Every year, more than half a million spectators line the streets of South Boston for the annual parade – the second-largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the United States. Boston has the highest percentage of Irish-Americans in the country, with 20 percent of residents in the metro Boston area descending from Irish immigrants, according to a Forbes report.
But in 1995, a unanimous ruling by the US Supreme Court confirmed the parade committee's right to bar gay and lesbian groups from formally participating in the event. The Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston was excluded.
Mr. Walsh's predecessor, Thomas Menino, had refused to participate in the parade because of the exclusion of gay and lesbian groups.
Walsh, himself the son of Irish immigrants, did march in the parade last year as a state representative, but he's changed his tune since becoming mayor last month.
“Equality comes first,” Walsh told the Globe. “The fact that it’s 2014, I certainly hope we’re able to come to an understanding. It’s long overdue.”
Organizers do not seem moved.
“No, definitely not,” said John “Wacko’’ Hurley, a longtime parade official who brought the issue to the Supreme Court, when asked by the Globe if the committee would reconsider its ban on gay and lesbian groups. “Not when you have a 9-to-nothing decision in the Supreme Court of the United States. [Walsh is] not in a position to overturn that.”
The mayor remains hopeful that he will be able to sway the organizers to accept an application for participation filed by a gay veterans group.
“Look, I give full credit to the parade organizers for proving the point they fought to make. But that was 20 years ago. And the world has changed a great deal. South Boston has changed a great deal,” Walsh told the Boston Herald. “We’re talking about a group of fellow veterans who’ve paid the full price of citizenship. I’d like them to march in the parade. And like I said, I want to march in a parade that includes them.”
Organizers have maintained that the parade is inclusive, in that it does not prevent gay and lesbian individuals from marching with other groups.
“We’re not bigots,” Philip Wuschke, another organizer, told the Herald. “It is inclusive. It’s a day of celebrating. It’s celebrating the Irish and the military.”
St. Patrick’s Day has a long and distorted history.
The holiday honors a 5th-century British priest who worked to convert the Irish to Christianity, according to National Geographic. He reportedly died on March 17, 461. After his death, an extensive mythology evolved, including stories that suggested he used three-leaf shamrocks to illustrate the Trinity to potential converts and a myth that he banished snakes from Ireland.
The first St. Patrick’s Day parades in the US were held by Irish soldiers that augmented British troops in the Revolutionary War, National Geographic reports. Sometime in the 19th century, people began to wear green as a show of commitment to Ireland, and the city of Chicago began dyeing a segment of the Chicago River green in 1962.
In Boston, the parade draws a diverse and frequently rowdy crowd that includes hordes of drunken revelers as well as families with children. It typically takes place on the Sunday preceding March 17.
March 17 itself is a holiday throughout Massachusetts’ Suffolk County, which includes Boston and neighboring cities of Cambridge and Somerville. Officially, the holiday is attributed to the celebration of Evacuation Day, which commemorates the ousting of British forces from the city of Boston during the Revolutionary War. However, the majority of celebrants spend their day off guzzling green beer at local pubs.
Both Mr. Menino and Walsh were vocal advocates of marriage equality prior to statewide legalization of gay marriage in 2004.
Meanwhile in New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio has opted to boycott the St. Patrick's Day parade in Manhattan because parade organizers prohibit participants from carrying signs or banners that identify them as gay, Reuters reports. He is the first New York City mayor to do so in 20 years.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the century in which St. Patrick lived.