Irish* History: Volume VI
Saint Patrick Immigrates to America
I remember hearing something growing up that used to deeply confuse me: the Irish don’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. This isn’t true, of course, St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and the Irish have been celebrating him on his feast day in the liturgical calendar (March 17th) for at least 1,000 years…But haven’t you heard the rumor that all rumors have a grain of truth?
The truth isn’t that the Irish don’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but that the modern conception of St. Patrick’s Day (think “Kiss Me I’m Irish” tees, shamrocks and Guinness everywhere, and parades, parades, parades!) is more of an American invention. Or, more specifically, an Irish-Spanish-one-day-American invention. The first known St. Patrick’s Day parade took place over a millennia after his death in what is now Saint Augustine, Florida. In 1601, the area was a Spanish colony, but an Irish vicar named Ricardo Arturo (or, Richard Arthur in his native tongue) organized the event to honor the Saint, who at the time his parishioners believed protected the city’s crops. This fact didn’t even come to light until 2017, when a historian named Michael Francis discovered a record of the event in centuries old documents about gunpowder expenditure!
Before this discovery, America was still quick to snag the claim of the first St. Patrick’s Day parade, though there’s some debate about which city gets the honor. Boston, still known today for its wealth of Irish-Americans, held its first parade in 1737 when Irish soldiers serving the British marched through the city in solidarity and the Irish Immigrants of the city came out in force to celebrate with them. However, despite their first parade not occurring until 1762, New York City also likes to claim the honor! It comes down to the fact that NYC’s became not only the biggest parade in the country (with up to 3 million attendees and 150,000 people marching pre-COVID,) but also the most consistent (Boston only made theirs an annual event after NYC and used to draw in only a measly million attendees.)
While millions of attendees are pretty impressive, what if I told you one of the runners up was in SRL’s own backyard? The Holyoke, Massachusetts St. Patrick’s Day Parade might not be not as well-known as Boston or New York, but this parade still became one of the largest in the country. Hosted every year pre-2020 on the Sunday after the holiday, Holyoke started the tradition in 1952 and its numbers reached 400,000 by the 2011 celebration…which is ten times the population of the city itself. It’s all down to the fact that Holyoke had historically held one of the densest populations of Irish Immigrants in the country—in the 1800s it was called “Ireland Parish.” The parade has been considered so influential that many notable officials have attended, including two Speakers of the House and even President John F. Kennedy when he was a Massachusetts state senator (even with Boston only two hours away!)
But this all begs the question: why such huge celebrations? It’s not just the American desire to go big. Something that’s easy to overlook in this country’s history is the treatment of Irish Immigrants, particularly in the 1800s. When the Famine arrived in 1845, over 1 million Irish citizens fled to the New World to avoid starvation. The Irish may have found a more agriculturally prosperous country, but they also found a society ready to discriminate against them because of their poverty, their Catholic beliefs in largely Protestant America, and their thick, foreign accents.
St. Patrick’s Day parades in American cities developed into larger and larger gatherings not only as cultural touchstones that helped the Irish celebrate their heritage and find a sense of community, but also as a way for these immigrants to gain power in a place that denied it to them. The culmination of this came in 1948, when President Truman attended New York City’s parade, a nod to the political capital the Irish immigrant had gained in the previous century. From those 1 million immigrants, at least 32 million United States citizens now claim Irish ancestry, and the idea of being discriminated against for being Irish is in our past. Still, when you have a pint or give someone a pinch this year, take a moment to remember the background and purpose of all that green…then get back to the celebration!
This post is part of a series. Read more about Ireland's history by reading about some of Ireland's most romantic traditions here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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