With both the MTA and the weather working against the 16th annual St. Pat’s for All Parade in Sunnyside, a stalwart contingent still made its way to Queens on Sunday to march through a snowstorm in an inclusive celebration of Ireland’s national saint.
The first flakes of snow fell hours earlier than expected on March 1 and built in intensity throughout the afternoon. Participants, including many who contended with the 7 train’s closure due to repairs, simply added an extra layer of clothing before gathering at 1 p.m. to hear from parade founders Brendan Fay and Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy, along with grand marshals Kerry Kennedy and Brían F. O’Byrne and a bevy of dignitaries and elected officials.
“We were concerned with the shutdown of the 7 train,” said Fay, “but when I got up on the stage, I looked down the middle of the block on Skillman Avenue, and it was full and it was very beautiful. And the people stayed for the whole of the parade.”
“We hoped it would be alright,” said D’Arcy. “And people did find creative ways to get here, and they ended up dancing in the street in the snow.”
As the crowd shook off the snowflakes, Kennedy, head of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, named for her later father, recalled looking at the scrapbooks her grandmother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, kept with newspaper clippings reading “No Irish need apply,” then told of traveling to Uganda to meet with LGBT leaders, with several transgender activists arrested as they left the gathering. She drew a parallel between the discrimination in Uganda and the longstanding refusal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue to allow openly gay participation, saying “this gives legitimacy to that kind of hate speech and behavior. That kind of hate and exclusion are all tied together.”
Last fall, the organizers of the Manhattan event announced that an LGBT group from NBCUniversal, its broadcast sponsor, would march in 2015 — a concession rejected by most activists who have worked for decades to open up the March 17 parade. Elected officials who turned out in Sunnyside echoed that view.
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito reminded the crowd that neither she nor any official Council contingent will march in the Fifth Avenue parade until it is open to any LGBT group marching under its own banner.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, arriving a few minutes late for the scheduled 2 p.m. start of the parade, agreed that the Fifth Avenue organizers, so far, have made “too small a change to merit a lot of us participating.” He added, “There’s still time, and we look forward to, you know, some additional discussion, and, certainly, I welcome any discussions with anyone who wants to try and make it more inclusive.” Wearing a green tie and lavender shirt in honor of the occasion, he told the Sunnyside crowd, “It’s a beautiful, sunny day in my mind,” before taking his place behind the St. Pat’s for All banner.
Grand marshal O’Byrne, the Tony-award winning actor from County Cavan, flew in from California, where he’s shooting his new NBC series “Aquarius,” and recalled how he’d been arrested for protesting the Fifth Avenue parade in the ‘90s and met Fay while they were in jail. Now he’s watching from afar as Ireland prepares for a marriage equality referendum this May.
“The tipping point has happened,” said O’Byrne, who observed of gay marriage opponents, “They’re going to lose.”
He said when he told a friend he was coming to Queens, the friend said: “Oh, the alternative parade.” But, O’Byrne said, “I don’t consider this ‘alternative.’ That’s frankly nonsense. While others are celebrating on March 17, we’re here are on the right side of the civil rights movement.”
Among the other speakers were two local City Council members — out gay Democrats Daniel Dromm, who represents Jackson Heights, and Jimmy Van Bramer, whose district includes Sunnyside and Woodside. The Council contingent also included two other out gay Democrats, Corey Johnson of Manhattan and Carlos Menchaca of Brooklyn, and Queens Democrats Rory Lancman, Costa Constantinides, and Karen Koslowitz.
Other speakers included US Representative Joseph Crowley, who heads the Queens County Democratic Party, Barbara Jones, the Irish consul general to New York, and State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who talked about the way in which the state pension funds have been leveraged to pressure companies to adopt pro-LGBT policies as well as to invest in Ireland.
The fire department’s Emerald Society Pipes & Drum band, attired in their trademark kilts, started marching at about 2:20, followed by contingent holding aloft the parade’s banner, which included the mayor, the founders, the grand marshals, and Consul General Jones.
Gilbert Baker, designer of the rainbow flag, also marched, carrying a huge Irish flag, which he twirled through the wintry wind and snow.
Young girls from the Niall O’Leary School of Irish Dance kicked up clouds of snow as they danced down the street, as they have every year since the parade was founded. The crowd featured neighborhood residents shouting and waving from their front stoops and windows, with some houses flying Irish flags. The parade has provided an annual economic boost to businesses on Skillman, Woodside, and Roosevelt Avenues and become a focus for all-day celebration, including an Irish traditional music festival spread over about a dozen bars. Though neighborhood businesses benefit from the influx of marchers and spectators, some temporarily lost customers as people poured out of stores and restaurants to watch the bands, trucks, floats, and marching groups.
There were, as there usually are, a few protesters, carrying signs calling marchers “Blasphemers” and “Sodomites.”
The queer community was well represented, with Pride celebration organizers from Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Washington, DC, along with Pride for Youth/ Long Island.
In addition to the Emerald Society Pipes & Drum, uniformed city employees were also represented by FireFLAG founder Eugene Walsh, the Gay Officers Action League, and members of the youth-focused FDNY Explorers. Irish-American organizations had some of the largest groups in the parade, including the Winged Fist Greater New York Irish Athletic Association, the Irish-American Writers & Artists, the Shannon Gaels Gaelic Athletic Association, complete with a float, An Slua Nua Irish Language Speakers of New York, and the Irish Arts Center.
Both sides in the debate over horse carriages in Manhattan joined the parade, with the Historic Horse-Drawn Carriages of Central Park fielding a carriage that was followed — but not too closely — by NYCLASS, a group that opposes the industry.
Despite the snow, several musical groups managed to play their instruments, some swaddling them in plastic, others pounding the snow off their drum heads and trying frantically to keep reeds and strings in tune.
“The high point, for me was seeing the Marching Cobras and the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, marching down the street,” said parade founder D’Arcy. “Then, the Tilted Axes and the FDNY/ EMS pipe band and the traditional musicians, they were all out there, and it must have been so hard for them... I’ll bet their fingers were frozen!”
The Marching Cobras of New York is a Bronx-based drum corps, while Tilted Axes is an electric guitar marching band and the Rude Mechanical Orchestra is a local radical marching band and dance troupe.
The parade’s musical director, Brian Fleming — who also produced the annual St. Pat’s for All concert at the Irish Arts Center on February 27 — led a four-piece ensemble on the back of a flatbed truck, with Fleming on bodhrán (drum), Vonnie Quinn on fiddle, Dave Barckow on guitar and vocals, and Jerry Arias on drums.
“This is not really a parade where people march,” parade founder Fay said. “This is one where the people dance down the street.”
When the parade ended at Roosevelt Avenue and 58th Street under the silent 7 train, the Rude Mechanicals kept playing, walking single file in a line down the sidewalk. Other marchers and spectators peeled off to nearby pubs and taverns as the last strains of music bounced off the elevated tracks above and whipped around in the snow-filled wintry air.