Friday, March 17, 2023

St. Patrick’s Day American Style—Not a Quiet Catholic Feast Day Any More

19th Century American greeting and souvenir cards blended sentimentality and symbols of Irish nationalism especially the harp, shamrocks, and the once banned green.  Modern cards mostly feature leering and/or drunken leprechauns.

Note:  For those of you unaware, this is my natal anniversary.  Turn 74 today.  Bet you wondered how I got the name.  Anyway, I am rerunning a yearly classic. 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 Jameson’s with a Guinness back for me!

Today is the Feast of St. Patrick, originally a low-key religious celebration in the Auld Sod.  In the U.S. it’s St. Patricks Day, which is, as they say, a whole other kettle of fish.  For better or worse this quasi-holiday is an Irish American phenomenon.  Let’s trace the metamorphosis from religiosity, to ethnic muscle flexing, to Irish nationalism, to partisan political display, to equal opportunity public drinking festival.

Up until the mid 1960s St. Patrick's Day remained a religious festival in Ireland and the annual parade in Dublin, seen here in 1905, was mostly a religious procession, often led by the St. John's Total Abstinence and Benefit Society.  Today the parade is an American style extravaganza awash in Kelly Green, dancing leprechauns, shamrocks, and scantily clad girls.  General rowdiness is the rule of the day, largely due to the large annual pilgrimages to the Auld Sod by Irish Americans, now generations removed from the island.

It all began on March 17, 1762 with the very first St. Patricks Day parade anywhere in the world.  Irish soldiers in a British regiment headquartered in New York City marched behind their musicians and drew cheers from the small local Irish minority, both Catholic and Protestant—mostly Protestant in those days.  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 imposing a 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.

By the second half of the 19th Century New York's St. Patrick's Day parades had become elaborate celebrations of Irish nationalism and a display of raw political power in the city.

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 (IRA), 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 become dominated by Rebel songs.

In trying to market to Irish Americans, not everyone got it right.  This tone deaf greeting card featured the pug-nosed Irish stereotypes featured in Know Nothing and anti-immigrant publications.  The figure on the left has a sash identifying him as a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.  The one on the right supposedly is from a competing organization that had frequently brawled with the AOH for supremacy on St. Patrick's Day.

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 like Chicago’s Police Chief Francis O’Neill 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.

Hizzonor da Mayor, Richard J. Daley steps off with his blackthorn stick and green fedora at the head of the 1963 Chicago St. Patrick's Day joined by officials of the sponsoring Plumbers union, the Irish Consul General, Cardinal Alber Meyer (second from left} and actor Pat O'Brien to the Mayor's left and a bevy of politicians in the second row jockeying for position.  Then Republican Cook County States Attorney James P. Thompson can be spotted just over Daley's shoulder.

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. Patricks 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 on St. Paddys Day 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. 

The semi-legendary Saint whose feast day is the occasion of all of the hoopla.  He wasn't Irish and did not drive the snakes out of the island--they never lived there to begin with.

And what about St. Patrick?  Well, what about him!

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