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The History of St. Patrick's Day

As we all know, St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and Cleveland Irish have been publicly celebrating his feast day since 1867. We were not the first Irish folk to have such a celebration. In 1607 St. Patrick’s Feast Day was first listed on the Irish legal calendar. That began a historical relationship between the Irish people and March 17th. This relationship in its early construction contained an inherent contradiction of elements. It was the combination of the divine and the secular. It was destined to manifest the tensions within the Irish people. It would define the collective and individual position within Irish and Irish American society. It is a social and historical indicator of the Irish people and members of the Irish diaspora. It is St. Patrick’s Day. In 1631 Pope Urban VII officially added the Feast of St. Patrick to the calendar of the Catholic Church. Some scholars view this as an attempt to expand the Catholic Church by using the patron saint of Ireland to attract more parishioners. If that is correct, the Church amplified that attempt by increasing the stature of March 17th. Pope Innocent XI raised the Feast Day of St. Patrick to the rank of a double rite in 1687, thereby augmenting its liturgical importance. Outside of the pews, St. Patrick’s Day was soon integrated into Irish custom and practice. Early celebrations were amalgamated with the custom of convening local fairs and markets. The religious observation was followed with dance, music, food, drink and sport. The hierarchy of the Church supported these festivals which could last three days. The Feast of St. Patrick was an established day of celebration for the Irish people by the end of the 17th century.

However, as go the Irish, so goes St. Patrick’s Day. In 1695, following the victory of William of Orange, the British Parliament banned the majority of the Catholic Saints’ Days and St. Patrick’s Day was not officially recognized. That did not eliminate the veneration of Ireland’s patron saint. It did alter the cognitive and expressive nature of March 17th. St. Patrick was now becoming the symbolic figure of Irish identity and Irish nationalism in response to British oppression. Celebration, although unsanctioned, became more public. It shifted in part to a rite recognized and legitimized by the people. St. Patrick’s Day became a space that reaffirmed the dominant world view and power of the British Parliament while it simultaneously embraced the ethos of the Irish people. It was both banned and celebrated. This increased the participants of the Irish community who venerated the saint, crossing economic and religious boundaries. St. Patrick was Irish. However, the Irish people were not as homogenous as March 17th made them appear. Wolfe Tone would soon enough expose these contradictions for the Irish people.

The 18th century celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day illustrate the transformation of St. Patrick to a national figure for Irish nationalism. This did not negate the established connection to the Catholic Church. However, Irish Protestants began to celebrate the Catholic Feast Day. Official governmental events were held at Dublin Castle and attended by the Anglo-Irish elite. Protestant representatives of the government would don shamrocks while dancing under the British flag. That apparent contradiction was surmountable by the general sense of nationalism shared by the Irish people. Irish fraternal societies would hold formal functions. The masses would commemorate the day as well, focusing on Church and family gatherings. March 17th had become a cultural universal in Ireland. It was interwoven into every fabric of Irish society and re-affirmed an Irish identity. The Rebellion of 1798 was an expression of the nationalism that was the Irish identity. It was the convergence of sentiment from various spheres within Irish society.

The retaliation for the yearning for freedom was the Act of Union in 1801 which splintered any chance at a collective Irish self. British Prime Minister William Pitt attempted to resolve the “Irish Question” with purchased legislation written in religious terms. The Irish Parliament was abolished and Irish Catholics experienced a denial of liberty. The religious divide was permanently injected into the conceptualization of Irishness. St. Patrick and his feast day became a part of the battle for the Irish identity. The Anglian Church of Ireland and its followers attempted to adopt the patron saint and the Irish Catholic Church and its followers fought to maintain its sacred connection to the saint that had existed legally since 1607. Irish societies of both faiths held dinners and the Irish people continued to have family and public gatherings on March 17th. This separate veneration continued in the years preceding the Famine.

During the Great Hunger, over a million died in Ireland and just as many immigrated. St. Patrick’s Day celebrations also ceased for the majority of the Irish people. The religious and legal schism that exacerbated the death and disease amongst the Irish Catholic population made Feast Days an absurdity for the majority of the population. However, St. Patrick’s Day festivities did not disappear. Indicative of the economic disparities connected to religious affiliation, more affluent individuals were able to continue to have lush gatherings on March 17th. The elite government affairs held at Dublin Castle and attended by Anglo-Irish society did not pause in deference to the last rites of the impoverished. It was a tale of two cities, one Catholic and the other Protestant.

The Famine Irish who were able to immigrate made their way to all corners of the globe. Those who crossed the Atlantic to America would soon find that St. Patrick was already here and doing well. In a more complex cultural milieu, the Irish in America had been expressing their Irishness with St. Patrick’s Day events since 1737. However, the same terms according to which St. Patrick was being venerated in Ireland followed the patron saint to America.

The Charitable Irish Society of Boston was founded on March 17th, 1737, as a benevolent society intent on providing support to Irish immigrants and honoring St. Patrick. Its by-laws stated that all members of the society must be Bostonians of Irish blood and Protestant faith. All recipients of their charity also had to meet that criterion. The historical record details other financially stable Irish Protestants hosting events on March 17th in recollection of Ireland. Unofficial public events also occurred amongst the less than affluent Irish, typically unpretentious family events that followed church services. It was not until 1775 that the first public procession occurred on St. Patrick’s Day. The Sons of St. Patrick, Irish officers in the 47th regiment of the British Army stationed in Boston, marched to Mass after dinner. A year later all regiments of the British Army were fleeing Boston and the threat of the Continental Army, which included the leadership of General John Sullivan, an Irish American. In the Boston area, March 17th is both St. Patrick’s Day and Evacuation Day.

Throughout the Revolutionary War, both the British Army and the Continental Army made attempts to utilize St. Patrick’s Day for morale and inscription. In Ireland a military career was a potential profession. Many Irish chose to enlist, both Catholic and Protestant. Once in the service Catholics were limited to lives as foot soldiers while only Protestants had the opportunity to rise to an officer’s rank. It was these Irish members of the British Army who marched in 1757 at Fort George, in 1763 at Fort Pitt, in the 1770’s in South Carolina, Maryland, Kentucky, Baltimore and Charleston, and in 1779 in New York. The British Army conscripted the Sons of Erin to fight their brethren in what was then their colony. St. Patrick was also conscripted to assist the Crown’s troops and its war effort. The Irish Catholics who marched on St. Patrick’s Day, led by their Irish Protestant officers, in and around British forts in the last days of the British colonial rule were another expression of contradiction that was St. Patrick’s Day. This was in a tragic contradiction as they killed and were killed by their brethren who were celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Continental Army camps. The British failed in the attempted ownership of the patron saint for their benefit, as they did in the war. Irish Catholics in America, following the War of Independence, found a religious freedom that was disallowed in Ireland. It was not without contention; however, the right of public worship was re-proclaimed every March 17th. In 1827 the British government lifted the emigration restriction for Ireland and Irish citizens, largely Irish Catholic citizens, began a population influx in the Americas.

The Charitable Society of Boston, who in 1727 restricted membership to Protestants, was now succumbing to the demographic shift in the American populace. In 1837 the Society was dominated by Catholics who petitioned the Diocese of Boston, formed in 1808, to sanction a public procession and a formal dinner in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. Irish Catholic immigrants were joining establish social orders, creating new societies and re-establishing historic organizations in the American context. These organizations were in positions to structuralize and administer St. Patrick’s Day festivities across America. The Great Hunger, which made March 17th celebrations trivial in Ireland and precipitated the crossing of the Atlantic by multitudes of Irish, would forever change March 17th in America. The Famine Irish dramatically reaffirmed the Catholic roots, the public display and the spirit of Irish Nationalism encapsulated by St. Patrick’s Day.

There was not a hall in America that could accommodate the number of Irish who now filled American cities and wished to proclaim their legitimate position in society and their Irishness. Although there were eight established St. Patrick’s Day celebrations pre-dating the Famine years, the 1840’s initiated more public and common parades in America. Festivities grew in congruence with the Irish in America. As in Ireland, March 17th was celebrated in different forms based on the social status of participants. Organizations and societies held formal functions that showcased their success in the American financial context. The masses of the Irish population reveled in public and familiar locales. But it was in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade where all these segments of Irish America convened to share their commonality. By 1870 there were seventeen St. Patrick’s Day Parades in America, including one in Cleveland established in 1867.

The time span was 260 years from legal recognition on the Irish legal calendar to the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Cleveland. In that span March 17th has existed in multiple states of functionality for various groups. It has been and still is today the feast day of St. Patrick, an observed religious day that begins in the pews. Governments have attempted to utilize it for political and military gain. The Irish people have venerated it as symbol of Irishness both in Ireland and throughout the Irish Diaspora by both Catholics and Protestants. It has also served as an example and space for Irish nationalism. St. Patrick’s Day has been and continues to be a voice of the Irish people and their descendants.

For additional reading, please reference “The Wearing of the Green: a history of St. Patrick’s Day.” Francis McGarry is the President of the Irish American Club East Side and the Bluestone Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

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