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.
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.
“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.
“When you put all those together he’s had a remarkable 20 years, especially when you look at how strong and well-thought-of the parade is today. And John’s the most important person. Leadership at the top makes the difference for good or for ill, and John has been a terrific leader.”
As for the possibility of Dunleavy retiring from the chairman’s seat Lahey said “John hasn’t announced any definitive retirement plans that I’m aware of. I’ve been his vice-chairman now for 10 years or so, and he was the vice-chairman for Frankie Beirne before him. The tradition has been – and it is a tradition, not an absolute succession – that when the chairman does step down the vice-chairman takes over.
“But,” he noted, “we do have to be elected every two years by the affiliated organizations. In 2011, John may have been thinking about [stepping down], but in any event we both stood for re-election, we both were elected, and we’re scheduled to be chairman and vice-chairman respectively for at least this parade and the 2015 parade. What happens after 2015 we’ll see, though I must say I’m very busy with Quinnipiac University and John, who fortunately is retired, is able to devote an enormous amount of time to running the parade. I’m happy to serve as vice-chairman and if he does decide to retire some time I’ll be happy to continue to support the parade in whatever way the affiliated organizations would like me to.”
Whether Dunleavy leads the parade for two more years or for 10, at least one thing is likely to remain the same. As he said in 2011, "I'm not uncontroversial, but I stand by my principles. . . . Controversy is good for the parade. It brings attention to it.”