US Patrick’s Day marches out of step with Ireland

LGBT bans in New York and Boston reflect a conservatism that lags behind the homeland

The decisions by the New York City and Boston mayors to boycott St Patrick's Day parades over the exclusion of gay, lesbian and transgender groups raises questions about whether Irish-American groups are out of step with the progressive changes in Irish society and beyond.

Calls for inclusion extend beyond these groups too. Last year, Irish Ambassador to the US Anne Anderson asked the oldest Irish-American group, the Friendly Sons of St Patrick, to consider changing its name to the "Friendly Sons and Daughters of St Patrick" to be more inclusive.

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore skipped a visit to Savannah, Georgia, home to the largest and oldest St Patrick's Day celebrations in the American south, on a trip to the region last year because it would have involved attending a men-only dinner hosted by the Hibernian Society of Savannah.

This year Taoiseach Enda Kenny is juggling with awkward local politics in Irish America on his annual St Patrick's Day visit. He is visiting two cities where mayors have taken stands against the exclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups. Kenny has said he will participate in Manhattan's Fifth Avenue parade, the biggest in the city, which mayor Bill de Blasio is boycotting.


Gilmore has said the Government should be represented at the Manhattan parade, which is attended by more than a million people, but said the rules should be changed.

Boston's newly elected mayor Marty Walsh, the son of Connemara immigrants, is taking over where predecessor Tom Menino left off and is refusing to attend the South Boston parade if the organisers won't allow gays and lesbians to march. Kenny will be in Boston on March 16th, the day of the parade, and Walsh hopes to broker a compromise.

"I'm working on it . . . I hope [to reach a deal]," he told the Boston Herald this week. "In 2014, it's time for the parade to be an inclusive parade. And it's something that I'm working with. I've had some conversations early on and they have been very good conversations."

Gulf between factions
Tensions between LGBT groups and organisers of the parades may not be as high as in the 1990s when there were arrests and legal challenges over the exclusion of gay pride groups, but the gulf between the factions is still as wide.

Brendan Fay, from Drogheda, founded the St Pat's For All parade in Sunnyside, Queens, in 2000.It includes LGBT groups and de Blasio has attended in the past. He believes the Fifth Avenue parade "sends out the message of Ireland of the Unwelcomes" and is not reflective of Ireland and Irish America today.

“It would be a distortion to easily stereotype Irish America or what we are seeing happening back home,” said Fay. “We certainly need our parades and our cultural events to reflect more the shift that we are experiencing in Ireland and Irish America.”

Bill Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League and an Irish citizen, says LGBT groups want to "impose their own identity" on the parade. He notes anti-abortion advocates are also welcome to march, but they are not allowed to carry anti-abortion signs: "It is not about barring gays – it is about barring any contingent, group, banner or sign that brings attention to any cause other than what is being celebrated on the day."

Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy marched in the Fifth Avenue parade every year as a girl, sometimes in her Irish dancing costume, but has not participated for many years because of the exclusion of gay groups. She challenges the assumption it is a religious parade, saying it is an Irish cultural and political parade that gives Irish Americans a chance to celebrate the history and culture of the diaspora.

St Patrick vs modern Ireland
"St Patrick's Day parades all over the USA are not 'celebrating Ireland'," said Walsh D'Arcy, a co-chair of the St Pat's For All parade. "They are about celebrating Irish America. That is a very different concept. Like other ethnic groups, they want to remember their roots as immigrants. But most will never visit Ireland."

Irish Americans don’t know the Republic is “a much more progressive country than the US,” she said.

Fay hopes the Taoiseach can engage in dialogue with the Manhattan parade organisers to negotiate a resolution so LGBT groups can march with him on Fifth Avenue: “Irish Americans easily hop on planes and negotiate in Belfast and other places to work on negotiating resolutions of conflict, yet we have one right here on our own doorstep on Fifth Avenue that we have failed to address and resolve.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times