He was raised in a home in Co. Limerick without running water or electricity by parents who were devoted to learning, and those memories will loom large for Northwell Health President and CEO Michael Dowling when he leads the 255th New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade up Fifth Avenue next March 17. Dowling was formally unveiled as grand marshal during a reception at the Irish Consulate last Thursday evening attended by more than 200 members of the Irish community who plan on marching behind Dowling, a native of Knockaderry who received an enthusiastic welcome and promised to carry on the proud tradition of grand marshals past.

“This is a celebration of Irish history and Irish culture and the emigration of the Irish over here from the very beginning and the extraordinary things we’ve accomplished,” said Dowling, who leads 63,000 employees at Northwell, the largest private employer in New York State.

“It’s a celebration of all the people that came before us, in many ways different and more difficult times.   All of us here stand on the shoulders of those who came before us because they created a circumstance that we can now be here and take pride in what it is that we have become.”

Dowling called the parade a “celebration of unity, a celebration of community, the Irish community, all different parts of it, coming together and working together representing who we really are: a major, major force in the history of the United States, and an ongoing major force in the future of the United States.

“We do best when we work together as a community, when we understand the interdependence of all …  when we understand that St. Patrick’s Day is for everybody, not just for some people but for everybody.”

Dowling seemed to be alluding to the inclusion of gay groups in the parade’s line of march, a contentious issue that moved in 2015 with the inclusion of OUT@NBCUniversal, the LGBT support group of the parade’s broadcast network NBC, and was finally settled this year when the first Irish gay group, the Lavender and Green Alliance, took its place on Fifth Avenue.

Lavender and Green leaders Brendan Fay and Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy were at the consulate for the announcement last week and hailed the appointment of Dowling as grand marshal. Fay and Walsh D’Arcy will travel to Dublin at the beginning of next month to receive the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad in recognition of their work on behalf of the Irish gay community in the U.S.

Leaders from many Irish groups were at the reception, as were some representatives from the parade’s affiliated organizations who are looking to have a greater say in how the march is managed.  The chairman of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Celebration Committee, John Tully, and some of his allies were also in attendance.

Missing from the festivities were Dr. John Lahey, the chairman of the parade board who was recuperating from a recent surgery, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who sent his greetings to Dowling via a letter that was read by Irish Consul General Barbara Jones.

“I know, Michael, that you will have a delightful and memorable experience meeting tens of thousands of marchers who come together to celebrate Irish heritage and honor the patron saint of Ireland and the Archdiocese of New York,” Dolan wrote.

A piper from the Fighting 69th Regiment led Dowling into the room, where his wife Kathleen and daughter Elizabeth were waiting.  Dowling said he’s the only member of his family living in the U.S., but that a large contingent from Limerick has already made travel plans for March 17.

He also plans on taking the next few months to connect further with the Irish American community.

“I want to get to know more and more people.  I’m very interested in being engaged in all of the events that people want me to be engaged in during the period,” Dowling said.

“To me, it’s not just one day. It’s a celebration of what we do that day and also around it. I couldn’t be more proud.”

What will Dowling be thinking as he heads up Fifth Avenue on March 17?  “Well, I’ll be hoping that I don’t trip,” he told the Irish Voice with a laugh.

Dowling, a voracious reader, also spoke of studying virtually non-stop during his childhood, a habit that still remains.

“I work seven days a week and my favorite time is always learning time to this day,” he says.  “Because what we don’t know is really extraordinary. I’m always trying to close the gap.”