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John Dunleavy, chairman of the New York St. Patrick's Day Parade committee. Photo by: Dominic Totino

John Dunleavy, NY Parade chairman, is not for turning on gays marching

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John Dunleavy, chairman of the New York St. Patrick's Day Parade committee. Photo by: Dominic Totino

“I am conscious of the tremendous responsibility we have as stewards and hosts of Irish events. It’s time for change, and I hope and believe we have an opportunity before us. I welcome John and the members of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee to come to St. Pat’s For All on March 2 – to bring their banners and join us, to march with us and hear our stories.”

Dunleavy may not be for turning. His background is solidly in the conservative Irish Catholic mold. He was born in 1938 in Coole, Co. Westmeath, which he described in a 2007 interview with the New York Irish Examiner as “a beautiful little village with no luxuries.” His father ran a small local shop and a taxi service, the family grew their own vegetables, and electricity arrived in the 1940s. He headed to London in 1956 and worked as a bus driver for seven years before immigrating to the US in 1963, first staying with an aunt in New York.

He found a job through the old Irish Institute on 48th Street, and in order to secure a visa registered with the Selective Service. He was called for duty six weeks later and went to train at Fort Dix before serving for two years in the Hawaiian islands with the 65th Engineer Battalion, 25th Infantry Division

After returning to New York, he began a 25-year career with the Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority – first as a bus operator, then as a dispatcher, then as a superintendent until his retirement in 1990. He and his wife, Maureen, from Co. Cavan, had two daughters, Patricia and Catherine.

Dunleavy’s links to the parade go back over four decades, to his first year volunteering to organize marchers at the parade’s formation point. He climbed the ranks to serve as financial secretary, treasurer, vice chairman, and then chairman. He also became active in the AOH, serving as president of AOH New York Division 9 and of the New York County Board.

In 1993 Dunleavy stepped into the vacancy created when the 1991 split between the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the parade committee resulted in the ousting of previous parade chairman Frank Beirne (also a retired bus dispatcher) who had been in charge since 1984. Beirne was preceded by Judge James J. Comerford, who ran the parade with an acknowledged iron fist for 19 years.

Dunleavy ran the parade from his apartment for a number of years, until the committee opened a small office in the Bronx. The parade committee is also supported by the St. Patrick’s Day Foundation, NYC, which is chaired by Hilary Beirne (a nephew of the late Frank Beirne), and on the board of which Dunleavy sits, along with Cardinal Timothy Dolan and a number of other luminaries from the New York City Irish community.

Dr. Lahey attributes five major improvements in the parade to Dunleavy’s legacy. “I’ve been involved with the parade for 25 years – going back to Judge Comerford and Frankie Beirne – and I’ve been there for all of John’s almost 20 years as chairman,” he reflected during a phone conversation. “First of all, he’s strengthened the finances significantly. Twenty years ago we were in deficit and now, thanks to John and supporters, we’re in a positive position. We’re not wealthy but we have at least some reserves and we’re balancing our budget each and every year.

“The selection process for the grand marshal is also greatly improved. Twenty years ago it got to be a very political process with people campaigning for the role, and it was played out in public in a way that I don’t think was always necessarily a positive reflection of the parade. John changed that process to have it involve a smaller group of people who are part of the board of directors of the parade, and if you look at the quality of grand marshals we’ve had under John’s leadership, they represent the very best of the Irish American community.”

He credits Dunleavy with overseeing the move of the parade’s television broadcast from WPIX to NBC, where it receives the highest ratings out of any program on the day of the parade and is supported by sponsors that include Ford Motor Company, Guinness and Quinnipiac. Lahey also praised him for strengthening the parade’s ties with the military, as each year the Fighting 69th – the Irish Brigade – continues to lead the procession.

Lastly, he noted that Dunleavy has built upon the parade’s relationship with the Archdiocese of New York. “John in particular has been enormously respected by the three Cardinals he’s worked with during his tenure – Cardinal O’Connor, Cardinal Egan, and Cardinal Dolan. While we welcome everyone to march in the parade, we all know that St. Patrick’s Day is dedicated to the patron saint of Ireland and the patron saint of the Archdiocese in New York, and it begins not with the 11 a.m. whistle that starts the marching, but at 8 a.m. with a mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral that’s had overflowing crowds.

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