The history of the St. Patrick's Day parade began in the streets of colonial America. And throughout the 19th century large public celebrations to mark St. Patrick's Day came to be potent political symbols.
The legend of St. Patrick is rooted in ancient Ireland, but many of the things we associate with St. Patrick's Day developed during the 19th century.
History of the St. Patrick's Day Parade Stretches Back to Colonial America
According to legend, the earliest celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in America took place in Boston in 1737, when colonists of Irish descent marked the event with a modest parade.
The Boston event is often cited as the earliest celebration of St. Patrick's Day in America, but historians as far back as a century ago would point out that a prominent Irish-born Roman Catholic, Thomas Dongan, had been governor of the Province of New York from 1683 to 1688. Given Dongan's ties to his native Ireland, it has long been speculated that some observance of St. Patrick's Day must have been held in colonial New York during that period, although no written record of such events seem to have survived.
Events from the 1700s are recorded more reliably, thanks to the introduction of newspapers in colonial America, and in the 1760s we can find substantial evidence of St. Patrick's Day events in New York City. Organizations of Irish-born colonists would place notices in the city's newspapers announcing that St. Patrick's Day gatherings would be held at various taverns.
The British Army in New York Marks St. Patrick's Day
In late March 1766, the New York Mercury reported that St. Patrick’s Day had been marked with the playing of “fifes and drums, which produced a very agreeable harmony.”
Prior to the American Revolution, New York was generally garrisoned by British regiments, and it has been noted that usually one or two regiments had strong Irish contingents. Two British infantry regiments in particular, the 16th and 47th Regiments of Foot, were primarily Irish. And officers of those regiments formed an organization, the Society of the Friendly Brothers of St. Patrick, that held celebrations to mark March 17th.
The observances generally consisted of both military men and civilians gathering to drink toasts, and participants would drink to the King, as well as to “the prosperity of Ireland.” Such celebrations were held at establishments including Hull’s Tavern and a tavern known as Bolton and Sigel’s.
Post-Revolutionary St. Patrick's Day Celebrations
During the Revolutionary War the celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day seem to have been muted. But with peace restored in a new nation, the celebrations resumed, but with a very different focus.
Gone, of course, were the toasts to the health of the King. Beginning on March 17, 1784, the first St. Patrick’s Day since the British evacuated New York, the celebrations were held under the auspices of a new organization without Tory connections, the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. The day was marked with music, no doubt again by fife and drums, and a banquet was held at Cape’s Tavern in lower Manhattan.
Bigger Crowds Flock to the St. Patrick's Day Parade
Parades on St. Patrick’s Day continued throughout the early 1800s, and the early parades would often consist of processions marching from parish churches in the city to the original St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mott Street.
As the Irish population of New York swelled in the years of the Great Famine, the number of Irish organizations also increased. Reading old accounts of St. Patrick’s Day observances from the 1840s and early 1850s, it’s staggering to see how many organizations, all with their own civic and political orientation, were marking the day.
The competition sometimes got heated, and in at least one year, 1858, there were actually two large, and competing, St. Patrick's Day parades in New York. In the early 1860s, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish immigrant originally formed in the 1830s to combat Nativism, began organizing one massive parade, which it still does to this day.
The parades were not always without incident. In late March 1867 the New York newspapers were full of stories about violence that broke out at the parade in Manhattan, and also at a St. Patrick's Day march in Brooklyn. Following that fiasco, the focus in following years was on making the parades and celebrations of St. Patrick's Day a respectable reflection on the growing political influence of the Irish in New York.
The St. Patrick's Day Parade as Political Symbol
A lithograph of a St. Patrick's Day parade in New York in the early 1870s shows a mass of people assembled in Union Square. What's noteworthy is that the procession includes men costumed as gallowglasses, ancient soldiers of Ireland. They are marching before a wagon holding a bust of Daniel O'Connell, the great 19th century Irish political leader.
The lithograph was published by Thomas Kelly (a competitor of Currier and Ives), and was probably a popular item for sale. It indicates how the St. Patrick's Day parade was becoming an annual symbol of Irish-American solidarity, complete with veneration of ancient Ireland as well as 19th century Irish political causes.
The Modern St. Patrick's Day Parade Emerges
In 1891 the Ancient Order of Hibernians adopted the familiar parade route, the march up Fifth Avenue, which it still follows today. And other practices, such as the banning of wagons and floats, also became standard. The parade as it exists today is essentially the same as it would have been in the 1890s, with many thousands of people marching, accompanied by bagpipe bands as well as brass bands.
St. Patrick's Day is also marked in other American cities, with large parades being staged in Boston, Chicago, Savannah, and elsewhere. And the concept of the St. Patrick's Day parade has been exported back to Ireland: Dublin began its own St. Patrick's Day festival in the mid-1990s, and its flashy parade, which is noted for large and colorful puppet-like characters, draws hundreds of thousands of spectators every March 17th.