The nation's oldest and largest St. Patrick's Day Parade stepped off Saturday without Mayor David Dinkins at its head, as the city's chief executive opted to march with members of an Irish gay group.

The controversy leading up to the parade was all but forgotten as thousands of marchers wearing everything from green eye shadow to green shoes began the 230th edition of the parade up Fifth Avenue.The flap had involved a decision by parade officials to keep the Irish Gay and Lesbian Organization out of the parade. The officials cited time constraints in ruling the group couldn't march.

Dinkins, fearing there could be discrimination involved, intervened on behalf of the group.

Parade Chairman Frank Beirne then ruled the group could march with any other unit if they were invited. Division 7 of the New York County Ancient Order of Hibernians extended an invitation.

Asked if the controversy had put a damper on the festivities, Grand Marshal Mary Holt Moore looked at the crowds and the sunny sky before responding, "It doesn't look it, does it?"

Dinkins even was greeted warmly by a prominent opponent of gay rights, Cardinal John O'Connor, who reviewed the parade from the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral.

As always, the parade carried on amid an assortment of political statements.

Tributes to those who served in the Persian Gulf were everywhere. Yellow ribbons, while not as plentiful as the green that bathed people from head to toe, were in evidence along the parade route.

Former Mayor Edward Koch, marching in the New York parade, praised Dinkins' decision to walk with the Irish gay group.

"Only in New York do you have a St. Patrick's Day Parade with a governor, Mario Cuomo, marching with the invalids in wheelchairs, the mayor marching with gays and lesbians, and me, a Jewish boy . . . marching with the police department's Holy Name Society," a Roman Catholic group, Koch said.