Thursday, March 15, 2012

A History of Saint Patrick's Day in America

Many working class Irish immigrants began arriving in the United States after 1845, fleeing famine in Ireland. The Tenement Museum’s "Irish Outsiders" tour tells the story of one Irish immigrant family, the Moores, and their struggle to survive and thrive in an unfamiliar nation and neighborhood. As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, we're exploring the history of this holiday and its role in our shared national history.

Roman Catholic Irish folks have been observing the feast day of St. Patrick on March 17 since the 9th or 10th century. Interestingly, however, the first parade held to honor St. Patrick's Day took place not in Ireland but in North America, in what would later become the United States. On March 17, 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City. Along with their music, the parade helped the soldiers reconnect with their Irish roots, as well as with fellow Irishmen serving in the English army.

An etching of St. Patrick c.1491

In 1848, several New York Irish Aid societies united to form one official New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade. Joseph Moore of 97 Orchard Street may have belonged to such a society, which would have provided his family with assistance in finding work, paying the rent in an emergency, and covering medical bills and funeral expenses.

Despite institutionalized discrimination, by the turn of the nineteenth century Irish Americans had organized a powerful political party known as the “green machine.” St. Patrick's Day parades became not only a show of strength for Irish Americans, but also as a must-attend event for political candidates courting the Irish voting bloc.

However, the role of Irish Americans in nineteenth century political and cultural arena was still hotly contested, as one can see in this image from a Harper’s Weekly magazine editorial column from 1887, now in the Library of Congress.

From Harper's Weekly, 1887

The drawing depicts an Irish-American Uncle Sam wearing a hat with pipe and four-leaf clover pulling at coat of arms under words "The Old Boston State House.” The pipe and four leaf clover were emblems of Irish pride which still appear in contemporary festivities.

 St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, c.1879

By 1911, the St. Patrick’s Day parade had grown substantially, attracting an estimated 30,000 marchers. Today, it's the world's oldest civilian parade and the largest in the United States, with over 150,000 participants and 3 million observers. In 1911, a New York Times reporter stated that, “all true Americans now delight to honor the patron saint of a people who have played so large a part in the development of the Republic.” For many Americans, that holds true today.

--Posted by Development Associate Hilary Whitham

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