An Exclusive Interview With John Dunleavy
The Chairman of The New York St. Patrick's Day Parade Committee, John Dunleavy
The Chairman of the New York St. Patrick's Day Parade Discusses The Grand Marshal Selection Process, Finances And His Battles With ILGO And The FDNY
By John Mooney
The guy who runs one of the Steuben Day Parades called me last week and asked the name of my p.r. firm because the New York parade gets so much publicity. I told him we don't have a p.r. firm, the publicity comes to us.
It's more complicated than that.
This week, St. Patrick's Day Parade chairman John Dunleavy once again finds himself at the center of a controversy that helps generate so much media attention. His decision to push the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) back 35 minutes in the line of march has overtaken the now annual confrontation with gay groups as the hot topic of the 2007 parade.
Traditionally, the parade kicks off with the Fighting 69th Infantry, followed by police department and then the firefighters. Dunleavy said he wants to send a message about adhering to parade rules. The "straw that broke the camel's back" was a banner carried by a group of New Orleans' firefighters in the parade last year thanking firefighters for their support in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While the banner is making the headlines, Dunleavy has other concerns with FDNY regarding lax attention to registration procedures, drunkenness in uniform, and even a lack of precision in marching.
In an open letter to Dunleavy Tom O'Connor, president of the Grand Council of United Emerald Societies, has called the decision not to restore the FDNY Emerald Society to the place of honor "disgraceful" and urged Dunleavy to reconsider his position "afford the men and women of the FDNY the respect they deserve."
The parade chairman said he "wanted to get their attention" about following procedures. He has clashed with the department before; a few years ago, he insisted that firefighters sporting knit green berets wear their compete dress uniforms instead (an issue that FDNY brass supported). Dunleavy says his job is to protect the parade, which he views as the foremost event showcasing the contributions of all the Irish to America.
"We treat every organization equally. To me, the Ladies AOH Div. 5 from the Bronx is just as important as the fire department. If we didn't have rules to keep things organized, we'd have groups from all over taking over the parade," said Dunleavy, who takes issue with firefighters who march while intoxicated on the parade route and continue drinking while in uniform for the rest of the day. "It's not easy to control 5,000 firefighters. I had to do something to get their attention. They invite outsiders who push everyone back in the parade."
O'Connor and Bill Nolan, president of the FDNY Emerald Society, said that he does indeed have their attention.
However, they believe that New York City fire fighters are being punished for something they didn't do, and it perplexes them that a nice gesture by the New Orleans fire department thanking FDNY for its help after Katrina would result in losing a place of honor in the St. Patrick's Day Parade.
"We're an organization that understands discipline. If Mr. Dunleavy had an issue with a banner from New Orleans, why did he wait until January 30 to tell us?" Tommy O'Connor asked. "If the problem was so serious that it would result in losing a place of honor, why weren't we told on March 18 last year? Most people would say the firefighters have earned their right to march at the beginning of the parade. This isn't a small slight, it's an insult."
Nolan, whose father worked with John Dunleavy for years while the two were bus drivers, is disappointed that the parade chairman has not been willing to compromise after the department put together a document outlining changes it would initiate to meet procedural guidelines.
"The fire department has held a place of honor in the St. Patrick's Day Parade for 150 years. Our members put their lives on the line for the people of this city," Nolan said in a telephone interview. "John says he has a problem with too many out-of-town fire departments taking over the parade, but he was the one who invited them in 2002, after 9/11. He hasn't mentioned the bands he has invited from Spain, Finland and the London Police Department. Aren't they making the line longer and pushing back other organizations?"
"Are we the best marchers? No," said Nolan, who conceded that distinction to the NYPD. "But we also have a guy who broke his neck jumping out a window and rehabbed with the goal of marching in the parade last year. John should be talking about that, too."
Dunleavy maintains that the FDNY "is the best in the world and does a magnificent job." At the same time, he says the department was the only one of the 186 affiliated organizations in the parade that did not send delegates to prior meetings held in November and December and did not attend the Jan. 17 installation of grand marshal Ray Flynn. He also said FDNY was the only organization that missed the deadline for registration.
Dunleavy, who rarely grants interviews, explained a number of his positions, as well as his history of involvement in the parade.
Born in Coole, Co. Westmeath in 1938 grew up during the War years in what he described as "a beautiful little village with no luxuries."
"You were lucky to have food on table and a roof over your head. We grew our own vegetables and worked hard," recalled Dunleavy, whose father ran a taxi service and a small store in the village. "Fancy clothes, things like that, just weren't there. You had one suit that you wore on Sunday to mass and took it off when you got home. Everyone was in the same boat."
He attended the Coole National School, which bordered the gable end of his house. ("I couldn't stay home sick because the school master could look over and see me.") As a young man, he left his native Ireland for London in 1956 and worked as a driver of double-decker buses.
"It cost a lot of money to get to America in those days," Dunleavy recalled. "Many of the Irish worked in London and used England a stepping stone across the Atlantic."
In 1963, Dunleavy came to the U.S. and just three months later was drafted into the army. At basic training in Fort Dix, NJ, he trained with Ray Flynn, who this year has the honor of being the Grand Marshal of the St. Patrick's Day Parade. Dunleavy was then assigned to the 65th Engineer Battalion, 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii. Upon his discharge two years later, he joined the Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority, a subsidiary of the transit authority, as a bus operator.
"Since it was not a civil service job, you did not have to be a U.S. citizen to get the job. That's why there were so many Irish driving the buses," said Dunleavy, who retired in 1990 as a superintendent.
Dunleavy has been an active member of the St. Patrick's Day Parade & Celebration Committee since 1967. He has held many offices, including formation chairman, treasurer, and vice chairman before taking over as chairman in 1993. He has served the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) in many capacities, including past president of both New York Division 9 and the New York County Board.
John Dunleavy with this year's Grand Marshall of the New York St. Patrick's Day Parade
"Frank Beirne always wanted recruits to work on the parade. I worked on the formation committee and I didn't realize at the time that you were evaluated on your performance," said Dunleavy, who quickly rose through the ranks.
Dunleavy believes the parade is a unifying event within the Irish community, despite the diversity of all the groups involved.
"We all have different interests. What unifies us is that we'll all be at the parade," he said.
Long active in the cause of Irish freedom, he has received many honors over the years. One of the his most cherished awards came in March of 2000, when he was appointed an honorary member of the 69th Regiment, "The Fighting Irish Brigade," by the Secretary of the Army.
Dunleavy credits his good friend, the late Jim Barker, for bringing in sponsorship for the St. Patrick's Day Parade, which costs between $600,000 - $700,000 to run annually. The figure includes $300,000 for the TV air time, $23,000 for the reviewing stands on Fifth Avenue, as well as permits, sashes, port-o-potties, painting the green line up Fifth Avenue, and other expenses. Until a few years ago, Dunleavy ran the whole operation out of his home. The committee now has a small office in the Bronx and hired an administrative assistant to handle things as the parade continues to increase in size.
"Jim was a master salesman, a modern day PT Barnum," Dunleavy said. "A number of years ago, WPIX-TV, which had broadcast the parade for 35 years, cut back the hours because they couldn't sell the ads. We decided to switch to WNBC-TV, which made it easier to sell the sponsorships. We buy the time, hire our own producer, Mike Mathies, and control the content."
Major supporters include Quinnipiac University, Guinness, and Ford Motor Company."
"We treat every organization equally. To me, the Ladies AOH Div. 5 from the Bronx is just as important as the fire department."
"Jim went to Villanova with Jim O'Connor, an executive at Ford. The Guinness sponsorship is a natural one," Dunleavy explained. "We are fortunate that Frank Comerford, president of WNBC, is on the board of the St. Parade's Parade Committee. In order to get work done, you need a combination of Irish and Irish Americans."
Overall, the parade brings in an estimated $80-100 million in tax revenue for New York City, possibly more this year because St. Patrick's Day falls on a weekend. (Dunleavy says the only day that generates more revenue for the city is the day after Thanksgiving, the launch of the holiday shopping season.) This year, some 14,000 foreign visitors will come to the city and stay for several days. Hotels, bars and restaurants will do markedly increased business.
"The St. Patrick's Day Parade also is great p.r. for the city," Dunleavy boasts.
Dunleavy is pleased to receive letters from people from all over the world who are astounded by how large it is. He credits the all-volunteer St. Patrick's Day Parade Committee for making the event come together so well.
"On parade day, it's out of my hands. There are 160,000 marchers and over 2 million spectators on the avenue, and very few incidents. Alcohol consumption along the parade route is way down," Dunleavy explained. "Last year there were only three minor incidents among a crowd of millions."
Among Dunleavy's favorite memories was when the Japanese Consul General invited him to lunch and told him he had established a pipe band that wanted to play in the parade.
"He learned to play the bagpipes while he was stationed in Scotland and then went back to Japan and started a band," Dunleavy recalled. "At a reception at Gad Hammarskjöld Plaza, the consul general's 12-year-old son announced, 'My father and I will now play 'Sean South of Garryowen.' Here was a Japanese kid in kilt playing an Irish rebel song in front of Maureen O'Hara. Only in New York!"
This year there will be a pipe band from Helsinki, Finland that was started by a girl who attended Manhattan College and formed her own band when she went home.
The London Metropolitan Police Emerald Society, another unlikely marching group, will also be in the parade, as will the Santiago de Compostela Galician pipe band, which is back for a return engagement.
Grand Marshal Selection
For Dunleavy, one of the most memorable grand marshals was the late Tom Manton because "he was Irish American and a Catholic politician who, never wavered from his faith." The Parade Committee asked Cardinal O'Connor, who told the parade chairman it was smart to ask in front of bishops so that they wouldn't have time to talk him out of it.
While he has taken flak for inviting Ray Flynn, a Bostonian, to be the 2007 grand marshal, he reminds people that there is a precedent for the selection of non-New Yorkers.
"Former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds was a great selection, as was Dr. John Leahy from Quinnipiac University, and Maureen O'Hara, who spends most of her time in Cork and in Los Angeles," Dunleavy explained. "Maureen was unique. She brought elegance and interest, and told great stories, but she was a handful. John Wayne always told her she didn't have to act, she just acted naturally. He was right."
While other nationalities have selected celebrity grand marshals, Dunleavy believes a lot of "Hollywood type of individuals" don't project the Catholic values the parade tries to promote.
"No matter who you pick, someone is disappointed. We have never had an ambassador before this year. We want people who can reach the top level without compromising their values; Ray Flynn is a wonderful man, an outstanding Catholic, and someone I place very high on the list," explained Dunleavy, who added that Cardinal Egan does not play a role in the process. "We call the Cardinal before we announce it, of course. We don't want him to find out by reading it in the newspaper. Contrary to what people think, he doesn't interfere at all."
For years, Dunleavy has been at odds with ILGO (Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization), which seeks to march in the parade under its own banner. The AOH defines the parade as a "religious procession" and has won rulings against the gay group all the way to the Supreme Court. The legal battles have cost the parade thousands of dollars in legal bills over the years.
"It cost a lot of money to get to America in those days," Dunleavy recalled. "Many of the Irish worked in London and used England a stepping stone across the Atlantic."
"It would change the spirit of the parade," maintains Dunleavy, who does consider himself religious. "It's not a coincidence that the parade starts with a mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral."
Brendan Fay, a leader in efforts to have ILGO and Lavender Green included in the St. Patrick's Day Parade disagrees, saying that everyone should be able to celebrate Ireland and our Irish heritage on Fifth Avenue.
"What ought to be a celebration it is clouded by narrow-mindedness. It's extraordinarily tragic that Christine Quinn has to go to Dublin to be able to march as an openly gay person," said Fay, who has been arrested in past protests of the St. Patrick's Day Parade and described his relationship with John Dunleavy as complex. "Isn't mass all about celebrating a meal together?"
"I see John as a dedicated, decent, hard-working and committed to his cause. I see him as a steward of the Irish community who has failed on this particular issue," Fay added. "After organizing the all-inclusive parade in Queens for the past several years, I've come to appreciate the enormous amount of work he does. I want us to find a way that we can all celebrate our Irish culture and contribution to America."
"I have no problem with homosexuals. It's not my choice, and I have no problem with what people do in private - as long as it stays in private," Dunleavy explained.
"Anyone can march in the St. Patrick's Day Parade, they just have to comply with our rules and they can't use it as a platform to promote their own cause."
"I've met with groups, activists and the leader of the City Council and explained this position many times. She's more than welcome to march, just like Gifford Miller. We're not going to allow buttons and banners, and we won't put our stamp of approval on the gay lifestyle."
Somewhat surprisingly, Dunleavy says that he considers Brendan Fay a friend and was touched that the gay activist was one of the first people to call and express his condolences after the death of Jim Barker, a long-time executive on the parade committee.
"I have respect for Brendan Fay and have no problem with him as an individual," said Dunleavy, who said he has not been asked nor would he be inclined to march in the Queens parade. "We just disagree on this issue. That's the great thing about America. We're all allowed to express our opinions. The parade has standards, and that's why it's bigger now than ever before."
Dunleavy is not worried about his latest battle with FDNY. "I put them back 35 minutes; I didn't put them out. It's the same with the gays. They're all welcome to march with any of the County associations or organizations that are in the parade. They just can't march with a banner proclaiming their lifestyle.
"I'd love for Christine Quinn to march with the other members of the City Council, but she has made other plans."
A Privileged Life
"I live a privileged life. Judge Commerford and Frank Beirne put me in this position.
The best part is meeting so many people from all over the world," said Dunleavy.
In his spare time, the parade chairman runs a small gardening business and is very proud of being a VP and founding member of The Links at Unionvale, an 18-hole championship course in Dutchess County, New York.
"We're very proud that our sign reads Céad Míle Fáilte. Most golf clubs say 'Members Only,' but we say '100,000 Welcomes!'," Dunleavy, a member of the Gaelic Golf Club, said. "It's a little bit of Ireland on 200 acres with no trees and a view of the Catskills."
John is married to Maureen Kellett, of Virginia, Co. Cavan. They have two daughters, Patricia and Catherine, and five grandchildren.
"I'm not uncontroversial, but I stand by my principles," Dunleavy readily admits. "Controversy is good for the parade. It brings attention to it," said Dunleavy, who plans to stay on as Chairman until its 250th anniversary in 2012. "I am a volunteer. It's an enormous amount of work for no salary, no pension. It's a labor of love."
"I am reelected as Chairman. If the day comes when they don't want me to be Chairman anymore, I would not have a problem. I'd be down in Florida playing my golf."