Parade in Queens, now in 15th year, founded in response to ban on gay people marching under banner at Manhattan parade

The St Pat’s For All parade. “St Pat’s For All is almost restoring something the Irish were known for – being welcoming,” said founder Brendan Fay. Photograph: Ed Weidman

The St Pat’s For All parade. “St Pat’s For All is almost restoring something the Irish were known for – being welcoming,” said founder Brendan Fay. Photograph: Ed Weidman

Sat, Mar 1, 2014, 01:00

I’m in a small kitchen two blocks away from the last stop on the Q train – it smells like caramel and clean laundry and I’m talking to Tom Moulton, full-time paediatric haematologist oncologist, part-time baker.

“Soda bread, scones, ginger snaps, oatmeal cookies and,” he shakes his head “cashew nut brittle, if I have time”.

The vittles will raise funds for St Pat’s For All – a parade founded by Moulton’s husband Brendan Fay, now in its 15th year, taking place tomorrow afternoon in Queens, New York.

“To say ‘You do not belong’ is such a hurtful and harmful message.” Fay is a small bright-eyed man who, when he looks at you, really looks at you. “All of this talk about Ireland of the welcomes, we’re meant to be known for that, so to me St Pat’s For All is almost restoring something the Irish were known for – being welcoming – it’s a special human quality and people need it.”

Every Saturday morning in the months leading up to the parade, Fay, his co-chair Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy and their committee meet in Molly Blooms, an Irish bar in Sunnyside, to organise portable toilets and pipe bands.

Parade growing

“Puppets, too,” says Dana Cotton, a laughing, dark-haired social worker. “Rescue puppets – there’s a huge warehouse out in Brooklyn where they store these puppets so they’re not destroyed, we go there with a truck, we get a bunch and distribute them to neighbourhood kids who’ve come along to watch.”

The parade is growing. Last year there was an estimated 2,000 people lining the route from Sunnyside to Woodside.

St Pat’s For All was founded many acrimonious years after the 1992 ban on gay people marching under a banner at the Fifth Avenue parade. The ban rumbles on – this year Taoiseach Enda Kenny will march while both the mayor of New York, Bill di Blasio (a long-time supporter of St Pat’s For All) and the city council will not.

Members of Congress Caroline Maloney and Joseph Crowley, public advocate Letitia James, city comptroller Scott M Stringer and the city council will march in Queens.

Consul general Noel Kilkenny will represent the Irish Government and read a letter from President Michael D Higgins.

Reaching the Fifth Avenue parade committee is tricky. They are having a function to honour their grand marshal so I phone their office, ask if I can go. A voice replies: “Absolutely not.”

I wonder if it’s because I’m from Cork, but then I find out their grand marshal is too. Days later, a committee member replies to my emails, saying he’ll be at an Irish-American soccer function, and will speak to me there. I get all dolled up, but he doesn’t show. I pick at some mini-pizzas topped with what seems to be salad cream.

Not bad, but not a patch on the delicious dumplings whizzing around the 50th floor of a beautiful building in midtown Manhattan a couple of nights before.

Grand marshals

The St Pat’s For All celebration of their two grand marshals, Tom Duane and Terry McGovern, is hosted at home by consul general Mr Kilkenny, his wife Hanora Kilkenny and a chubby black labrador whose name I didn’t catch.

Duane, who looks like a clean-shaven Santa, and chuckles like him too, was elected to the State Senate in 1998 and became the Senate’s first openly gay and first openly HIV-positive member.

Proud of his heritage, all four grandparents were Irish immigrants to America, Duane was arrested many times for protesting at the Fifth Avenue parade. He was among the first politicians to support Fay’s parade.

“Now, they’re all at it!” he says, a grin ruining the credibility of his attempted eye-roll.

The other grand marshal is Terry McGovern, a softly spoken human rights lawyer with copper-coloured hair. In a short, moving speech she honours her mother who was working at the World Trade Centre on September 11th. “She was the first one to introduce me to the concept of human rights, she had an amazing sense of humour and would have been so happy that I’m here tonight.”

Malachy McCourt sings Will You Go, Lassie, Go and pretty much everyone joins in, then it’s the turn of Brooklyn man Tony DeMarco. He could be an extra from The Sopranos , but he plays the fiddle like an angel, specifically, an angel from Sligo. He closes his eyes as the notes of the reel whirl and slip through the assembled crowd who whoop and tap as the city glitters beneath them.

Tomorrow at 2pm, St Pat’s for All will be back on Skillman Avenue, hoping for change but not waiting for it, trying to make good on their promise to cherish all the children of the nation equally, inviting everyone around them to join in.