Their inspiration came, as they put it in their constitution, from “an Affectionate and Compassionate concern for their countrymen in these Parts, who may be reduced [to poverty] by Sickness, Shipwrack [sic], Old age and other Infirmities and unforeseen Accidents.” It was the first Irish organization founded in America and the first recorded celebration of St. Patrick?s Day.
St. Patrick’s Day, of course, has its origins in Ireland. Like most saint traditions, the beginning of the veneration of Patrick, Ireland’s great 5th century missionary, are rather murky. Evidence suggests that it began in the north of Ireland (where Patrick’s influence was greatest) soon after his death. March 17, the day according to tradition on which Patrick died ca 461 AD became the day of commemoration. Devotees of the “cult of St Patrick” — to use the academic phrase — made pilgrimages to the sites and shrines associated with him. These went on for centuries and evolved into great fairs that blended religious devotion with dance, sport, song and drink. But it was not until the 17th century that any formal recognition of St. Patrick’s Day is recorded. Records show that 1607 marks the first year that March 17 was listed as a saint’s day by the Irish government. It became the saint’s day soon thereafter when Patrick was proclaimed the patron saint of Ireland.
So why was it that a bunch of Irish Protestants became the first in America to commemorate what most consider a Catholic saint’s day? Two factors explain this seeming anomaly. First, the Protestant Reformation (mid-1500s) had a minimal impact on Ireland. The vast majority of the population remained Catholic while those who converted retained much of their Irishness, including a fondness for the man who brought Christianity to Ireland. So whereas many popular saint’s days disappeared in countries where the Reformation had its greatest influence, St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland was celebrated not merely by Irish Catholics, but by Irish Protestants — the latter continuing to do so well into the 18th century.
Second, the great majority of the Irish in colonial America were Protestants who arrived as part of the great Ulster migration. That mass migration of distressed Presbyterian farmers — known as the “Scotch Irish” because many were descendants of Scots migrants sent to Ulster in the early 1600s — ran from 1700 to 1820. During that period nearly one in three Europeans who migrated to America came from Ulster. Most headed for the colonial frontier in search of land and opportunity, but sizable numbers settled in port cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Many became successful merchants and professionals.
And so it was that March 17, 1737 saw the gathering of dozens of Protestant Irishmen to establish the Charitable Irish Society. They were responding to the severe economic hardship then gripping the colonies that left many homeless and hungry. The organization — still in existence today — raised money to relieve the suffering of their fellow Irishmen (and, it must be admitted, to relieve themselves of the embarrassment over so many impoverished Irish wandering the city streets).
Curiously, after the initial founding dinner in 1737, the members moved their annual meeting to mid-April and did not resume celebrating March 17 until 1794. In the intervening 57 years, however, more Irish organizations were established in Boston and elsewhere, many of which held special commemorations on March 17. These organizations include the Ancient and Most Benevolent Order of the Friendly Brothers of Saint Patrick, founded in New York in 1767, and the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick for the Relief of Emigrants from Ireland founded in 1771 in Philadelphia. When two members of the group relocated to New York City, they began the New York branch (1783), which remains active today. Significantly, most, if not all, of these organizations welcomed Irishmen regardless of their religion and many Catholics not only joined but rose to high office. Sectarian differences would become important only in the 19th century.
Some of these early March 17 celebrations were just that — dinners in honor of St. Patrick and Ireland with no particular charitable or fraternal goal in mind. One of these early celebrations took place in New York City in 1762, when an Irishman named John Marshall held a party in his house. Although little is known of Marshall’s party, it is understood that his guests marched as a body to his house to mark St. Patrick’s Day, thus forming an unofficial parade.
The first recorded true St. Patrick’s Day parade took place in 1766 in New York when local military units, including some Irish soldiers in the British army, marched at dawn from house to house of the leading Irish citizens of the city. As the New York Gazette described it: “Monday last being the Day of St. Patrick, titular Saint of Ireland, was ushered in at the Dawn, with Fifes and drums, which produced a very agreeable Harmony before the Doors of many Gentlemen of that Nation, and others. Many of them assembled, and spent a joyous tho orderly Evening, at the House of Mr. Bardin in this City.”
Celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day, both with dinners and parades, continued with periodic lapses through the American Revolution to the end of the 18th century. Evidence of these celebrations is scant, but enough exists to suggest that in cities such as New York, they grew to become large and at times fairly raucous occasions. They also provoked early incidents of anti-Irish sentiment as revealed in an ordinance passed in New York in 1803 that levied a hefty $10 fine on anyone caught hanging or dragging and effigy of St. Patrick on March 17, “commonly called St Patrick’s Day.”
St. Patrick’s Day would remain a small event on the American calendar, barely noticed in many places, for several more decades. But with the coming of the second great wave of Irish immigration starting in the 1830s, most of it Catholic, March 17 assume an even larger and more contentious place in American public life.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
March 14, 1991: After 16 years in prison for their alleged role in two pub bombings in Birmingham, England, the Birmingham Six are released after serious questions are raised about the evidence used to convict them.
March 15, 1875: Archbishop John McCloskey of New York is invested as the first American Cardinal.
March 15, 1767: President Andrew Jackson is born in Waxhaw, S.C.
March 15, 1852: Playwright Lady Gregory is born in Roxborough, Co. Galway.
March 16, 1828: Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne is born in Ovens Township, Co. Cork.