Doctor Kevin Cahill, president emeritus of the American Irish Historical Society, who served as grand marshal in 2000, credits Dunleavy with “really turning the parade around.”
“I’ve known the parade since I was a child, I went with my family, and by the time John took over, it had fallen on very difficult times both organizationally and financially. I think in the years that he’s run that parade he’s done a remarkable job in bringing it back to its best, and that should be a great source of pride to the American Irish community,” he said recently. “It’s an American Irish parade – it was founded not to tell what the Irish did but to tell what the immigrant did in this country.
“John is a solid, good person devoted to showing the very best, as he perceives it, of the American Irish experience on one day and with great joy and pride. As grand marshal I really was impressed with the organization. He’s very much a man trying to do the right thing.”
Despite all the kudos for financial stewardship, the ongoing struggle of Dunleavy’s chairmanship has undoubtedly been the annual conflict between the parade committee and Irish LGBT groups, including the Irish Gay and Lesbian Organization (IGLO) and the Lavender and Green Alliance, who seek the right to march in the parade under their own banners.
In 1991, Division 7 of the Manhattan AOH invited members from the Irish LGBT community to march with them. They accepted and were joined by then-Mayor David Dinkins, who forwent the marching position traditionally reserved for the mayor at the head of the procession. In one of the darker moments in the parade’s history, Mayor Dinkins and those marching with him were heckled by some of the spectators and were at one point doused with beer. After the LGBT groups were banned from the parade the following year, a legal battle ensued and went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which unanimously voted in 1995 that parade organizers, as a private entity, have the right to exclude groups whose messages they do not approve of.
Currently, parade guidelines state “The only banners allowed are ones identifying the unit or ‘England Get Out of Ireland!’”
If it can be said that Dunleavy has a counterpart on the other side of this debate, it would have to be Brendan Fay, founder of the Lavender and Green Alliance and co-creator of the all-inclusive St. Pat’s for All parade, which takes place every March in Queens, New York. In the lead up to the parades each year, both Fay and Dunleavy are sought after by the media for comments.
In the past, Dunleavy has said that despite their differences he considers Fay to be a friend and was especially touched by the fact that Fay was among the first to call to offer condolences following the death of Jim Barker, a dear friend of Dunleavy’s who steered the parade towards financial stability.
"I have respect for Brendan Fay and have no problem with him as an individual," he said. "We just disagree on this issue. That's the great thing about America. We're all allowed to express our opinions."
Speaking over the phone, Fay recalled that he first met Dunleavy at a St. Patrick’s Day event hosted by the Irish Consulate in New York. “That’s very different to meeting each other through the media,” he said. “Meeting in person can change the way you think about someone. The first important thing to remember is that we’re both human beings. We’re both immigrants from Ireland and New York is our home. John is the leader of the Fifth Avenue [St. Patrick’s Day] Parade, the biggest Irish celebration in the US, and I am an organizer of St. Pat’s for All in Queens. . . . I understand and appreciate all the work that goes into organizing a community parade.
“However,” he added, “there is no undoing the way John and others involved with the Fifth Avenue parade have spoken about me and other Irish LGBT immigrants,” referring to a frequently quoted 2006 interview in which Dunleavy likened the idea of LGBT groups marching in the Fifth Avenue St. Patrick’s Day parade to Neo-Nazis marching in an Israeli parade or the KKK marching in an African American parade.
“So many people have told me that they have regretted this shift in the message of the Fifth Avenue parade, the redefinition of it as an Irish Catholic event that does not fully reflect the parade’s tradition of celebrating Irish immigrants, diaspora and culture,” said Fay, who dates this shift to approximately 1991, after the first and only time LGBT groups were able to march with the parade, as part of the Manhattan AOH Division 7’s contingent.