THE SAINT PATRICK'S DAY PARADE IN NEW YORK
Christopher Cahill, Editor in Chief,
The Recorder: The Journal of THE AMERICAN IRISH HISTORICAL SOCIETY
The first recorded Saint Patrick's Day Parade in New York City took place fourteen years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. On March 17,1762 a small group of Irish New Yorkers marched to the inn of one John Marshall/'at Mount Pleasant, near the College" (near the present-day intersection of Barclay and Church streets in lower Manhattan] where the day would be celebrated. Little else is known about that early parade, and in years earlier still there may have been similar marches and gatherings that have escaped record, but whatever else those solemn revelers accomplished on that late winter's day close on two and a half centuries ago, they began, or can be credited with beginning, here in New York, an annual celebration which has continued without interruption ever since.
It is only appropriate, given the uncertain record of the life and times of St. Patrick himself, that the early instances of New York's St. Patrick's Day celebrations are somewhat lost in the mists of unrecorded history. As the late Liam de Paor wrote in his classic study, Saint Patrick's World:
No actual manuscript of any find written in Ireland in that century now survives. There is virtually not a single Irish artifact in a museum or a single monument in the field of which an archeologist could say with full confidence that it was made in the fifth century.
And yet Patrick's writings, as we know them from later copies, survive today and continue to instruct and delight; his great work of conversion survives, immeasurably woven into the fabric of Irish life and culture and, consequently, into the cultures of all those many nations to which the Irish have emigrated over the centuries.
Pre-revolutionary Manhattan may not be as distant and unrecoverable as fifth century Ireland, but it is far enough away, and the records of the life lived by those Irish who were here already at that time are sketchy at best, are more often blank. There is, again, a certain appropriateness to this obscurity, to our inability to bring that past time into satisfactory focus. For those early New York marchers were not only beginning the tradition we continue today, they were themselves carrying on a much older tradition, one which they had brought with them, as perhaps their sole precious possession, to this country and this city. To quote once more from Liam de Paor's splendid work of scholarship:
From the seventh century onward, Patrick was regarded as pre-eminent among Ireland's early saints. His feast day, as a kind of national day, was already being celebrated by the Irish in Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries. In later times he become more and more widely known as the patron of Ireland. The crowds who march up Fifth Avenue in New York on March 17* each year may not know a great deal about him, but in honoring his memory they follow a very ancient tradition.
So let it be said, with all Irish humility, that not only does New York's Saint Patrick's Day Parade predate the independence of the United States, it can even be traced, by extension, back nearly as far as St. Brendan the Navigator's discovery of the American New World.
St. Patrick's Day is a uniquely Irish holiday, and yet it is celebrated in more countries around the world than any other national holiday. There are St. Patrick's celebrations in Dublin, Tokyo, Melbourne, Kuala Lumpur, New Orleans, Savannah, Toronto, Auckland, Chicago and Montreal, to name a few/and the day must be a pleasure in all of those places, for those unlucky enough not to be in New York City. This geographical spread is less surprising when one considers the prolific dispersion undertaken by the Irish, through choice or necessity, over the past three centuries. There is no corner of the globe the Irish have left unvisited, and there is none where they have settled that has been more deeply shaped by them than has New York.
There's no denying the preeminence of New York's St. Patrick's Day Parade. Last year over 400 marching bands, Pipe S Drums Corps, County Societies, police, firefighters, and scores of others made up the 200,000 marchers who followed the course from St. Patrick's Cathedral up Fifth Avenue to 86th Street. Over 2,000,000 spectators lined the sidewalks to watch and cheer. These vast numbers are a far cry from the celebrations of the early years, when the parades here were chiefly military in nature, with the small groups of marchers drawn largely from Irish members of the local militia. It was not until the 1820s that the sponsorship of the parade (or of the various parades, rather, as there used to be more than a few) began to be undertaken by such social and fraternal organizations as the Hibernian Universal Benevolent Society and the Independent Sons of Erin.
It was in 1853 that the Ancient Order of Hibernians, for many years now the parade's principal sponsor, first marched. From that time onward, the time of the Great Famine and the massive increase in Irish emigration to America, the parade has been a fixture in the city's social, political, and cultural life. If it was at first intended "to show the newly arrived immigrants as respectable citizens worthy of esteem in American society" [to quote John T. Ridge, the author of a fine history of the parade], it soon became an assertion of the political strength and centrality of the Irish in New York.
Throughout its history, the parade, mindful of its religious origins and impulse, has remained more understated than some, with its row after row of marchers and riders unaccompanied by floats or amplified music. It is still what Thomas Francis Meagher, later to be a hero of the American Civil War, called it in 1855: "a festival of memory" It is a festival of religious memory, of cultural memory, and of familial memory. Though it is Patrick's day that we celebrate, it is also surely our own. For each marcher and each spectator, even those who are Irish only for the day, has his or her own family history, a history which, this country being what it is, this world being what it is, is likely to tell a tale of exile and dispossession, of struggle and success, of decline and rebirth and continuance.
It is well-known that, during the period of conversion, Christian holidays were grafted onto existing pagan periods of celebration, which they were intended to, and did in fact, replace or subsume. St. Patrick's Day must cover and continue some ancient festival celebrating spring's arrival or approach, for it does always seem to mark a turning point in the year, whether of one season dying or another coming to life. And for all the religious solemnity of the occasion, a certain pagan Celtic joie de vim is not too difficult to detect in the atmosphere.
With this year's parade, we have entered the third millennium in which St. Patrick's Day will be celebrated by the Irish and their adherents. I am writing this in the last days of the second millennium, in the middle of winter looking forward to the start of spring. It will be good to see the crowds line the avenue, as they do each year on March 17*, and to see this year's crowd larger even than the last. It will be good to see the familiar bands and banners -"The Fighting 69'", "the 42"" Infantry with their Irish wolfhounds, the County Societies, the parochial, high school, and college marching bands - and to see the year's new faces. Some years, pleasantly, it can seem as though the day will have no end to it. As an Irish American novelist once wrote, describing a mid-century parade, "The Irish swept endlessly up Fifth Avenue as if replenished hourly by fresh shiploads of immigrants." May they, may we, do so always.