I have long been opposed to gays marching in the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Fifth Avenue.
It isn’t because my father was a past national president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which ran the parade for a century and started the rule that no gays need apply. Faith and begorrah, heaven knows I have nothing against gays. I have something against Irish parades.
It has just always seemed strange to me that gays were fighting so hard for so long to bust into such a hoary, boozy, corny tradition. Didn’t they have something more fun and cool to do?
I was traumatized by an Irish parade as a child when I was awakened one morning on a family trip to a Hibernian convention in St. Louis by a band loudly playing, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” My sister, brother and I raced to the window and saw our parents leading a march of Hibernians from Mass to breakfast at our hotel. It was mortifying. I still can’t hear that song without wincing.
But certainly, if gays want in, they should get in. And that’s why Mayor Bill de Blasio is right to blow off the parade in protest of the Putinesque restrictions.
De Blasio, who has said his mother was raised a Catholic but did not bring him up in the church, is being joined in the boycott by his mini-me, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. The Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, is coming, but one of his Cabinet members has refused to march.
Some New York liberals and elected officials pressed the mayor to bar uniformed police and firefighters from marching, but de Blasio, perhaps fearing a shellacking with a shillelagh, demurred. The mayor of Boston, Martin Walsh, also vowed not to march in his city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade if banner-waving gays are banned, although he’s being more conciliatory than de Blasio, working to broker a deal.
The largest parade in the Western world, as Niall O’Dowd, the founder of irishcentral.com and The Irish Voice, calls it, is no longer run by the AOH but by the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee, seven volunteers in the Bronx directed by John Dunleavy, a retired bus driver and superintendent. But O’Dowd says that Dunleavy, who seems like he stepped out of a different era, is “king of a Potemkin village.” The power behind the parade is Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
“Cardinal Dolan is essentially the arbiter,” O’Dowd says. “Every grand marshal is checked with him. The parade chairman always seeks the approval of the cardinal for who marches in the parade.” The big issue organizers face today is: Are they Irish or are they Catholic? If it was just an Irish parade, these people would have the power to let gays march. But the real power is with the Catholic Church.”
Pope Francis has shown a more conciliatory attitude toward gays than some conservative American clerics like Dolan, asking, “Who am I to judge?”
Christine Quinn, a lesbian who organized protests on the policy and who says it was wrong for former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to march in the parade, explained to me why she thinks “it’s tragic.”
“My father is 87, and we always hoped we’d get to march in it together one day,” the former council speaker said. “He marched when he was in high school and took me to it as a child. The organizers don’t understand there are real human consequences and pain in this discriminating.”
The Irish Voice reports that a special guest at St. Patrick’s Day “parade for all” in Queens — which, unlike Manhattan, allows gay marchers to carry banners and signs — will be renowned Dublin drag queen Panti Bliss, whose real name is Rory O’Neill. He told me that in the “glittery, nutty” Dublin parade, “there’s no problem being absolutely as gay as anyone wants.”
He said he was in the Irish parade one year “chained to the top of a papier-mâché, fiery mountain singing ‘Holding Out For a Hero’ by Bonnie Tyler, with 50 children dressed up as Celtic warriors in little boats saving the trapped drag queen attacked by a giant one-eyed monster.”
The Manhattan parade organizers, he said, are, ironically, like pious Orangemen, “very much tied up in an old Ireland that doesn’t really exist anymore.”
He finds the prudery odd. “If they’re not kind of gay, they’re not really a parade,” he said. “A heterosexual parade seems to me an organized walk in the traffic lane.”