George Mitchell addresses guests at the New York Athletic Club on Monday.Nuala Purcell / Irish Voice.

The lingering behind the scenes controversy surrounding the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade received no official mention on Monday night as the grand marshal for this year’s march, former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, was formally unveiled at a reception in the New York Athletic Club attended by some 200 guests, many of them members of the parade’s affiliated organizations.

There were a number of notable newcomers at the annual celebration, chief among them members of the Lavender and Green Alliance led by Brendan Fay and Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy. The Irish gay group will march up Fifth Avenue for the first time this year under its own banner, finally ending a bitter, decades-long battle over an identifiable Irish LGBT group taking part in the march.

Absent from the festivities for the first time was John Dunleavy, the former chairman of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Celebration Committee who stepped down from the chairmanship in November, but retains a seat on the parade’s board of directors. For years Dunleavy presided over the grand marshal announcement and all other parade-related activities, but his place in the parade hierarchy was downgraded in June of last year after a board meeting unanimously elected Quinnipiac University President Dr. John Lahey to chair of the board of directors and act on behalf of the parade.

Dunleavy, a native of Co. Westmeath who was involved in the parade for more than 40 years, was an unyielding opponent of gay groups marching in the parade, but on Monday members of Lavender and Green chose to look to the future instead of the past.

“It is incredibly special being here and we are so grateful,” Walsh D’Arcy told the Irish Voice. “We are looking forward to a great parade.”

The parade’s long time executive secretary and board member Hilary Beirne emceed Monday’s proceedings, which included Mitchell, last year’s grand marshal Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Lahey and Irish Consul General Barbara Jones on the dais.

Lahey, the parade’s grand marshal in 1997, paid tribute to Dunleavy in his remarks, though a lawsuit that Dunleavy filed last October against Lahey and parade board member Frank Comerford remains in Bronx Supreme Court and is scheduled to be heard at the end of this month.

Lahey offered “special thanks” to Dunleavy for his more than four decades of service to the parade. “I think it’s safe to say that no one has given more to this parade over that period of time than John Dunleavy,” Lahey said to applause.

Lahey also singled out Dunleavy’s replacement, John Tully, as Parade and Celebration Committee chairman. “John is working extremely well with me and the board of directors in representing not only the committee but the affiliated organizations, 180 strong, that are such an important part of the parade,” Lahey said.

In his prayer, Dolan said he had “happy memories of last year’s high privilege of serving as grand marshal” -- a year that featured, for the first time, an openly gay group, [email protected], taking part in the parade.

The plaudits were many for former Senate Majority Leader Mitchell, who brokered the Good Friday Agreement between Unionists and Nationalists in 1998. Jones said he “proclaimed a new basis for freedom and reconciliation in Ireland,” and “changed Irish history,” while Lahey said that Mitchell has “sometimes been described as an Arab American, or an Irish American, but there can be no doubt that he’s a great American.”

“Perhaps Senator Mitchell’s greatest gift,” Lahey added, “is the gift he gave to the people of Ireland – peace.”

Mitchell’s remarks alternated between humor – he told stories about attending Irish American events after the Good Friday deal, including one in which a woman mistook him for Henry Kissinger – and humbleness, as he paid tribute to his working class parents of Irish and Lebanese background who died penniless but full of hope because of the success of their five children.

“They lived their entire lives on the brink of economic failure … in their minds they were successful because their children all went to college, and each of us lived lives that would have been beyond the imagination of our parents.

“I believe in the American dream,” Mitchell said, “because I have lived it.”

Monday’s event also unveiled the 2016 aides to the grand marshal: Tom Mullany (New York County), Timothy O’Donoghue (Bronx County), Bridget O’Brien (Queens County), Virginia Sheehan (Kings County), Jack King (Richmond County), Regina McGannon Begley (Nassau County), James Walsh (Suffolk County), Alice Droogan (Westchester County), Kevin G. Donohue (Rockland County), Kevin Dooner (Orange County), Martin Dunne (United Irish Counties), Keith Lavallee (Grand Council), Eddie Dowling (Knights of St. Patrick), and aide at large Geraldine Johnson, whose father fought alongside those seeking Irish freedom at the GPO in Dublin in 1916. This year’s parade will be held in tribute to the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising.

The grand marshal and aides will be feted at Antun’s in Queens Village on Sunday, February 21.