Michael Dwyer / AP
Monday, March 17, 2014 | 9:36 a.m.
NEW YORK — New York City's St. Patrick's Day parade stepped off Monday without Mayor Bill de Blasio marching along with the crowds of kilted Irish-Americans and bagpipers amid a dispute over whether participants can carry pro-gay signs.
The world's largest parade celebrating Irish heritage set off down Fifth Avenue on a cold and gray morning, the culmination of a weekend of St. Patrick's Day revelry.
De Blasio held the traditional St. Patrick's Day breakfast at Gracie Mansion with the Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, but was boycotting the parade, which doesn't allow expressions of gay identity. Boston's new mayor, Martin Walsh, also opted out of that city's parade Sunday after talks broke down that would have allowed a gay veterans group to march.
Guinness beer abruptly dropped its sponsorship of New York's parade on Sunday over the controversy. The Dublin-based company has pulled sponsorship assets, including on-air presence, parade participation and any promotional materials that weren't already printed, although the beer maker had already made a payment to parade organizers, spokeswoman Alix Dunn said.
Other beer companies earlier joined the boycotts, with Sam Adams withdrawing its sponsorship of Boston's parade and Heineken following suit in New York. That leaves Ford as the last remaining major sponsor of the Manhattan parade.
Parade organizers in New York have said gay groups are not prohibited from marching, but they are not allowed to carry gay-friendly signs or identify themselves as LGBT.
For the second year running, Dublin's major parade was including groups from Ireland's gay rights groups, Dublin Pride and BeLonG To. Gay groups are a big part of the Dublin community dance groups, which wear flamboyant outfits and feature in each year's Dublin parade.
While New York's Irish, their descendants and the Irish for a day planned to revel in the celebration of culture on Monday, de Blasio's decision to skip the parade underscores lingering political tensions over gay rights issues in the United States. Kenny, however, refused to be sidelined, saying he'd join the procession Monday in Manhattan because the holiday is about Irishness, not sexuality.
De Blasio, in one of the first major events that Gracie Mansion has hosted under the new mayor, addressed several hundred people at the breakfast, many of Irish descent.
Sporting a green tie, de Blasio, who is not Irish, recalled his roots growing up in Massachusetts, living in congressional district once represented by Irish-Americans John F. Kennedy and Tip O'Neill. "I also grew up in an atmosphere so rich in Irish culture," the mayor said.
He said in a toast that New York is a "city of immigrants" and residents "never forget" where they came from.
Kenny presented de Blasio a book containing a history of Ireland. The mayor of the Big Apple dropped a crystal apple he was presenting to Kenny. It did not appear to break.
Rain didn't stop the huge St. Patrick's Day celebration in Savannah, Ga., though fewer revelers lined Lafayette Square nearing the beginning of the city's parade route. Thinner crowds left plenty of room for umbrellas and party tents as the 190-year-old parade stepped off under rainy skies in Georgia's oldest city.
A day earlier, thousands of green-clad spectators came out to watch bagpipers and marchers in Boston, and organizers of a float intended to promote diversity threw Mardi Gras-type beads to onlookers. A similar scene played out in Philadelphia.
In Michigan, parades were Sunday held in Bay City and Detroit, and on Monday, a St. Patrick's Day Parade was scheduled in Cleveland.
Kenny, Ireland's head of government, on Sunday became the first Irish prime minister to attend Boston's annual St. Patrick's Day breakfast. He has resisted pressure, in both Ireland and America, to support the gay rights lobby's demand to have equal rights to participate in parades on St. Patrick's Day.
"The St. Patrick's Day parade (in New York) is a parade about our Irishness and not about sexuality, and I would be happy to participate in it," Kenny said in Dublin before leaving for a six-day trip to the U.S.
In Ireland, St. Patrick's Day provides the launch of the country's annual push for tourism, a big part of the rural economy. Virtually the entire Irish government left the Emerald Isle for the holiday. Of the government's 28 ministers, 27 are overseas, seeking to boost economic and cultural ties from Beijing to Buenos Aires.
"To Irish people by birth or descent, wherever they may be in the world, and to those who simply consider themselves to be friends of Ireland, I wish each and every one of you a happy, peaceful and authentically Irish St. Patrick's Day," Irish President Michael D. Higgins, the ceremonial head of state and guest of honor at Monday's parade in Dublin, said in a statement.
Some LGBT groups were to protest the parade along the parade route on Fifth Avenue on Monday. Others had planned to dump Guinness beer from the shelves of the Stonewall Inn, the birthplace of the gay rights movement, in protest of the brewer's plan to sponsor the parade, but that demonstration was canceled late Sunday after Guinness said in a statement that it had dropped its sponsorship.
New York's parade, a tradition that predates the city itself, draws more than 1 million spectators and about 200,000 participants every March 17. It has long been a mandatory stop on the city's political trail, and includes marching bands, traditional Irish dancers and thousands of uniformed city workers.
Associated Press writers Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin and Russ Bynum in Savannah, Ga., contributed to this report.