NEW YORK -- Protesters joined bagpipers, marching bands, and thousands of flag-waving spectators at the St. Patrick's Day parade yesterday after the parade's chairman compared gay Irish-American activists to neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and prostitutes.
As huge crowds lined the streets, the chairman, John Dunleavy, sidestepped questions about his remarks to The Irish Times.
''Today is St. Patrick's Day. We celebrate our faith and heritage; everything else is secondary," he said before the start of the Fifth Avenue parade.
Dunleavy set off a firestorm this week when he told the newspaper: ''If an Israeli group wants to march in New York, do you allow Neo-Nazis into their parade? If African-Americans are marching in Harlem, do they have to let the Ku Klux Klan into their parade?"
Referring to the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, Dunleavy said, ''People have rights. If we let the ILGO in, is it the Irish Prostitute Association next?"
On Thursday, Christine Quinn, the City Council's first openly gay leader, blasted Dunleavy for the comments. Quinn, who is Irish, declined to participate in the parade after organizers barred an Irish gay and lesbian group from marching under its own banner for a 16th straight year.
''I don't even think they dignify a response," Quinn said of the remarks.
The city's parade, with 150,000 marchers, is the nation's oldest and largest.
Scores of bagpipers, high school bands, and Irish societies streamed past crowds waving Irish flags or wearing green hats, green carnations, or green shamrocks painted on their faces.
Spectator Mary Sweeney, who moved to New York from Ireland 15 years ago with her two daughters, said, ''I want them to grow up knowing their Irish heritage. Everyone wants to be Irish today."
Among the protesters was Emmaia Gelman, 31, who hoisted a sign that said, ''Troops Out, Queers in," a reference to military groups in the parade.
Police on scooters positioned themselves between the marchers and scores of protesters, who chanted: ''We can march in Dublin, we can march in Cork, why can't we march in New York?"
Quinn said Thursday that the city's Irish gays had long hoped to march with their own banner, but were willing to walk with the City Council as a unified group.
''There were moments where I was hopeful that we could have come to some agreement," said Quinn, who was arrested in 1999 for protesting at an exclusionary parade in the Bronx. ''But that didn't happen."
Dunleavy told The New York Times that Quinn ''is more than welcome to march as the leader of the City Council, but no buttons or decorations in any shape or form."
Efforts to let Irish gays march under their own banner date to 1991, when parade organizers first rejected an Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization application. Instead, 35 members of the group were sprayed with beer and insults as they marched with a Manhattan division of the Hibernians and then-Mayor David Dinkins. It was the group's last appearance in the parade, which draws up to 2 million spectators.