Saint Patrick’s Day will soon be here, not that I need to remind you. It’s the day when you pretend you’re Irish so you can start drinking beer before lunch. You put green dye in it because on every 17 March, a long time ago, Irish peasants used to eat green colored food. That was the color of shamrocks, which St. Patrick used to explain the trinity of the Catholic Church (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). Okay, I need to remind you—go out and buy some green dye.
Back in the Dark Ages, sometime in the 800s, some Irish people began to celebrate the late Bishop Padraig as their island’s patron saint. It took a hundred years or so, but the idea caught on all around the island. St. Patrick hadn’t been canonized by the Catholic Church, but that wasn’t a problem. The Church wasn’t rigid about local saints and tried to absorb them into the faith, whenever it could. Just so long as the celebrations included going to church, saying a couple prayers, and didn’t break sumptuary laws, it was okay. (The peasants ate a simple meal of bacon and cabbage.)
It was due to the efforts of Father Luke Wadding, a Franciscan priest born in Ireland, who founded the Irish College of St. Isidore in Rome in 1625, that St. Patrick’s Day became an official Church Feast Day. It happened sometime around 1657, when he died.
Surprisingly, there is a strong 18th Century connection between St. Patrick’s Day, which was originally celebrated only by Catholics, and colonial America, which was nearly all Protestant. The business of holding parades on that day started here. Well, it was more Catholics vs. Protestants than it was about St. Patrick, but we’ll get to that.
NOTE—The Irish Potato Famine happened in the 1840s, after the United Colonies had become the United States. Nearly a million Irish people migrated to the states, during or after the famine. They had been preceded by a quarter million immigrants between 1717 and 1775 (and perhaps as many as a thousand in the 17th Century). By the time of the famine, St. Patrick’s Day parades were already an American tradition. The Ancient Order of Hibernians didn’t start marching until 1853.
The first group of Ulster-Scots arrived in Boston in 1717 and most of them moved on to New Hampshire. Some merchants and craftsmen stayed in the port city. Being Ulster-Scots, they were Presbyterians, not Catholics. Their forefathers had migrated to Ireland from Scotland or Northern England, so celebrating a Catholic saint was not a big thing with them. More Ulster-Scots migrated to Philadelphia and then into western Pennsylvania, in the 1720s. Again, the patron saint of Ireland was unimportant to them and a day was not wasted in celebrating him. However, in 1737, things changed. Irishmen in Boston founded the Charitable Irish Society. Its two purposes were:
1) to cultivate a spirit of unity and harmony among all resident Irish and their descendants in the Massachusetts Colony and to advocate socially and morally the interests of the Irish people and their cultural heritage.
2) to alleviate suffering, and to aid such of its members or other worthy recipients as by the vicissitudes of fortune might be deserving of its charity.
The society was founded on St. Patrick’s Day, 17 March, by Ulster-Scots. Apparently twenty years in Massachusetts Bay had eased their problems with Catholics. Perhaps anti-Irish prejudice in Boston also applied to good Protestants.
The next mention of St. Patrick’s Day in colonial history is that it was allegedly celebrated at Fort William Henry at the south end of Lake George, in New York, in 1757. The claim is made on the web, but supporting evidence isn’t to be found. However, the British Army’s 44th Regiment of Foot was part of the garrison in the fort, beginning in the winter of 1756, and it was still there in March 1757. The regiment had recently been sent to the colonies after four years of service in Ireland, so it had at least some Irish privates and maybe sergeants. The unit was commanded by Major Will Eyre, one of whose captains was Charles Lee (later made a general in the Continental Army), who was not notorious for strict discipline. So, it might have happened.
This is strong evidence, however, in comparison to what supports the claim that St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated at Fort Pitt in Pennsylvania, in 1763. There were no Irish troops assigned to that fort and no journal entries from Pittsburg by anyone between 9 March and 24 May of that year have been saved. Further, on 9 March, the fort still had four inches of water from a flood covering the parade ground. Well, maybe Swiss Captain Ecuyer had his Pennsylvanian militiamen celebrate St. Patrick to show people spying on the fort that the soldiers were still in business.
I skipped over an event from the year before, 1762. It happened in New York City, where we’re going to end this tour. Allegedly on 17 March of that year, some Irishmen in New York got together and went as a group to John Marshall’s house (later called the ‘John Marshall Inn’). This is claimed as the first St. Patrick’s Day parade by the Irish because the Orangemen of Northern Ireland didn’t make their first ‘march’ until after defeating Catholics in a battle in County Armagh in 1795. Well, the event in New York in 1762 was neither a parade nor a march. A small group of men walked down the street together. They were not on parade, where others might come to see their fancy and showy costumes, and listen to their bands. They did not march to show unity in protest of a situation nor make a claim it was their right to resolve it. They did not march in front of (or behind) a band. It is easy to see them talking to each other in light tones as they went down the street. They made jokes and cheered each other on. There was going to be alcohol served at their destination.
Four years later, on 17 March 1766, soldiers from two British Army units, the 16th and 47th Regiments of Foot, which were mostly made up of Irish Catholics, supposedly went to the Crown and Thistle Tavern in Manhattan New York. After having a few drinks, they went out into the street and formed themselves into military order, and then marched for a few blocks. When they had decided they had gone far enough, they marched back to the tavern and drank some more. The matter was reported in the New York Mercury, which commented about the ‘playing of fifes and drums, which produced a very agreeable harmony.’
Wait. Stop. Why did the soldiers march around Manhattan? The event hadn’t been arranged, so they surely interrupted the flow of traffic in the streets and possibly interfered with the conduct of business. What possessed them to show themselves off to the townsfolk? Was it the alcohol? Of course it was. More, though, it was spit-in-your-eye arrogance. Marching together as soldiers, maybe looking for a fight, showed that the Irish claimed a right to be in New York.
This was March 1766. Seven months before, there had been two riots in Boston when some Americans showed they were upset with colonial government. This had put the British Army on alert in every colony. Sons of Liberty clubs had quickly been formed in nearly every American town and in many of its villages. The most common gathering place for the local club was a tavern. This had led to fights breaking out wherever there were soldiers. There were many set-tos between soldiers and Sons in New York taverns and on the streets. In August of this year, there was a major riot between the two sides over the construction of a liberty pole. It went on for three nights. The fighting got so out of hand that British troops were no longer be allowed to patrol the streets by themselves (for fear of being ambushed).
Let’s go back to 17 March 1766, to what is alleged to have been the very first ‘St. Patrick’s Day Parade.’ The only thing the events of that day had to do with the patron saint of Ireland is that it was on his celebration day that some soldiers went out drinking. And they didn’t parade. They marched to show Irish unity and pugnacity. However, it wasn’t long before the Americans and the Irish figured out that both groups had been smacked down by the British and were being kept under foot. Neither group was being fully treated as Englishmen were in England. This led the two groups to make common cause. It was a few years after that when the annual march became a parade. The year of transition can’t be found on the web. One year there was hostility and the next year there wasn’t. But the parades have gone on, nearly every year since. In a few weeks, New York City will host its 252nd one.
[Since there hasn’t been a parade every year, this dates the original event back to the 1750s, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. You’ll have to ask the Ancient Order of Hibernians about it—it’s their show.]