So here we are again approaching St. Patrick’s Day, that time of year when I find myself filled with ancestral pride. And also with burning fury at the little cabals of conservatives who believe it their place to determine what is legitimately “Irish” in America and what is not. This is the story of what St. Patrick’s Day used to mean for me, what it came to mean later, and what it means today.
My childhood was similar to that of many Irish-American kids in the northeastern United States in the 1980s. Twelve-plus years of Catholic schools, eight years as an altar boy, all that. I knew plenty of non-Irish people growing up, but in this area, in that Catholic school, a fair number of the people I knew were of Irish descent like me.
The two rival cities I’ve alternately called home for most of my life, Boston and New York (so similar and yet so different) are among the most Irish of places in America. Plenty of fourth- and fifth-generation Irish-Americans who keep the faith, at least every March. And plenty of people straight from Ireland. In Boston one needn’t go far to find Irish delicacies like Crunchie bars or McVitie’s digestives, or pubs serving traditional Irish dishes involving gobs of curry.
I grew up immersed in the northeastern U.S. version of Irish-ness, a culture neither of Ireland nor of the poor unfortunate un-hypenated Americans for whom McDonald’s would be an Irish restaurant. In Ireland “Irish-ness” can be taken for granted. Not so here, where Irish immigrants banded together in the face of discrimination, and their children had to work hard to maintain an identity in an increasingly multi-cultural society. Boston and New York, if not pure melting pots, are a patchwork quilt with colors that run. But in our way we did maintain that identity. I knew we weren’t exactly like the people in Ireland – a century or two of living on a different continent will do that – but I never felt just “plain old American” either.
These same cities today have large Puerto Rican populations. My wife, born and raised on the island, didn’t understand at first why Puerto Ricans in New York felt the need to proclaim their Boricua-tude to the world so flamboyantly. I understood their sense of alienation. The same feeling made Irish-ness perhaps more important in places like Boston or New York than in Ireland. Indeed, the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade actually was held in Boston in 1737, with the New York parade dating to 1762.
When I was a child we had always, in the background, certain music, certain foods, certain traditions. Both of my grandfathers had a photo of the martyred President Kennedy hanging in the house, though Bobby was my mother’s favorite. My mother’s father, in Brooklyn, told us often about Al Smith. “He would have been president long before Kennedy,” my grandfather would say, “but they wouldn’t let him then just because he was Irish and Catholic.” We had the twice-a-year phone call to the ever-more-distant cousins back in Ireland. The aunt who was detained by the British police in the early 80s after meeting Bernadette Devlin in Belfast. Her older sister, living in England at the time, was referred to by my grandfather as “the Limey daughter.” He was only half-joking.
The apex of this Irish-American-ness was the St. Patrick’s Day, which as I was growing up was largely the same, year after year. My mother made us recite “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” before breakfast. “Christ on my right, Christ on my left...” I remember seeing only my brother and sister to my right and left and thinking “anti-Christ” would be more appropriate. Oatmeal with Irish bacon became our traditional St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, with the black and white puddings. My mother said my grandfather ate that for breakfast when he was a kid, because things were so much better for them here in the States they could afford to buy the bacon regularly, and so they did. I don’t know if that’s true; I'd heard immigrants who had bacon back in Ireland couldn't find it or afford it here, hence the corned beef craze.
In school everyone had something green on. Actually, our Catholic school uniforms were green to begin with, but everyone had some additional green on. And all the teachers were in green. Even my Ukrainian grandmother, often exasperated that her own culture was lost in this Irish Sea, wore green on St. Patrick’s Day. Evening brought a large family gathering, with music playing, usually instrumental reels. Dinner was a medley of shepherd’s pie, that Irish-American staple corned beef and cabbage (I still don’t like cabbage much), boiled potatoes. Dessert almost always was apple cake and shortbread. Before the night was through my grandfather would be uncharacteristically emotional as he preached on to sleepy children about guys named Emmet and O’Connell.
The lowlight of the week would be the recital, when we’d have to crowd with twenty other kids onto a small stage in a dingy hall to prove how little we’d mastered the dance steps. Back then we mostly had names like Mike, Timmy, Jenny, Maureen and Jack. Ciarans and Niamhs were to be found mostly in Ireland.
The highlight of the week was the parades, both the neighborhood one and the big one in the city. In New York the big parade is held on March 17 itself; in Boston it always takes place on the weekend. As the schedule permitted, in either city we’d ride the train and stand along the route. The marchers! The music, bagpipes and all that! (“Who cares if the song’s called ‘Scotland the Brave’?”) Miss Mulcahy’s School of Irish Dance. The Boston Police Gaelic Column. I loved the crowds, the pageantry, and the sense that all of this was to celebrate…us. Our past, our survival, our triumph. Who wouldn’t love it?
Our jittery families, whom we’d called as soon as we learned of the attacks, asked us to come home right away. We hopped in a yellow cab and I heard a radio report that would forever alter my relationship to St. Patrick’s Day, though I didn’t yet know it. 1010 WINS news radio told us that Judge Kevin Thomas Duffy, of U.S. District Court in Manhattan, had issued an order compelling Mayor David Dinkins, then in his last year of running New York City, to grant the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) a permit for the parade even though the AOH refused to allow a group of gay and lesbian New Yorkers of Irish ancestry to march under their own banner.
At the time the issues of the GLBT community were not specifically on my radar. As I was growing up, “gay” and related (less nice) words often were used as insults by boys trying to prove how macho they were. I’d spent a good amount of time in the Village and my NYU-grad aunt had told me about Stonewall. I’ve always abhorred discrimination and intolerance of any kind, so my initial reaction was that the AOH should let the group march. When I got home I mentioned it in passing to my dad, who said he agreed. That night, at a close friend’s 18th birthday party, I mentioned it again. The views expressed varied, but there was no extended discussion.
That year I did not attend the Fifth Avenue parade; it was held on a Wednesday when I had school. Some months later – after graduation – the friend at whose birthday party I’d raised the issue told me that he is gay. He had not shared this with any of our other friends, and chose to tell me only because I’d expressed an opposition to discrimination by the AOH. Our conversation made me look into the issue more closely, and the more I learned the madder I became.
My awakening came at a time when, in each of “my” cities, the issue of inclusiveness in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade was highly controversial and litigious. Here is a brief rundown:
New York City
The large St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Fifth Avenue was for many years organized by the AOH. I learned that the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO) had requested late in 1990 to march in the 1991 parade under its own banner. That request was refused by the AOH, who allowed ILGO members to march in 1991, with no banner, as “guests” of various AOH divisions. In 1992 the issue arose again and ILGO again was rejected, but allowed to hold its own demonstration on a six-block stretch of the parade route before the parade.
In late 1992 the New York City Human Rights Commission ruled that the AOH’s exclusionary policy violated city law. The AOH sought review in state court, and while that case was pending the city granted a parade license not to the AOH, but to a different group that had agreed not to exclude IGLO. The state judge therefore dismissed AOH’s claim as moot.
The AOH then filed suit in federal court, alleging that its First Amendment right to control the “message” of its parade was being infringed by the city’s failure to grant it a permit. The case was assigned to Judge Kevin Thomas Duffy (no conflict of interest there), who agreed. Since that time the Fifth Avenue parade (no longer officially organized by the AOH) has refused to allow Irish gay and lesbian groups to march under their own banner. And since that time I have refused to attend the Fifth Avenue parade, which at one time was one of my favorite things in the world. Virtually each year there are civil disobedience arrests in protest against this ongoing discrimination.
For many years the main St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boston, held in South Boston, was administered by the city as a joint celebration of St. Patrick’s Day and Evacuation Day. Evacuation Day is a state holiday because, on March 17, 1776 the British Army under General Howe, following a months-long siege by Washington’s Continental Army, finally gave up and fled Boston, never to return. Decades later, Irish immigrants arriving in Boston took pride in that coincidence.
In 1947, that rascally mayor James Michael Curley, realizing that his generation would face serious political challenge from young World War II veterans, offered control of the parade to the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council (the “Council”), an unincorporated federation of veterans’ groups. The Council has run the parade ever since.
In 1994 the process repeated itself. Wacko Hurley said no, GLIB went to state court and again won in the trial court. That decision was affirmed by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), the highest court in the state. This time, though, GLIB did not march. Why? Because Wacko Hurley and his council simply cancelled the 1994 parade rather than allow GLIB to march again. Said Hurley, “They’re not going to shove something down our face that’s not our traditional values. We’ll go on until we have a parade of a family nature.”
A side note: in 1994 the 39-year-old President of Local 7, Ironworkers, in South Boston decided to challenge the neighborhood’s incumbent State Representative in a primary. His main reason: said State Rep had failed to support Wacko Hurley’s discrimination with throat sufficiently full. Running as the candidate of “our values,” he stormed to victory. He then spent the next few years in the state legislature, voting against GLBT causes every chance he got. In 2001 the area’s longtime Congressman died in office and this fellow, now a State Senator, won a multi-candidate primary by crusading as the “conservative candidate.” Again he won. His name: Stephen F. Lynch. In 2009 he took to the U.S. House floor in praise of the bigot Wacko Hurley. And now he is asking for our votes, in a Democratic primary against Rep. Ed Markey, to join Elizabeth Warren in the United States Senate. Of course, running statewide in 2013, he’s totally for gay marriage but won't repudiate the parade and continues to participate. One word: never.
Another side note. In late 2003 the same Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that ruled in GLIB’s favor also ruled that Massachusetts could not deny same-sex couples a civil marriage license, making my state the first in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage. The following March then-Governor Mitt Romney appeared at the traditional St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in Steve Lynch’s old union hall. This event is Boston’s answer to the Al Smith Dinner. Politicos of most stripes appear and engage in (mostly bad) comedy or musical routines. (Last year Elizabeth Warren, poking fun at Scott Brown’s past as a centerfold model, unveiled a large photo of herself, wearing a suit, sprawled atop two filing cabinets as the “centerfold” for Consumer Reports. ) In 2004, Romney opened his routine with a joke about same-sex marriage: “There’s nothing wrong with our supreme court in Massachusetts that having Wacko Hurley as chief justice wouldn’t cure!” So yeah, the same gratuitous nastiness for which Romney is well known.
Having cancelled his 1994 parade, Wacko Hurley appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which in 1995 ruled unanimously (Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, Inc., 515 U.S. 557 (1995)) that he and his group have a First Amendment right to promote their message of intolerance as they see fit. And, each year since, they have, though they're fine with stormtroopers and such. And, each year since, I’ve refused to attend the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade as well. To his credit, so has Boston’s Mayor-for-Life, Thomas Menino. Both of us were fortunate to miss this guy.
It should be noted that Wacko Hurley’s reactionary politics extend beyond excluding gay people. In March 2003, as the Bushies were preparing for war in Iraq, a group called South Boston Veterans for Peace applied to march in the parade. Their request was summarily denied. Hurley told a member of the Veterans for Peace, John Redue of Somerville, that the group did not have an “appropriate message” for his parade. Redue, who spent nine years in the Air Force, said he was “more shocked than anything else. People apparently don't think you can be for peace and support the troops at the same time. I think questioning policies . . . is the duty of patriots.”
What makes this particularly interesting is that the South Boston Veterans for Peace chapter is run by Anthony Flaherty. He and Wacko Hurley served in the Navy together in the 1950s. Hurley was Tony Flaherty’s best man and godfather to his first child. But Hurley, the self-proclaimed Mr. Veteran, left the Navy. Flaherty stayed in, for 25 years. He served in combat in Vietnam. What he saw there affected him greatly, and prompted him to reject the idea of going to war on false pretenses. Surely his old, dear friend would listen to his thoughts. Not so much. Flaherty told the Boston Globe that his old friend Wacko called him a “commie.” Said Flaherty: “No veteran who has seen action would deny a fellow veteran, a buddy, respect and the right to march. I have seen young men die. . . . I'm a retired naval officer and a combat vet, and I daresay I have more legitimacy than those who are denying us the right.”
Apparently Wacko Hurley and his crew think they are entitled to speak not only for all Irish-Americans in Boston, but for all veterans as well. My father is of Irish descent. He served in Vietnam, but opposed Iraq. He is not one of those who spent a year as an Army cook and the rest of his life proclaiming his veteran status with caps and bumper stickers. He’s never joined any veterans group at all. At my request he sent a strong letter to Wacko Hurley back in 2003. I’m sure we’ll get an answer any day now.
These guys, in denying the right of gay organizations to participate in their parade, hid behind the Catholic Church’s condemnation of homosexuality. Funny how they likewise rejected the Veterans for Peace in 2003 and every year since, despite the fact that Pope John Paul II had condemned George Bush’s Iraq War in unequivocal terms. Catholicism when convenient.
Wacko Hurley himself is retired from parade organizing these days, but nothing’s changed over there. The Supreme Court gave his crowd the right to control “their message” in the parade. For twenty years their message is that they’re anti-gay and pro-war. My message to them is: Póg mo thóin!
So how do I celebrate St. Patrick’s Day now? The same way I always did, minus the discriminatory parades. Mostly at home. Breakfast with oatmeal and Irish bacon. And St. Patrick’s Breastplate, more in memory of my since-departed mother than out of any theological conviction. Dinner with shepherd’s pie and apple cake. The same music. To my wife’s delight I do a half-assed rendition of the hop threes I never could master. And I generally invite to dinner the same friend whose brave revelation helped me understand how unacceptable the parades’ exclusionary policies really are – and his partner.
If I’m craving a parade, there are acceptable alternatives. When I lived in New York the best option was St. Patrick’s Day for All, founded by one-time ILGO member Brendan Fay in response to the discriminatory atmosphere on Fifth Avenue. Today it’s quite a large event attended by politicians like Mayor Bloomberg and the openly lesbian president of the City Council, Christine Quinn.
Held in the longtime Irish enclaves of Sunnyside and Woodside in Queens, St. Pat’s for All is a festive celebration of inclusion. The parade’s motto, “Cherishing all the children of the nation equally,” is taken directly from the 1916 Easter Proclamation of the Irish Republic. As befits Queens, the most diverse county in America, the parade celebrates not only Irish heritage but multiculturalism. Children of all backgrounds perform Irish dance, but the parade also features groups from the local Caribbean, Latino, Native American, and Korean communities, and gay and lesbian groups, all free to “march under their own banner.” The event’s simple, yet beautiful, philosophy is “we err on the side of hospitality.”
Perhaps next year we’ll travel even farther afield to attend another inclusive parade: Dublin’s. Yes, the kitschy St. Patrick’s Day parade in the capital of the Irish Republic allows GLBT groups fully to participate, carrying their own banners riding on their own floats. In fact, polls of Ireland’s population show nearly 75% support for same-sex marriage. Civil unions were made the law of the land in 2010 with nary a political party in opposition.
These liberal attitudes in Ireland proved quite an embarrassment for New York’s parade organizers in 2010. Eagerly anticipating the 2011 parade, the 250th in New York, they asked then-Irish President Mary McAleese to serve as grand marshal. McAleese, considered a conservative Catholic when first elected in 1997, had been in office a strong ally of the LGBT community in Ireland. She thus refused to participate in New York’s Fifth Avenue parade because of its exclusion of GLBT groups, and even rejected a compromise offer that she appear at St. Pat’s for All in Queens, then at the Fifth Avenue parade.
I can only imagine that, over time, in a city as diverse and liberal as New York, the parade organizers’ position will become untenable. This year President Obama has invited Michael Barron, head of Ireland’s largest GLBT advocacy group, to the White House for St. Patrick’s Day.
There may even be hope for South Boston. The neighborhood’s longtime State Senator, Jack Hart, recently announced his retirement. There are three Democratic candidates entered in an April 30 primary to replace him. Two of them, State. Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry of Dorchester and South Boston native Maureen Dahill, have said they will not participate in the parade if GLBT groups are excluded as they have been since 1993. The third, State Rep. Nick Collins of South Boston, intends to march, but accompanied by GLBT supporters (without a banner identifying them as such, of course). The candidate who wins this seat will, by tradition, become the host of the annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast. I’ll be very interested to see how things play out if a strong opponent of exclusion is in that role. At the least, the days where demagoguery on this issue was a winning political strategy in the district appear to have passed.
Perhaps current Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore (Labour) said it best: “What these parades are about is a celebration of Ireland and Irishness. I think they need to celebrate Ireland as it is, not as people imagine it. Equality is very much the center of who we are in our identity in Ireland. This issue of exclusion is not Irish, let’s be clear about it. Exclusion is not an Irish thing.”
Irish identity can be many things. It does not inherently consist of Pat Robertson’s social politics and Dick Cheney’s foreign policy. No longer will I allow the Wacko Hurleys of the world to make me feel alienated from my own heritage. They do not speak for me, and I am not alone. I’ll stand with Eamon Gilmore, and Mary McAleese, and Tony Flaherty, and Brendan Fay, and all the daughters and sons of Ireland, wherever they may be, who believe in equality and inclusion.
Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig!