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John Dunleavy at the 2005 St. Patrick's Day Parade

The Man Who Runs the Parade

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John Dunleavy at the 2005 St. Patrick's Day Parade

There have been controversies too. While  McAleese was the first President of Ireland ever to review the parade, she turned down an offer this year to preside as the Grand Marshal. Many theorized that McAleese rejected the offer because of her ties to gay and lesbian organizations in Ireland. The Parade Committee has prohibited gay organizations from participating in the march for over 20 years, even winning the right to do so in a Supreme Court decision handed down in 1995.

“We’ve had our battles with the gay and lesbian community,” says Dunleavy. “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, Fraternals, and everything else. But as regards under their own banner, as far as we’re concerned, that’s not acceptable.”

Dunleavy was the chairman when the initial decision was made and has not seen the controversy die down since, nor does he expect it will anytime soon. Regardless, the parade goes on: the 250th march will have Mary Higgins Clark, the renowned Irish-American author, as its Grand Marshal, and is also marked by many special events. The all-volunteer committee that organizes the parade laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery earlier this year, among its many events that pay homage to the Irish connection to the U.S. military. The committee has also planned a 250th Anniversary Gala on March 15th at Chelsea Piers, which promises to include a fireworks display on the Hudson River.

But the crowning jewel, as always, is the parade itself, which Dunleavy has timed down to the minute over the years. Through meticulous preparation and renewed fundraising efforts, Dunleavy has helped to shape the parade into one of the biggest, if not the biggest, event in New York City. And yet it remains a non-profit endeavor, planned each year by a mere seven volunteers who make up the Officers’ Committee.

While a hardworking few run the parade, Dunleavy also wants to reach out to the next generations. “There’s many ways young people can get involved… But it’s the input they give that is the most important. When I get out on Fifth Avenue, it still puts a shiver up my spine. I’d love to see more young people while I’m walking up the avenue, involved with the parade.”

Dunleavy is taking his last walk as chairman this March 17th, but he is already at work planning his
next project. A recipient of a Doctorate in Humane Letters from Quinnipiac University in 2007, he will soon write his memoirs. Those million and one stories should come in handy.

Learn more about this year's St. Patrick's Day Parade.

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