Small gatherings on the streets of colonial America marked the beginning of the St. Patrick’s Day parade’s history. Large-scale public festivities of St. Patrick’s Day evolved over the 19th century into significant political symbols.
While the St. Patrick legend has long been a part of Irish culture, it was in American towns throughout the 1800s when St. Patrick’s Day became what it is today. The St. Patrick’s Day parade tradition has been a thriving one in American communities for more than 200 years. The custom is still practiced today and is practically a constant aspect of life in America.
Parade’s Origins in Colonial America
The holiday was first celebrated in America, according to mythology, in Boston in 1737, where Irish colonists observed the occasion with a small parade.
The Charitable Irish Society was founded in Boston in 1737, according to John Daniel Crimmins, a New York businessman who wrote a book about the origins of St. Patrick’s Day that was published in 1902. Irish Protestant businesspeople and tradespeople made up the organization. Catholics started to enroll after the limitation on religion was eased in the 1740s.
The Boston festival is sometimes considered as the country’s first St. Patrick’s Day celebration. But even a century ago, historians would note that Thomas Dongan, a well-known Irish-born Roman Catholic who served as governor of the Province of New York from 1683 to 1688.
Given Dongan’s connections to his native Ireland, there have long been rumors that St. Patrick’s Day celebrations took place in colonial New York during the time. However, it appears that no written documentation of such incidents has persisted.
The advent of newspapers in colonial America made it possible to more accurately document events from the 1700s. Additionally, there is a lot of documentation of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in New York City in the 1760s. Organizations of Irish-born colonists would advertise events for St. Patrick’s Day at local bars in the city’s newspapers.
An outpost along British North America’s northern frontier, Fort William Henry, hosted a St. Patrick’s Day celebration on March 17, 1757. The majority of the men manning the fort were in fact Irish. On St. Patrick’s Day, the French, who may have had their own Irish troops, planned an attack on the British fort but were repelled. They believed the British fort would be caught off guard.
The British Army celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in New York.
The New York Mercury reported in late March 1766 that “fifes and drums, which made a very pleasing harmony,” had been played to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
Prior to the American Revolution, British troops often garrisoned New York; it has been noted that typically one or two of these regiments had significant Irish contingents. The 16th and 47th Battalions of Foot, two British infantry regiments in particular, had a large Irish population. Officers from those regiments also established the Society of the Friendly Brothers of St. Patrick, which staged March 17th celebrations.
The celebrations often involved both military personnel and citizens coming together to raise a glass to the King and “the prosperity of Ireland.” The Hull’s Tavern and Bolton and Sigel’s Tavern, among other places, hosted these celebrations.
Celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day after the Revolution
The celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day appear to have been more subdued during the Revolutionary War. However, the celebrations resumed after peace was established in a new country, but with a totally different theme.
Of course, the king’s health toasts were no longer made. The first St. Patrick’s Day after the British left New York was March 17, 1784, and the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, a brand-new group without Tory ties, organized the festivities. A dinner was thrown at Cape’s Tavern in lower Manhattan to commemorate the day, which was commemorated musically, no likely once more by fifes and drums.
Thousands of people attended the St. Patrick’s Day Parade
Early parades on St. Patrick’s Day frequently involved processions marching from local parish churches to the historic St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mott Street. These parades persisted throughout the early 1800s.
During the Great Famine, as the Irish population in New York grew, so did the number of Irish organizations. It is astounding to learn about the sheer number of groups that were celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in the 1840s and early 1850s, each with their own civic and political bent.
The rivalry occasionally got hot, and in at least one year, 1858, New York had two sizable, competitive St. Patrick’s Day parades. The Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish immigrant organization founded in the 1830s to fight nativism, started planning one large parade in the early 1860s and continues to do so today.
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There weren’t always no problems during the parades. The New York media were rife with reports of violence that broke out during the procession in Manhattan and a St. Patrick’s Day march in Brooklyn in late March 1867. After that disaster, efforts in the years that followed were directed on making St. Patrick’s Day parades and celebrations a respectable reflection of the Irish community’s expanding political influence in New York.
A Powerful Political Symbol: The St. Patrick’s Day Parade
A crowd gathered in Union Square is depicted in a lithograph from an early 1870s St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York. Notable is the presence of men dressed as gallowglasses, or old Irish soldiers, in the march. They are marching in front of a cart with a bust of Daniel O’Connell, a prominent Irish politician from the 19th century.
The lithograph was released by Thomas Kelly, a Currier and Ives rival, and was undoubtedly a sought-after product. It shows how the St. Patrick’s Day parade developed into a yearly representation of Irish-American unity, complete with a reverence for prehistoric Ireland and 19th-century Irish nationalism.
The Emergence of the Modern St. Patrick’s Day Parade
The popular parade route, the march up Fifth Avenue, was established by the Ancient Order of Hibernians in 1891 and is still used today. Additionally, other customs, such the outlawing of carriages and floats, also spread. Today’s parade, which has tens of thousands of marching participants and brass and bagpipe bands, is essentially the same as it would have been in the 1890s.
Large parades are held in Boston, Chicago, Savannah, and other American cities as part of the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. The idea of the St. Patrick’s Day parade has also made its way back to Ireland: Dublin started its own St. Patrick’s Day festival in the middle of the 1990s, and every March 17th, thousands of spectators flock to see its flashy parade, which is distinguished by its large and vibrant puppet-like characters.
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