Huge crowds lined New York City's streets Friday, waving Irish flags and cheering on the 150,000 marchers who were taking part in the nation's oldest and largest St. Patrick's Day parade.

Up to 2 million spectators, many wearing green hats and carnations and painted clovers on their faces, were expected to attend the event.

New York "is the kernel of the whole Irish community in the U.S.," said Joe Sanning, 52, an officer with the Ireland National Police Service in Tipparery, Ireland. "We don't have parades like this at home."

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."

"Today is St. Patrick's Day. We celebrate our faith and heritage. Everything else is secondary," said the chairman, John Dunleavy, who wore a sash of the Irish colors.

Dunleavy was blasted by the City Council's first openly gay leader for the remarks, which appeared in The Irish Times on Thursday.

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?"

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who is of Irish descent, said she didn't think Dunleavy's remarks were worth a response. She declined to participate in the Fifth Avenue parade after organizers barred an Irish gay and lesbian group for a 16th straight year.

Efforts to let Irish gays march under their own banner date to 1991, when an ILGO application was first rejected by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the group that organizes the parade. Instead, 35 ILGO members 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 parade appearance.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who marched in Friday's parade, declined to comment on the dispute, although he had earlier urged the Hibernians to change their stance.

"I've always believed this is a city where all the parades should be open to everybody, and orientation, gender ... should not be the deciding thing," he said.

The mayor marched earlier this month in an inclusive St. Patrick's parade in Queens.

In Savannah, Ga., site of the nation's second-largest St. Patrick's parade, hundreds of people lined the streets, sipping Bloody Marys beneath the live oaks and resting in folding chairs two-rows deep.

Dozens of families even set up party tents a day in advance on the city's famous squares. Philip Dressel, 18, spent Thursday night in the tent that his mother and aunt set up and guarded throughout the day.

"I took the night shift," Dressel said. "It's pretty serious. All the families down here take it seriously."