|A New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade in the era of the Fenian Brotherhood.|
Note: For those of you unaware, this is my natal anniversary. Turn 63 today. Bet you wondered how I got the name. Anyway, for the third year in a row I am running a version of the same St. Patrick’s Day post. It gives me some breathing room, plus it might be an eye opener for some of you. Meanwhile to the Irish and wan-a-be Irish, enjoy the day. Have fun, but try not to live down to some unfortunate stereotypes. And for Christ’s sake don’t drink the damn green beer, an abomination and insult to the soul! Have a dram of Bushmill’s or Jameson’s with a Guinness back for me!
Acknowledging the elephant in the room—today is the Feast of St. Patrick, a low key religious celebration in the Auld Sod. In the U.S. it’s St. Patrick’s Day, which is, as they say, a whole other kettle of fish. For better or worse this quasi-holiday is an American — Irish American— phenomenon.
It all began on March 17, 1762 with the very first St. Patrick’s Day parade anywhere in the world. Irish soldiers in a British regiment headquartered in New York marched behind their musicians and drew cheers from the small local Irish minority, both Catholic and Protestant. It became if not an annual event, one which was observed most years. When the Redcoats left the city at the end of the American Revolution various local Irish mutual aid societies like the Hibernians and the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick held often competing events which, if they happened to intersect, sometimes devolved into brawls.
After the United Irishman uprising of 1798 was crushed by the British unleashing a wave of harsh repression including the banning of the wearing o’ the Green, a new wave of Irish refugees flooded New York, Boston and other eastern cities. They inoculated the annual St. Patrick’s Day observances with a new political significance and wearing green (instead of the traditional Irish colors of blue and gold) became a protest against British rule in the homeland and a call to action to overthrow that rule.
The Potato Famine unleashed yet another wave of immigration bringing throngs of displaced peasants to the already growing slums of the city. Competing Irish aid societies finally decided to unite behind a single, massive demonstration in New York in 1848. The theme of independence for Ireland was mixed with an act of aggressive defiance by the now largely Catholic masses against the nativists from Tammany Hall who controlled the city government, the Know Nothings, and street gangs who harassed and bullied them.
In 1858 the Fenian Brotherhood was organized in the United States in support the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a secret oath society agitating for the establishment of a “democratic Irish republic.” The St. Patrick’s Day parades in New York and other cities became powerful recruiting tools for the Fenians. Social events around the day annually raised thousands of dollars, much of it to support fantastic plots and buy arms. On more than one occasion Fenian plots to attack Canada brought the U.S. and Britain perilously close to war, which, of course was the objective.
The failure of the Easter Rebellion in 1916 in which labor leader James Connolly, fresh from several years in America as an IWW organizer, and an Irish-American unit of Hibernian Rifles were both involved, led to a fresh round of frenzied support for independence back home. The campaign of the Irish Republican Army, which led to the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 and the Irish Civil War between the Free State government and republican rebels were both largely financed by Irish Americans. Even after the establishment of the Republic in 1937, Irish-Americans continued to fund rebel groups aimed at uniting Ulster to the rest of the island, including support for Sein Fein and the Provisional IRA in their armed struggle through The Troubles. All of this was reflected in the parades and other celebrations of the day which had became dominated by Rebel songs.
St. Patrick’s Day celebrations also were important displays of Irish culture. Traditional Irish music and dance was so suppressed at home that both nearly disappeared. Irish-Americans collected and preserved the songs and began schools to teach it and traditional Irish step dancing. Both were re-introduced into Irish culture as a result of these efforts and put on display in St. Patrick’s Day parades, banquets, and concerts.
The Irish also excelled at political organization in this country. Unlike other ethnic groups with large concentrations like the Germans, they were able to create viable political organizations with alliances with other ethnic groups that allowed them to control many city governments for decades. In Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley brought the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, previously a South Side neighborhood event, to the heart of the Loop and dyed the Chicago River green every year in a display of political power. Politicians of all ethnicities jockeyed to be as close as possible to Hizonor in the front ranks of the parade.
By the late 20th Century St. Patrick’s Day had spread well beyond its ethnic roots. “Everyone is Irish” became a byword pushed by breweries, bars, and distilleries making the day one of the biggest party days of the year. Green beer and vomiting teenagers have become new symbols of the holiday. And what about St. Patrick? Well, what about him!