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Kevin Cullen

Irish should smile on those shunned

A parade participant carried an Irish flag at the St. Patrick's Day Parade in South Boston last year.Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

When we were kids, there was no question among my cousins about our favorite holiday. It was parade day in Southie.

My Uncle Johnny and Aunt Kay lived on the parade route, on East Broadway, and opened their home not just to family, but to friends and acquaintances. My Aunt Kay was the nicest lady in the world and welcomed everybody like prodigal sons and daughters.

When the parade was over, I’d slip out of the house and watch the fights up and down Broadway. I thought it was exciting.

It was only as I got older that I realized how much booze had become an integral, insidious part of the parade. People got loaded, threw up on their shoes, peed on sidewalks, punched the air and each other.


In more recent years, the cops have done a good job cleaning it up, but to this day, for some people, the parade is just an excuse to get smashed.

I mention this only because this rather ludicrous debate over what the parade is about and who is allowed to march is, once again, a cause célèbre.

The Supreme Court has resoundingly resolved the question of whether the parade organizers have the right to say who marches: They do. But having a right doesn’t mean you’re right.

As for the contention by organizers that the parade is primarily about honoring veterans and celebrating Irish heritage, please. Go to the parade’s official website, and the first thing you see is a link directing you to bars where you can celebrate your Irish heritage by having a few cold ones. I might be more inclined to accept the parade was all about honoring veterans if the website gave as much prominence to a link where people could donate their beer money to, say, the Wounded Warrior Project, Fisher House, or Home Base. And if it’s about honoring vets, why is a group of antiwar veterans barred from marching? After all, all veterans swore to uphold American values, none higher than free speech.


As for the canard that the parade is a celebration of traditional family values, I guess that’s true if your family happens to be named Anheuser-Busch.

Yes, there was nothing quite so poignant for us scions of Irish immigrants as watching the Budweiser Clydesdales steam up Broadway, followed by guys with shovels.

Then there are the holy rollers. On Monday, somebody named Brother Thomas Dalton announced that Immaculate Heart of Mary School from Central Massachusetts is pulling its band and float out of the parade, lest its attendance be construed as condoning what he called the homosexual lifestyle, whatever that is.

Brother Thomas, the school’s principal, was kind enough to provide a statement in which he reminds us heathens that according to Roman Catholic teaching “homosexual acts are acts of grave depravity” and “intrinsically disordered.”

I hate to break it to Brother Thomas, but I’ve seen intrinsically disordered acts of grave depravity on and off Broadway during and after some parades, and none of them involved homosexuals.

Apparently, Brother Thomas didn’t get the memo from the new pope about toning down the hostile, judgmental, antigay rhetoric.

Brother Thomas works out of the St. Benedict Center in Harvard, a monastery that is home to an orthodox Catholic order that call themselves the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The center was founded in 1949 by a priest named the Rev. Leonard Feeney, a Jesuit who believed that all non-Catholics would go to hell.


Feeney gave fire and brimstone speeches every Sunday on Boston Common and clashed mightily with that great son of Southie, Cardinal Richard Cushing, the archbishop of Boston. Feeney, undeniably charismatic and unapologetically anti-
Semitic, thought Cushing and all his mushy talk of ecumenism was heretical.

Feeney was eventually excommunicated for disobedience, but remains a revered figure among a small group of very conservative Catholics, including those who a half-century ago complained that Notre Dame allowed Protestants on its football team and who today wouldn’t be caught dead marching in the same parade with gay people.

The website for the St. Benedict Center highlights a fawning biography of Father Feeney, who died in 1978, but unfortunately does not include some of the more memorable writing in The Point, the newsletter Feeney edited. My favorite excerpt from The Point is a missive that holds out hope for Jews finding salvation, as long as they scrap their “hateful heritage,” break with their synagogue, and cleanse their “cursed blood with the Precious Blood of Jesus.”

With that kind of an invitation, it’s hard to believe that Jews in and around Boston didn’t line up outside the Cathedral in the South End, begging to convert.

If the self-described slaves, with their complaints about the injustice of being forced to march with gay people, aren’t especially good on irony, neither are the parade organizers who insist the parade is a celebration of Irish heritage. For many years, gay people have marched openly in St. Patrick’s Day parades throughout Ireland. It’s not a big deal in Ireland. This is only an issue in New York and Southie.


Frankly, I’d be a little more concerned about the hordes of outsiders who descend on Southie on parade day under the figurative banner of, “We’re here, there’s beer, we’re drinking it, get used to it,” than somebody who wants to march under an actual banner that says something like, “We’re here, we’re queer, we’re proud of it, get used to it.”

That anybody would be offended by someone wearing a shirt or carrying a sign that says they’re gay, in this day and age, is a bit silly.

But then that’s not what this is about. It’s about control. The parade organizers don’t like outsiders coming in and telling them how to run their parade, and at one level I don’t blame them.

Still, there’s something petty and anachronistic about this whole squabble and the politics of exclusion. If anybody should show solidarity with people who might be shunned or derided for being nothing more than themselves, it’s the Boston Irish. If anybody should recoil at the prospect of being stereotyped as a group, it’s people in Southie, who were lumped together with the racist thugs who threw rocks at buses carrying black kids in the 1970s.

When the famine ships came here in the 1840s, the starving, impoverished Irish were quarantined and buried en masse on Deer Island. The Irish were despised by the settled Brahmins as uneducated, unclean, and unwanted. They faced institutional discrimination for generations before they became, by sheer dint of numbers and hard work, the city’s most populous and powerful ethnic group.


Mayor Marty Walsh, the son of Irish immigrants, gets that history intuitively, and that’s why he is nobly and so conscientiously trying to hammer out a compromise for the parade dispute.

Years ago, when Bruce Bolling was elected the first African-American City Council president, I sidled up to him at a reception at the Parkman House. One of his first orders of business was to reward councilors who had voted for him as president and punish those who had not.

“Jeez, Bruce,” I said. “A brother finally gets the job and the first thing you do is act like an Irish pol.”

Bruce smiled, slid his arm around my shoulder, and said, “Kevin, in this town, we’re all Irish by osmosis.”

I smile whenever I think of Bruce, and I’m reminded of that warm welcoming song my Aunt Kay and my mother used to sing on parade day in my aunt’s kitchen: “If You’re Irish, Come Into the Parlor.’’

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.