The History of St. Patrick’s Day Parades

How did a Christian observance for the Patron Saint of Ireland turn into the St. Patrick’s Day parades we see every year? Read on to learn some of the history behind the festivities.

“May you live to be a hundred, with one extra year to repent!” goes a well-known Irish saying. And may you be able-bodied enough to enjoy St. Patrick’s Day every year of your life. One of the ways Americans enjoy it in cities across the nation is with annual parades. On March 17th it seems everyone has a wee bit o’the green in him, for they turn out in droves, line the streets early, bring their grills and their picnic baskets, and settle in for a day of pure enjoyment.

Lonely Irish immigrants in Boston in 1737 held the first recorded St. Patrick’s Day celebration in America. It is likely that they continued to celebrate together every year, just as they had in their home country, but the next one recorded in history was in 1762. Irish soldiers stationed there with the English military held a parade in the New York City streets, much to the delight of a growing Irish immigrant community. It was such a success that in 1766 New York declared it an annual event, and so it has been ever since.

The protestant, largely middle-class immigrants formed several ‘Irish Aid’ societies in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, like the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, to assist each other and new immigrants that were pouring in. They were hard-working, upright people who helped their own and anybody else who needed it. And their celebrations – St. Patrick’s Day being the main one – were boisterous, happy, fun, and open to anybody who wanted to join in. As a result, they were well received by all. Local groups turned out with bagpipes and drums, the churches opened up with bazaars and games, and residents vied with each other to produce the best ethnic dishes and desserts.

In 1845 the Great Potato Famine in Ireland drove scores starving immigrants to American shores, and public opinion changed somewhat. These immigrants – almost a million of them – tended to be poor, uneducated, and Catholic. They had difficulty finding even menial work and were often met with contempt by Americans. Protestant middle class Irish scorned them as well. For years many of them had a rough go in their new country. But the Irish are durable, and find ways to weather storms. Eventually they began to recognize their power as a voting block, and to organize what was called the ‘green machine’. Their power was in their sheer numbers, and political candidates began to woo them determinedly for the swing vote they represented. By this time many cities were hosting parades on March 17, the largest being in New York City. Irishmen must have danced with glee in 1948 when then-President Harry Truman attended the New York City parade, giving his seal of approval to the practice and creating public acceptance across the nation.

St. Patrick’s Day was not an officially recognized holiday until 1976, but most large cities were already hosting their own brand of parades in honor of the day. However, it was increasingly recognized as a secular holiday, not a Christian one, with the emphasis on pure fun. While there is nothing wrong with that, the outlandish customs that Americans seem to love have become offensive to some devout Irish, who would never dream of wearing a “kiss me, I’m Irish” button. Also drinking to excess is now a given for many folks on this holiday, something the true Irish did not tolerate.

In Ireland, businesses were closed on St. Patrick’s Day, including the pubs. The day began by attending church services to honor their patron saint. Men wore a sprig of shamrocks on the hats or jackets, women wore green ribbons in their hair, and children wore green, white and orange badges – the colors of the flag. The rest of the day was devoted to family, friends, and festivities. Games, crafts, and contests were held, and copious quantities of dark Irish beer and traditional Irish dishes were consumed, but drinkers stayed close to home and knew their limits.

It wasn’t until the 1970’s that the Irish parliament repealed the law keeping pubs closed. In 1995 a national campaign began to attract tourism to the war-torn country, and to showcase the beautiful Emerald Isle. A national St. Patrick’s celebration now takes place in Dublin every year, lasting several days. In addition to a huge parade, there are fireworks, concerts, theater productions, and treasure hunts. Close to a million attend every year.

St. Patrick’s Day parades are springing up in other countries as well. Canada, Russia, Singapore, and Japan boast of parades, among others. It just goes to show that, indeed, there may be a little leprechaun in all of us. This is certainly true in America, where the Census Bureau estimates over 34 million Americans can trace some Irish blood in their ancestry.

With this year’s celebration just around the corner, many establishments are already gearing up for the coming festivities. In university towns this often includes neighbors boarding up their windows against a night of frivolity and heavy drinking. But less troublesome celebrations will be everywhere, so be sure to freshen up your green jacket and buff up your dancing shoes! And as the evening wears on and you are ready to end your day, be sure and bless your hosts with a traditional Irish blessing: “May your neighbors respect you, troubles neglect you, the angels protect you, and Heaven accept you.”