New York's Irish parade grapples with march of time

With its controversial history, Manhattan’s St Patrick’s Day parade has become an event where ideas of Irishness collide, writes…

With its controversial history, Manhattan's St Patrick's Day parade has become an event where ideas of Irishness collide, writes FRIEDA KLOTZ

ON A WEDNESDAY evening in the middle of January, about 150 men and women gathered in the president’s room of the New York Athletic Club, just by Central Park. Many Irish-American associations were represented: the United Irish Counties, the Gaelic Societies, the various Emerald Guilds and Holy Name Societies, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and its women’s counterpart the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, and others.

Everyone in the room stood up and said an Our Father and then a Hail Mary. John Dunleavy, originally from Coole, Co Westmeath, and now from Riverdale in the Bronx, said a prayer for the 251st St Patrick’s Day parade, and then it was time for business.

This was the delegates’ meeting of the New York City St Patrick’s Day Parade. It is the biggest Irish parade in the world, drawing up to three million spectators and watched by millions more on television. For a day it shuts down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in a spectacle of green and gold and military display. It is a huge logistical operation, requiring months of planning, fundraising and liaising with city authorities.


The committee’s 25 men and two women, all volunteers, have decades of experience. Dunleavy counts 41 years, the past 19 as chairman; Hilary Beirne, an officer, has helped for 24. Beirne jokes that committee members’ spouses become parade widows from January to March.

During the 1970s and early 1980s the event was plagued by riotous behaviour, until the police and the parade organisers cracked down. The committee is still haunted by the cliche of Irish drinking. Strict rules now ordain how marchers should behave: business attire is required; no green hats, sneakers or oddball dress; no animals or mascots; no eating, drinking or smoking.

Dunleavy says there is no desire to return to the unruliness of those decades. “Alcohol consumption back then was absolutely horrendous,” he says. “They were drunk as skunks along on Fifth Avenue. And then up along on Central Park, the debauchery that was going on with men and women – forget about it.”

The Fifth Avenue parade is not the only one in New York. Throughout March, St Patrick’s celebrations flower across the city. They have already taken place in Staten Island and Sunnyside, in Queens, and will soon be on in the Bronx (tomorrow) and Brooklyn (March 18th).

These events are not so much about Ireland as about being Irish in the US. “It’s a people reinterpreting their identity and reasserting their understanding of it in another country,” says Peter Quinn, a writer whose ancestors came over to the US in 1847. He is a co-grand marshal of the parade in Queens. “The minute the Irish got off the boat in New York they were no longer Irish – they were still Irish, but they were becoming something else.”

But as the largest St Patrick’s celebration in the city, the Fifth Avenue event has become the most fraught – a hub where different ideals of Irishness meet and often collide. Until the 1990s, it was sponsored by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, self-described as “a Catholic, fraternal organisation”, and many on the parade committee are still Hibernian members.

As some parts of the Irish community have grown more liberal, divisions have opened up, and gay and lesbian groups have protested vociferously at their exclusion.

Organisers point out that gay individuals are free to march, just not to publicise their sexuality. But activists such as Brendan Fay say this is an attempt to push them back into the closet.

“Ordinary decent people roll their eyes and wonder what it’s all about,” says Fay, who was arrested multiple times for attempting to participate in the Fifth Avenue parade. He eventually founded the St Pat’s for All parade, a smaller festival going through Sunnyside and Woodside that espouses a deliberately inclusive ethos.

Last month the Consul General of Ireland, Noel Kilkenny, held a party for the St Pat’s for All parade at his residence, at which its grand marshals were announced. It was the first time this had happened (and another first: the Government sent Minister of State Kathleen Lynch to St Pat’s for All as its representative). Several politicians attended, including the 84-year-old former mayor of New York David Dinkins.

Dinkins’s presence was symbolic. Back in 1991 Dinkins, who was New York’s first African-American mayor, marched with the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organisation, whose participation was extremely controversial, instead of at the head of the parade. A report from the time in the New York Times describes how the mayor was forced to duck to avoid beer cans that hurtled through the air in his direction.

Tensions also flared among the Hibernians themselves. The parade of 1993 was almost cancelled, as a split occurred between those in favour of and those against gay inclusion. Two years later the US supreme court came to a decision on the Boston parade, which also held for New York: under the first amendment, parade sponsors had a right to exclude marchers whose message they reject.

The Fifth Avenue parade has swum in complex political waters throughout its history. In 1983, an 81-year-old named Michael Flannery was chosen as grand marshal. He had been a founder of Noraid, a fundraising organisation set up after the start of the Troubles, and was an open supporter of the IRA. In a gesture that made headlines, Cardinal Terence Cooke declined to shake Flannery’s hand. Today the parade’s website still states: “The only banners allowed are ones identifying the unit or ‘England Get Out of Ireland’.” Only a handful of groups choose that message, but Dunleavy says that for now it will remain. “My policy is that until there’s a united Ireland it should stay there.”

At a reception for the grand marshal and aides of the Fifth Avenue parade at Antun’s, a restaurant, late last month, there was little hint of this fractious past. Irish America was on display in its most familiar and traditional forms: green tablecloths and orange napkins on the tables, girls in green dresses and boys sporting green ties. Noel Kilkenny was there, as was the New York senator Chuck Schumer, who sponsored the E3 visa Bill on immigration earlier this year. After dinner, a band played 1960s hits interspersed with jigs. Eddie Fee, a dark-haired 48-year-old from Woodside, did a skilful reel.

After his dance Fee suggested that “people in Ireland are trying to get away from there and people in New York are trying to go back.” It’s an apt definition of the Irish-American paradox.

Yet values have changed and are still changing, both in Ireland and in New York. Donal O’Conghaile, a 23-year-old from Boyle, in Co Roscommon, arrived in New York on March 17th last year and now works in online marketing. “Being Irish is seen very favourably, and people automatically like you when they hear that you’re Irish,” he says.

As a young gay man, however, he finds the parade committee’s refusal to allow homosexual groups to march disturbing. “I guess they see the parade as a family thing and somehow gay groups aren’t family friendly. But it is ridiculous, and I cannot imagine it going on for much longer.”

To Donal Foreman, a 26-year-old film-maker, critic and teacher, the issue is “ridiculous and offensive. It’s supposed to be a parade representing Ireland. Any community or group from Ireland should be allowed to participate.”

Foreman is not keen to engage with the Fifth Avenue parade’s brand of Irishness. “Some people when they come out like to surround themselves with Irish people and be part of that culture, but one of the reasons I came was to engage with everything else,” he says. “There is so much going on that I couldn’t get in Ireland. I don’t find myself pining for that kind of stuff.”

Complex route The parade’s divided history

During the 19th century the Ancient Order of Hibernians became the official sponsor of the New York City St Patrick’s Day Parade.

The parade has a storied history, but the past 20 years have generated a wealth of controversy, as tensions flared within the Irish community, with New York city officials, and within the order itself.

In 1991 rifts began to appear that would lead to what the Irish Echo called a “battle over the shape and future of the parade”. The county board of the Hibernians sued the state board of the Hibernians and, as part of the subsequent agreement, the parade chairman resigned. In 1992, the New York City Commission on Human Rights and the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organisation (Ilgo) also brought a case against the Hibernians for excluding gay groups, but the federal judge declined to intervene.

A year later, an Irish Echo headline ran “Parade War Getting Nasty”. When some Hibernians who favoured gay participation obtained the parade permit from the city, the Hibernians’ national president called for a boycott. The gay-friendly faction withdrew. Celebrations went ahead without a grand marshal, and 230 members and supporters of Ilgo were arrested in protests – a pattern that would continue, to a lesser extent, throughout that decade.

Today an independent committee is responsible for the parade. John Dunleavy, the committee chairman, was at one point a member of the Hibernians, but he says he “kind of dropped out”.

Dunleavy says the Hibernians “participate in the parade but, as regards running the parade, they don’t have any say”. The parade is run by St Patrick’s Day Parade Inc.