The New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade is one of Irish America’s grand traditions, 255 years old now and still going strong, weathering ups and downs and, for 2016, moving beyond the controversy that has dogged the event for 25 years: whether or not an Irish LGBT group should have a place in the line of march.
The Lavender and Green Alliance will participate in this year’s parade for the first time and parade leaders are thrilled that, finally, the news cycle will shift away from headlines of protest to stories that highlight all that is good about Irish America.
Members of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade Foundation are keen to fully promote the parade and all its facets now that that the march is “inclusive and welcoming to all members of our community,” foundation co-founder and vice chairman Sean Lane tells the Irish Voice.
The foundation was formed in 2012 by Lane, a senior private banker at J.P. Morgan, and Hilary Beirne, the long-time executive secretary of the parade and a member of its board, to provide financial support for the march. Lane and Beirne envisage a renewed expansion of the parade brand and a year-round presence in the Irish American community.
“Our parade is the biggest Irish event in the country. People love to come to New York for March 17,” says Lane, a New York native who relocated to Galway with his Irish parents when he was nine.
“There’s no reason why the parade can’t have a bigger presence in the community now. We have a great platform to promote different causes, and that’s what the foundation would like to do.”
Foundation chairman Beirne, a native of Co. Roscommon who has handled all of the parade’s logistics for more than two decades, says that while the parade is financially stable, it’s a break-even operation without any significant reserve funds.
Beirne recalled meeting with a group of Irish American business leaders a few years back who were shocked to learn that the world-famous New York parade operated just barely in the black, and didn’t have a substantial bank balance given its 250-plus years of existence.
“Many of these people were bankers and other executives, and they wanted to know how they could help the parade,” Beirne says.
“We had a second meeting with them, and after that I called Sean and said that we should form a foundation which would allow us to engage with people on Wall Street and across New York and America, and even in Ireland.”
The response was hugely positive says Lane, who put together a list of people who might want to join the foundation, which has not for profit status.
“We were so happy to see that so many wanted to connect with the parade,” Lane adds.
Two supporters from day one were Cardinal Timothy Dolan and his predecessor Cardinal Edward Egan, who attended the foundation’s launch party at the Bank of America headquarters in Bryant Park in October of 2012. Other notables at the event included then NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, grand marshal of the parade in 2010.
Lane and Beirne acknowledge that while their call to form a parade foundation was well received, some potential members were wary due to the Irish LGBT ban and the negative attention it attracted.
“We explained to foundation members that they wouldn’t be involved in the politics and that this was a separate organization to support the parade financially and to take care of its future,” Beirne said.
“But yes, there were people who were concerned about the negativity that was going on.”
Lane says the foundation was always intent on helping to move the parade forward, “and one day getting past the controversy.”
“For the past four years we’ve had great people involved, but we couldn’t get more because of the negative coverage. That is now in the past, and we are greatly encouraged for the future.”
Beirne and Lane see the venerable parade as a vehicle to shine a light on issues important to the Irish community and beyond. The parade played host to the children and families of the Sandy Hook massacre in 2013, three months after the atrocity, but the gesture was hardly noticed by the media which has been focused on the annual LGBT exclusion.
“We had the Police Service of Northern Ireland march two years ago,” Lane points out, “but again, not a lot of coverage here for that historic act because of what was happening with the LGBT protests and Mayor Bill de Blasio boycotting the parade as a result.”
The foundation has raised a substantial amount of funds since its inception, in the six figures, and supports long-time parade icons like the Fighting 69th Regiment which leads the march every year.
“We very much want to reach out to the stakeholders in the parade,” says Beirne. “And the 69th Regiment is at the top of the list.”
Fifth Avenue on March 17 is chock full of marchers and spectators from around the world who make it their mission to celebrate the Irish holiday in New York, and the parade always goes off without a hitch. The operation, though, requires months of diligent planning conducted by Beirne and a core group of volunteers, and one part-time paid staffer.
The foundation maintains that the parade is deserving of a proper, full time staff headed by an executive director who can take the lead in growing the parade’s footprint. The future goal is to have a multi-million dollar endowment to help fund the parade’s operational expenses, and to have the march become an even larger presence in Irish America.
“For example, we don’t have proper merchandising which a parade the size of New York should have,” said Lane. “That’s one thing we can work on. The parade is so busy and gets so many requests year round. It would be great to be in a position to respond.”
Beirne says parade officials have been invited to address organizers of large public gatherings in places such as China and London because the huge New York march is noted for its expertise in organization and crowd control.
Beirne recalled speaking in London a few years ago at an Irish conference, and the audience couldn’t understand why the New York parade enforces regulations such as a dress code and precise rules for banners and marching units.
“I explained that a parade of our size would have severe problems with control of crowds if we didn’t implement very strict rules,” Beirne said.
“And as for the dress code, I said that our parade was created in an era when the Irish were heavily discriminated against in New York, and the marchers at the time responded by putting on their Sunday best to show that they were as good as anyone else. That tradition and format has stayed with us throughout the years, and it’s one of the secrets to our success.”
The foundation will host its fourth annual St. Patrick’s dinner on March 16; it also sponsors a year golf outing to raise funds, and is planning further activities for the future. Cardinal Dolan continues to show his interest by hosting an annual St. Patrick’s cocktail party for the foundation’s members and guests.
“We’re excited. The sky is the limit for the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade,” Lane said.
For further information, visit www.stpatricksdayfoundation.org.