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.
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.