By Tom Emery
St. Patrick’s Day has become a major event in the United States, and one of the biggest traditions is an annual parade. It is just one of several holiday customs that began in America – not in Ireland.
Many cities across the nation host a St. Patrick’s Day parade on or around March 17, a tradition that dates back 260 years in the U.S.
Though sources vary, many accept that the first known St. Patrick’s parade in this nation was held in New York City on March 15, 1762 – fourteen years before the Declaration of Independence. That first parade was created by Irish soldiers in the British army, who missed their homeland and its culture.
A quarter-century before in 1737, two dozen Presbyterian immigrants from the northern part of Ireland gathered in Boston to establish the Charitable Irish Society, which remains as the oldest Irish club in the United States.
However, research uncovered in 2017 found that the first St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the U.S. may have been in the Spanish colony of St. Augustine, Fla. in March 1601. There, local residents joined for a parade and feast under the guidance of an Irish vicar.
While St. Patrick’s Day was – and is – a day for fun and celebration in America, the day had a solemn meaning in Ireland for decades. Since 1631, the day in Ireland often featured a religious feast, with those of the Catholic faith attending church services in the morning with dinners in the afternoon.
On March 17, 1952, an Irish newspaper, the Connaught Telegraph, wrote that “St. Patrick’s Day was very much like any other day, only duller.” Many pubs in Ireland were closed on the holiday through the 1970s.
The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was not held in Ireland until 1903, when the town of Waterford conducted a march on the holiday.
Green was not even the dominant color of the day until the Rebellion of 1798. Prior to that, blue was most connected to St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.
The traditional feast of corned beef and cabbage also has American roots. Historians believe those selections arose from the tenements of Manhattan, where corned beef was a cheaper alternative than the standard Irish fare of ham and cabbage.
Another difference is the American image of the leprechaun, viewed by people in this nation as a fun-loving trickster and symbolic of Irish pride. Some believe that the popular perception of leprechauns in this country was cemented by the 1959 Disney flick, Darby O’Gill and the Little People.
By contrast, leprechauns were secondary characters in Irish folklore and often portrayed in darker terms, as midget-sized shoemakers with meaner personalities.
While Ireland and its people are favorites of Americans today, Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century were frequently scorned as shiftless drunks, and relegated to the lower rungs of society.
Millions of Irish came to America in the mid-1800s under adversity, driven from their homeland by the catastrophic potato famine that claimed at least 1.5 million lives.
Today, Ireland has adopted many of the American customs of St. Patrick’s Day. In 1996, the city of Dublin established the St. Patrick’s Day Festival, which stretches for several days and draws crowds of one million for a celebration that, ironically, resembles the festivities in the United States.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.