In its 19th year, St. Pat’s for All continued to roll along, surrounded by a city, state, and nation that have seen many changes since it began — some of them hastened by the event itself.
Leading off New York City’s St. Patrick’s parade season, St. Pat’s for All is one of many parades that now include LGBTQ people — though not the one in Staten Island — but the parade that runs from Sunnyside to Woodside in Queens the first Sunday in March was the very first.
The celebration began March 2, with a benefit concert at the Irish Arts Center on Manhattan’s West Side, which attracted a full house in the midst of yet another nor’easter.
The parade that opened up Irish pride to the LGBTQ community is in its 19th year
Now getting ready to open its brand new home on 11th Avenue, the Irish Arts Center continues to use its intimate black-box space for events like the concert, hosted by Irish-American playwright/ novelist Honor Molloy, with lots of music curated by Dublin Culture Connects’ Brian Fleming, who took advantage of the nasty weather to rope in several extra Irish musicians whose flights weren’t leaving New York City any time soon.
Each year, the concert serves as a fanfare for St. Pat’s for All Weekend. Co-chairs Brendan Fay and Kathleen Walsh D’Arcy welcomed the crowd and introduced this year’s grand marshals: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dan Barry and nuclear disarmament activist Dr. Kathleen Sullivan.
Young members of the Shannon Gaels, an Irish athletic club, recited the lyrics to the folk song “I Come and Stand at Every Door.” Poet Caridad del la Luz aka “La Bruja” drew laughs when she said, “I’ve always thought of the Irish as the Puerto Ricans of white people,” then performed her poem “Poor to Rico.” Throughout the evening, attention was drawn to the needs of the people of Puerto Rico still recovering from hurricane damage.
A cavalcade of music, dancing, poetry, and craic (aka hijinks) followed, with an interval in the middle for everyone to refresh themselves with food and drink.
The musicians performing included Mick Moloney, along with Athena Tergis, Donie Carroll, Niamh Ní Bhriain, and percussionist Fleming. Congressmember Joseph Crowley, leader of the Queens County Democratic Party, joined in on guitar, accompanying singer Cathy Maguire. Dancers from the Niall O’Leary School of Irish Dance were featured, and cellist Leah Rankin duetted with Fleming.
Several faces missing from the crowd were remembered: Edie Windsor, longtime St. Pat’s supporter and LGBTQ rights icon; Mary Audrey Gallagher, PFLAG supporter and mother of City Councilmember Daniel Dromm; Gilbert Baker, creator of the Rainbow Flag (who led the parade last year); and human rights activist General James P. Cullen.
Actress Maeve Price read a passage from Dan Barry’s searing New York Times story “The Lost Children of Tuam,” about the tragic fate of children born to unwed mothers in Ireland’s past.
Irish writer and actor Malachy McCourt ended the evening’s official doings with some dark humor aimed at the current president and a singalong of the traditional Irish song “Wild Mountain Thyme.” The merriment continued in the lobby as Fleming drummed on a bench, someone else played the spoons, and Irish dancer Niall O’Leary whirled around the room. Many people were not headed straight home.
March 4 dawned clear and chilly, and the MTA was mostly running, good news for parade-goers who in past years persevered through blizzards, rain, and no service on the 7 train.
Many Sunnysiders throw open their homes for pre-parade gatherings, where the musicians warm up, Irish coffee and little sausages are consumed, and people prepare their St. Patrick’s ensembles. One house on Skillman Avenue live-streamed the students of the McManus School of Irish Dance playing instruments, singing, and dancing on the front lawn to the delight of passersby on the street and the Internet.
Parade officials, honorees, politicians, and their staffs gathered in Claret restaurant to chat, network, and stay warm until it was time to head to the parade’s stepping-off point at 43rd Street & Skillman.
“I couldn’t be more honored to be here,” said grand marshal Barry, who was born in Jackson Heights and whose work often features Irish and Irish-American stories. He then joked, “I think there must have been a clerical error or misunderstanding.”
“New York City has the largest Irish diaspora in the country,” Sullivan said. “And the Irish are leaders in nuclear disarmament.” At the concert and the parade, Sullivan congratulated Ireland on 100 years of women’s suffrage — a centennial mark the US has not yet reached.
The parade has always drawn elected officials, and this election year’s pack of pols was large, ranging from reps who have marched since the first year to newly elected officials who have been told St. Pat’s for All is the place to be in Sunnyside and Woodside on March’s first Sunday. Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand stopped by to address the crowd during the pre-parade speeches and drew loud cheers and a few “Gillibrand in ‘20” shouts.
Gillibrand praised Irish-Americans and Queens residents as “our leaders, our first responders, the people who answered the call on 9/11. You’ve raised your voices, spoken out when things are wrong, standing up for refugees and immigrants. And that’s the only way anything changes in Washington: when regular people stand up.”
Crowley’s contingent was greeted with chants of “Crowley! Crowley!” and “Speaker of the House!” The powerful Democratic veteran is considered a contender for the role if his party wins back the House in November.
“I think there’s been a lot of change over the years,” Crowley said. “And I think Queens, and this parade, has been in the forefront of fostering it in New York City and the whole country. It offers civil engagement in a civil way that’s won over many hearts and minds.”
“This is an essential Queens parade,” said Democratic City Councilmember Costas Constantinides, who has journeyed from Astoria, the next neighborhood over, to march in the parade for more than 10 years. “It’s one of my favorites.”
“I’m here because my grandmother is from County Sligo,” declared State Assemblymember Michael DenDekker, an East Elmhurst Democrat. What he’s seen in the years that he’s marched includes “more young people getting involved and active, with New York being such a melting pot, you look at this parade, and you see Irish, Italian, Colombian, gay, and straight. Everyone wants to be associated with it.”
The parade goes by Jimmy Van Bramer’s house. The city councilmember is another longtime participant, and this year he marched with his mother and husband.
“When it started, there was a lot of opposition,” he recalled. “It was a courageous act from a loving place. And over the years, the parade grew as times changed, and the world became a safer and more equal place for LGBTQ people. This community grew to love the parade in a profound way, and it’s been so exciting to see it grow.”
City Public Advocate Letitia James, a perennial marcher, joked that on St. Patrick’s Day her last name is Jameson, which drew a knowing laugh from the crowd.
Elected officials who were introduced or said a few words from the podium included a host of Democrats, including State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, City Comptroller Scott Stringer (who received some “Stringer for Mayor!” chants), and Queens State Senator Michael Gianaris, who said: “This is the parade that changed it all.”
Also in attendance were out gay City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, out gay State Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell and his colleagues Catherine Nolan, David Weprin, Brian Barnwell (as well as his announced challenger, out transgender activist Melissa Sklarz), and Jo Anne Simon, State Senator Toby Stavisky, and out gay Councilmember Carlos Menchaca of Brooklyn and his colleagues Jumaane Williams, also of Brooklyn, and Karen Koslowitz, Rory Lancman, and Francisco Moya, all of Queens.
“It’s a Queens tradition,” said Borough President Melinda Katz. “We lead the rest of the country with the outspokenness of this borough.”
Keeping up the tradition of the Irish government recognizing and participating in the festivities, newly-appointed Consul General Ciarán Madden said he’d been told what fun the parade is and found “it’s a fantastic celebration of diversity.”
As usual, the marching groups covered a vast and diverse range. Dr. Tom Moulton led things off with Gilbert Baker’s giant Rainbow Flag, followed by the FDNY’s Emerald Society Pipes & Drums band, along with a fire truck packed with excited kids and an ambulance. Local Daisy, Brownie, and Junior troops of Girl Scouts followed.
The crowds were thick at the starting point, with people lining the streets, leaning from windows, and holding up their babies and dogs. Nearly all of them — babies and dogs — were festooned with St. Patrick’s Day paraphernalia.
The big St. Pat’s For All banner was held up by a contingent including Fay and Walsh D’Arcy, the grand marshals, Consul General Madden, Democratic District Leader Deirdre Feerick, and other friends and supporters.
“This crowd gets it,” said Councilmember Dromm, whose involvement with the parade dates to before it was started, when gays and lesbians demonstrated each year at the Manhattan St. Patrick’s march and were turned away and arrested. “This parade celebrates New York City, and all the people who have come here, from the Irish to everyone else.”
Other groups, in rough order, included the Queens Center for Gay Seniors, the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights, Queens County Young Democrats, the Stonewall Democrats, the New Visions Democratic Club, the Lesbian & Gay Democratic Club of Queens, and Malachy McCourt and his wife of 52 years in a horse-drawn carriage.
And, as usual, there were protesters with homophobic signs, doubled in number from last year — that is, four rather than two. One woman hid her face behind her sign when people tried to take her picture.
The Shannon Gaels marched with a giant net, and their young athletes, in uniform, showed their mastery of hurling, bouncing the balls on the long wooden sticks. County Laois marchers gathered behind a huge banner, and the McManus School of Irish Dance showed their steps. Sunnyside Community Services had a group, as did Children in Crossfire, an international group that helps children in war-torn areas.
The crowd favorite stiltwalkers drew applause, followed by the Fitzpatrick Academy of Irish Dance.
From the mobile stage on a flatbed truck, Brian Fleming led the St. Pat’s Allstars, a group of musicians including Paul Howells and Katelyn Richards in their first St. Pat’s For All Parade along with fellow musicians Alice Smyth (harp), Matthew Christian (fiddle), and Fleming (bodhran and cajon), playing both traditional and pop tunes.
They were followed by the Niall O’Leary School of Irish Dance and the Brehon Law Society. The Triangle Factory Coalition carried a large banner in memory of the victims of the 1911 Triangle Factory Shirtwaist fire. Then came the County Tyrone Society, followed by the Irish Arts Center, the SAOL Project, Conradh na Gaeilge (Cumann Chaitlin agus Thomais Ui Cheirigh) — the Brooklyn Gaelic Speakers Society — and Soirse Palestine.
The Big Apple Marching Band, complete with flag corps, was of course on hand, in addition to Pride for Youth/ MPowerment from Long Island, the Irish Rep Theatre, the LGBTQ Catholic group Dignity, and the Lavender & Green Alliance, which will also be marching in the Fifth Avenue Parade on March 17.
PFLAG also had a delegation, along with the New York Area Bisexual Network, the Metropolitan Community Church, the AIDS Center of Queens County/ Knockout HIV, OUT Rockaway, and the Pride Center of Staten Island, in Queens because it was not welcome in its home borough, which held its parade on Sunday, as well.
Bringing up the parade’s rear were Transportation Alternatives, the Ethical Humanist Society of Queens, the Sunnyside/ Woodside Action Group, Women of Queens, the Sunnyside United Dog Society (another crowd favorite), and the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, the rakish radical marching band and dance troupe that has become a fixture at St. Pat’s for All.
Construction workers up on the elevated 7 tracks peered over the rails to check out the marching groups as they headed into the home stretch. At parade’s end, groups gathered for pictures, hugs, the occasional musical jam, and then most headed to the many local pubs for post-parade refreshments. At least half a dozen restaurateurs along the Roosevelt and Skillman Avenue corridors offered traditional music sessions that kept the party going long after the barricades were removed and traffic began to flow again.
As the afternoon deepened into twilight, people continued to celebrate, and a lone, kilted figure, carrying his pipes under his arm, went from one party to the next.