At 75 years of age, John Dunleavy has been the chairman of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade for a venerable 19 years. That’s close to two decades at the helm of one of the largest – if not the largest – celebrations of Irish heritage in the world.
This year Dunleavy is back in the center of the controversy over LGBT groups marching openly in the parade. After many years of this conflict, it's a position he's used to and one he possibly even relishes, having stated that controversy is good for the parade.
Those hoping for a shift in attitude this year will likely be disappointed, insiders say.
Parade committee vice-chairman, Dr. John L. Lahey, President of Quinnipiac University, signals that change is unlikely under Dunleavy.
From Dr. Lahey’s perspective, Dunleavy has worked to mitigate the issue throughout his tenure. “It has become less significant and less in the news and I think the parade has been more effective in communicating that we don’t discriminate against any individuals marching in the parade and that we welcome all people, all they have to do is have some relationship with one of the approved organizations that march,” he told IrishCentral.
“Under John’s leadership even that issue, which has been divisive in the past, I think has been less so in recent years. John understands the complexities. Nothing’s easy, particularly in New York City - just about anything you do can perhaps be viewed by some people as excluding them.
"But that’s certainly not the history of the St. Patrick’s Day parade. It’s been a parade open to anyone who’s part of an organization that celebrates St. Patrick. There are other days to celebrate other things, and thankfully in New York we have parades for everyone who has their interests and values and ethnic groups. . . . I’m certainly comfortable with John’s leadership, even on this particular issue. I think he’s very sensitive and very appreciative of it and I think he believes, as I do, that we’ve struck the right balance.”
Dunleavy was not accessible to be interviewed but he has made clear in past interviews that he wants a focus on the positive aspects of the parade, despite the annual media - and often political - conflict that brings the LGBT issue front and center.
“We’ve had our battles with the gay and lesbian community,” Dunleavy acknowledged to sister publication Irish America magazine in 2011. “I never ask anybody who they are, in any way, shape, or form if they want to march in the parade. When you look at the percentages, there’s probably 160,000-180,000 people marching in the parade, and there’s probably a couple of thousand gay and lesbian individuals [marching] with the Emerald Societies, counties, schools, colleges, fraternal [societies], and everything else. But as regards under their own banner, as far as we’re concerned, that’s not acceptable.”
"It would change the spirit of the parade,” he told the New York Irish Examiner in a 2007 interview. "It's not a coincidence that the parade starts with a mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral."
Still, there have been many highlights: the time Dunleavy, a former transit dispatcher, got the crosstown buses re-routed so the parade could flow uninterrupted; the solemnly powerful moment during the 2002 parade when the entire procession – spectators included – stopped and turned to face south, holding a minute of silence to remember the lives lost on September 11; famous grand marshals, such as Maureen O’Hara, Cardinals John O’Connor and Edward Egan, and Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Albert Reynolds, as well as less well-known but equally deserving figures from the worlds of business and public service.
In that 2011 interview with Irish America to mark the parade’s landmark 250th anniversary, Dunleavy said it was to be his last year as chairman of the parade, with vice-chairman John L. Lahey, likely to step into the lead.
“The worst thing you can do is to stay on too long,” he said at the time. “The parade by its nature needs new blood and new ideas. But you also have an obligation to ensure that when you step down, the parade will continue the same traditions.”
Three years on, there is something keeping Dunleavy in the leadership role. A deep-rooted love for the parade and all it embodies, no doubt, and perhaps some underlying concern that the parade’s traditions hang in the balance; that his obligation to protect them is not yet through.