From the Archives: Bronx Irish reject crusty old homophobia

New York Times, January 17, 1993

The Talk of the North Bronx; Irish Voice Wide Passions Over the St. Patrick's Day Parade

As a soft snow fell over the North Bronx, Patrick McKnight lamented the Irish community's preoccupation with a celebration turning sour with controversy.

"Shouldn't we be more concerned about getting the English out of Ireland than getting the homosexuals out of the St. Patrick's Day parade?" Mr. McKnight asked as he sipped coffee at the Cafe An Beal Bocht in Riverdale.

Nonetheless, Mr. McKnight, a 26-year-old emigrant from Dublin, did not hesitate to hurl himself into the parade debate. And neither did anyone else approached on Thursday on the wintry streets and in the overheated churches and cafes of Norwood and Riverdale.

For however piddling the controversy seemed to some, it touched on larger issues for many -- in particular, the fading authority of the Catholic Church over young people and the waning power of the Irish in New York City politics.

"People say it's not our town anymore, and believe me, this is another nail in the coffin," said William O'Meara, 50, owner of the Greentree Restaurant on Bainbridge Avenue in Norwood.

Mr. O'Meara belongs to the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which has run the parade for 151 years and steadfastly refuses to allow the Irish Gay and Lesbian Organization to march.

Earlier this month, the city intervened, granting a parade permit to a new, conciliatory committee that aims to include both the gay group and the Hibernians.

But while some Irish-Americans were thrilled to see power wrested from the Hibernians, many others plan to boycott the March 17 parade if the Hibernians do not win a court battle to regain control.

For now, many in the city's Irish community are not pleased; not with the fighting among themselves, and not with what some see as the city's intrusiveness. In interviews, many talked as if the parade were a referendum on changing times, as if its fate were somehow linked to their future as a community. Shaking Up the Status Quo

Rushing in from the morning chill, Marie Noonan warmed herself over tea and a raisin scone at the Traditional Irish Bakery in Norwood.

"I would be in favor of the gay people," said Ms. Noonan, a 26-year-old who immigrated four years ago. She noted that a gay group marched without incident in last year's St. Patrick's Day Parade in County Cork.

"It's about time the Ancient Order was shook up," she said, smiling. "They've had too much of a stranglehold on everything in the Irish community."

The parade debate reveals a fissure between generations, Ms. Noonan said. And at another table, Eileen Siegelman, a vivacious 74-year-old native of Galway, seemed to prove her point.

"If the homosexuals want to have their private affairs, go ahead," she said. "Don't make a splash of it. They're spoiling a whole parade, and a whole day."

Tucking a tuft of white hair into her beret, Ms. Siegelman continued. "Why do people want to come in and mess up an institution?" she asked. Her voice trailed off. "Everything in life has been messed up. Sad, isn't it?" 'Down the Tubes'

Several blocks away, in front of the Copley Apartments, Donald E. Powell and his neighbor, Thomas McInerney, were enjoying the blustery weather and bemoaning the disintegration of society. "I think the parade is going the same way New York City is going," said Mr. Powell, a retired mail carrier. "Straight down the tubes. Don't you think, Tom?"

Mr. McInerney said: "I shouldn't comment. My wife says I talk too much." Mr. Powell elaborated on his thesis. "The parade is just like society," he said. "They're giving too many rights to too many people. What's all this jumping out of the closet and making demands? It weakens the structures.

"Since World War II, down, down, down. Everything is going down." A Quick Prayer

John Hourican, a 23-year-old security guard and nutrition student, dashed into St. Brendan's Catholic Church for a quick prayer.

He paused in the vestibule as the pews were filling up with retirees for the noon Mass.

"A lot of older people want to stick with tradition, which kind of means hiding from the things that are really going on these days," Mr. Hourican said. "But discrimination isn't very Christian. What's the big deal if gay people march in a parade?"

Marie McGreevy, a retiree, thinks it is a very big deal, indeed. Everyone should march behind the banner of their Irish county, and not the banner of their sexuality, she said.

"My father, who came from the other side, must be turning over in his grave," Mrs. McGreevy said. "Tell you the truth, the Irish never thought they had, you know, any gay."

Mrs. McGreevy was joined by Elizabeth Pryor and Frances Miller.

"God help them," Mrs. Pryor said, referring to gay people in general.

"The Church condemns their life style, so they can't march in a Catholic celebration," Mrs. Miller said. "It's that simple." 'Honor St. Patrick'

At the Village Pub on Bainbridge Avenue, the owner, John Flynn, said that his customers, "a regular bunch of guys and girls," were planning to boycott the parade.

"We just think homosexuals don't have any place," he said. "The whole point is to honor St. Patrick."

Down the street, as lunchtime was ending at the Greentree Restaurant, Mr. O'Meara, the owner, took a seat and apologized for his demeanor.

"Usually I'm very vocal, but I'm so down about this whole thing," said Mr. O'Meara, a member of Hibernian Division Nine. "It just seems like the beginning of the end for the Irish in this city. I feel bad."

Mr. O'Meara blamed Mayor David N. Dinkins for "stepping on our parade."

"He's made a political decision in favor of his gay constituency, and it's nothing short of Catholic bashing," Mr. O'Meara said. "First the Rainbow curriculum, now this."

Mr. O'Meara pointed out that he did not consider himself a gay basher, and that he has even had gay employees at the restaurant -- "although maybe you shouldn't mention that."

He said he had suggested that the members of the Irish Gay and Lesbian Organization march with lavender armbands or sashes. But that idea was rejected, because "this is war," he said.

Everyone he knows will boycott "Mr. Dinkins's parade," Mr. O'Meara said. "So what he's going to have is a parade of misfits." Where to Draw the Line?

In the late afternoon at the Cafe An Beal Bocht in Riverdale, Rosann MacDonnell, a 29-year-old immigrant, prepared a cappuccino and discussed her disdain for the whole controversy.

"They're making more a mountain out of a molehill," she said. "What the Ancient Order needs is a couple of members under the age of 65."

In the back of the cafe, Mary Brosnan, who works as a home help aide, was far less jocular. "I feel like crying now myself," she said. "It was always such a beautiful tradition and this is kind of spoiling it."

But back up front, Ms. MacDonnell continued. "If they want to march, let 'em march," she said.

Her fellow employee, Siobhan McCormack, 22, was stunned. "You think anybody should have the right?" she said. "What if people wanted to walk naked?"

"Let them, let them," Ms. MacDonnell said.

"I don't know," Ms. McCormack said. "Where do you draw the line?"

Ms. MacDonnell answered: "At the end of Fifth Avenue."