by Michael Johnson
Growing up in an Irish Catholic family, my family embodies many of the stereotypes one thinks of around St. Patrick’s Day. The cousins Patrick and Danny Boy. The fond childhood memories of pubs and Irish music, most often played by a family friend who immigrated to the United States and became, you guessed it, a police officer. My cousin who learned step dancing (lacking similar grace, my grandfather offered on more than one occasion to pay me NOT to dance). Even the year in elementary school when my Mom thought it would be adorable to dye my hair red, only to discover that “temporary” was not as short-lived as advertised. Don’t get me wrong, this is my family and I embrace it whole-heartedly.
But as an undergrad at Notre Dame (surprised?), a course on Irish-American history challenged me to explore this community, one of rich culture and troubled history, as something more than the stereotypes we now hold dear. Indeed, with his St. Patrick’s Day lecture, Patrick Griffin explained to a packed classroom (perhaps less packed than usual), that this holiday was about more than green beer and drowning the shamrock (a ritual involving whiskey and the iconic Irish clover). The transformation of St. Patrick’s Day in the United States into a uniquely American celebration helps to reveal the nature of the Irish-American experience and the assimilation of immigrants in general.
A Brief History of St. Patrick’s Day in the United States
While the form of the celebrations has changed over time, Irish-Americans have celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day since the colonial era. To be sure, the holiday has traditionally been used to celebrate the culture of the land immigrants left behind and to rally support for Irish nationalism, especially when that land was still under British rule. But it was also historically tied to assimilation and the efforts of Irish-Americans to find their place in their new home.
In pre-Famine Ireland, Patrick was embraced as the land’s patron saint by both Catholics and Protestants. As a result, the Feast of Saint Patrick, traditionally held to be the day of his death, was celebrated by both groups. In America, before the influx of Famine immigrants associated the Irish-American community with Catholicism, Saint Patrick’s Day was also celebrated by both Catholics and Protestants, sometimes together. As early as 1737, wealthy Protestant Irish-Americans, occasionally joined by wealthy Catholics, gathered for dinners and the traditional toasts, which included declarations of loyalty both to Ireland and to America. Parades, which we associate with Saint Patrick’s Day today, began before the Revolutionary War, but were first tied to Irish soldiers in America.
While the devastating Famine of the mid-nineteenth century helped undo the traditional celebrations of Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland in favor of more simple observances, it did not have the same effect in the United States. Now an Irish Catholic holiday, banquets and parades spread across the United States. In cities across America, the holiday became a day not just to celebrate their Catholic faith and cultural heritage, or merely to rally support for Irish independence movements, but also to celebrate and declare loyalty to their adopted homes.
To be sure, the holiday has traditionally been used to celebrate the culture of the land immigrants left behind and to rally support for Irish nationalism, especially when that land was still under British rule. But it was also historically tied to assimilation and the efforts of Irish-Americans to find their place in their new home.
For example, during the Civil War, the Union’s famed Irish Brigade used the 1863 feast day for both much-needed revelry and as a way to endear themselves to their fellow Americans. In his memoirs of army life, Irish immigrant St. Clair Mulholland, an officer in the 116th Pennsylvania, described the day’s festivities. After a morning mass, the brigade celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day with a series of races and contests. This included a sack race “to the distance of five hundred yards,” putting any present-day gym class to shame. The day also included an enormous feast: “Thirty-five hams, and a side of an ox roasted; an entire pig stuffed with boiled turkeys; an unlimited number of chickens, ducks, and small game. The drinking materials comprised eight baskets of champagne, ten gallons of rum, and twenty-two of whiskey.” The brigade invited Union officers and other soldiers to partake in the day’s celebrations, and according to Mulholland all that could attend thoroughly enjoyed the day, including General Joseph Hooker, commander of the Army of the Potomac. Father William Corby, one of the chaplains of the Irish Brigade, added his thoughts about what the day did for the reputation of Irish-Americans among their fellow Union soldiers: “It was, indeed, so brilliant and creditable that I heard distinguished soldiers claim that their grandmothers or grandfathers were Irish.” Of course, Mulholland and Corby were part of the postwar tradition of the Irish Brigade using memoirs to defend the place of Irish-Americans in the United States, especially in the wake of their decline in support for the Union war effort and the intense anti-Catholic nativism of the late nineteenth century. But it is telling that they emphasized the holiday not for what it meant as Irishmen, but for what it meant to them as Americans. Even if we take their celebratory remarks with a grain of salt, we can still recognize that they understood Saint Patrick’s Day as a way of demonstrating their place in the United States.
Such defenses of the Irish place in American society were fitting for the second half of the nineteenth century, as Irish-Americans struggled with not only nativism, but concern over the growing political power of Irish Catholics in urban Democratic machine as well. Take for example the description of New York City’s 1872 Saint Patrick’s Day celebration from the New York Times: “The Irishman never looks much more grotesque than when he is ‘rigged out’ in a long black coat and new ‘silk hat,’ and yesterday some thousand of such caricatures of the ordinary human being paraded through the streets. The display of bunting from the houses along the line of march was decidedly meagre in comparison with that of former years—people are getting ashamed of toadying to the most intolerant class of the population—and most American-born citizens looked with very little patience on a ‘show’ which suspended the business of a great city for the best part of a day.” The article went on to condemn Irish Catholics for the 1863 Draft Riots, the recent Orange riots (violence involving Catholics and Protestants), and for the abuse of power as part of the Tammany Hall machine. In the face of such negative opinions, Saint Patrick’s Day became all the more important as both a show of solidarity and a demonstration that Irish and American identities could coexist.
Concerned Americans question the ability of immigrants to assimilate into American society and doubt the compatibility of immigrant culture with American political traditions. The same concerns were evident 150 years ago, as Americans asked the same questions about Irish Catholics.
By the early twentieth century, Saint Patrick’s Day was becoming an increasingly American holiday. But, it could still serve as an opportunity to declare loyalty to the United States when necessary. While the Irish no longer posed the perceived threats that new waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe did, their loyalty could still be questioned, especially when they opposed entering World War I on the side of the British. At a time when many American leaders demanded “100 percent Americanism,” Saint Patrick’s Day became an opportunity to demonstrate loyalty to the United States. In cities across the country parades sought to show that, despite their opinions of the British, Irish nationalism could coincide with being loyal Americans.
One of the more telling examples of the changing nature of St. Patrick’s Day was the address President Harry Truman gave at the 1948 celebration in New York City. After a few brief introductory remarks praising the history of the Irish in the United States, he used his speech instead to discuss Cold War issues, including support for the Marshall Plan and the need for a military buildup to protect the nation’s interests at home and abroad. While some lamented that Saint Patrick’s Day was no longer Irish enough, others praised the ability to use the holiday to demonstrate that Irish-Americans, a people long distrusted, could be patriotic Americans.
The second half of the twentieth century saw renewed controversies for Saint Patrick’s Day and the nature of Irish-American identity. During the Troubles, there were conflicts between the Catholic Church and the Irish-American community over the role support for the IRA should play in the parades and celebrations. Later, in the 1990s, there were disputes over whether to allow LGBT groups to march in the parades, reflecting tensions between conservative and liberal Irish-American groups. But despite such conflicts, Saint Patrick’s Day as we know it today has persisted as a uniquely American celebration, marked by parades, green rivers, and plenty of spirits.
Saint Patrick’s Day and the Immigrant Experience
In some ways the Irish immigrant experience in the United States was unique. Arriving in such large numbers when American popular democracy was still taking shape gave them an opportunity to become a political force, significantly influencing their experiences in the United States. But in many ways their experience was typical. As Tyler Anbinder has argued (with an authority on the subject I can only hope to one day match), the immigrants of the past are not all that different from those of today. Concerned Americans question the ability of immigrants to assimilate into American society and doubt the compatibility of immigrant culture with American political traditions. The same concerns were evident 150 years ago, as Americans asked the same questions about Irish Catholics. In that sense, perhaps the unique aspect of the Irish immigrant experience is time. If time heals all wounds (however slowly), then Irish immigrants have had well over a century headstart to suffer and overcome the nativism that more recent groups experience today.
For more than two centuries the Irish-American experience has been one of navigating loyalty between their homeland of Ireland and their adopted land of the United States. The nature of Saint Patrick’s Day festivities reflects this navigation, as the holiday has historically been one celebrating an identity equal parts Catholic, Irish, and American. Despite their differences, Irish-Americans have maintained since their beginning that these three identities were not incompatible. We must keep in mind that on this day, when there are two types of people—the Irish and those who wish they were—that this latter group did not always exist.
Michael Johnson is a PhD student in History at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. His research focuses on race and ethnicity in the Civil War era. His current project explores interactions of Irish and African Americans in Civil War era Philadelphia and Baltimore. He can be contacted here.
* * *
Our collected volume of essays, Demand the Impossible: Essays in History As Activism, is now available on Amazon! Based on research first featured on The Activist History Review, the twelve essays in this volume examine the role of history in shaping ongoing debates over monuments, racism, clean energy, health care, poverty, and the Democratic Party. Together they show the ways that the issues of today are historical expressions of power that continue to shape the present. Also, be sure to review our book on Goodreads and join our Goodreads group to receive notifications about upcoming promotions and book discussions for Demand the Impossible!
* * *
We here at The Activist History Review are always working to expand and develop our mission, vision, and goals for the future. These efforts sometimes necessitate a budget slightly larger than our own pockets. If you have enjoyed reading the content we host here on the site, please consider donating to our cause.
 “St. Patrick’s Day,” New York Times, March 19, 1872, pg. 4.
Kenneth Moss, “St. Patrick’s Day Celebrations and the Formation of Irish-American Identity, 1845-1875,” Journal of Social History, 29.1 (Autumn 1995): 125-148
Jay P. Dolan, The Irish Americans: A History (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008)
Kevin Kenny, The American Irish: A History (London: Pearson Education, 2000)
Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985)