March 17: St. Patrick's Day in America

This Day in History

What began as a day in remembrance of a missionary who brought Christianity to the Emerald Isle has turned into a more secular celebration of Irish culture and heritage (and you don’t have to be Irish to participate. In fact, St. Patrick’s Day has become the #1 most celebrated national festival as an unofficial holiday in over 12 countries. It is a legal holiday only in Ireland and Savannah, Georgia).

Unlike the mischievous green leprechaun of lore, St. Patrick was a real man who lived circa 5th century, A.D. Ironically, the patron saint of Ireland was not Irish; instead, he was an aristocratic Roman citizen born in England. Although his father was a deacon and his grandfather was a priest, Patrick showed no desire of joining the family line of church leaders. In fact, in his book of confessions, he claims to have been an atheist. 

When he was 16, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland, where he remained in captivity for 6 years. In the darkest moment of his young life, Patrick found solace in the religion of his heritage and prayed fervently to God. As he developed his relationship with God, he became a shining light in the darkness. Not long after his conversion, he had a vision telling him to escape and return to England. Miraculously, Patrick left the Emerald Isle and fled home.

Now in his early twenties, Patrick dedicated his life to serving God and studied to become a priest. Once he was ordained, he had another vision instructing him to return to the land of his captors. With great courage and strength, he returned to Ireland to spread the gospel to the pagan Irish people. After a long, well-lived life, he died on this day in 461 AD. 

One myth tells of St. Patrick casting out the snakes in Ireland. This is not true, since Ireland's climate is too cold for snakes

Overtime, the Irish embellished the stories of the heroic St. Patrick to a deity magnitude, which made it difficult to separate fact from fiction. What is true about this holiday is that the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was celebrated long before America was even a country! The first record of the Irish celebrations was in Boston in 1737. New York soon followed suit in 1762. 

Many of our nation’s Founding Fathers were Irish or of Irish decent. In fact, Declaration of Independence signers James Smith, George Taylor, and Matthew Thornton were all born in Ireland. The Irish Catholics were not well-liked amongst the Protestant New Englanders, however, which resulted in the strict prejudice against Catholics preventing them from voting (Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll was among those restricted. Not until John F. Kennedy had there ever been an Irish-Catholic president).

 Further prejudice towards the Irish was amplified when a vast influx of Irish immigrants arrived to escape the Great Potato Famine of the 1840’s and 50’s. With an overwhelming number of immigrants (over 1 million!), many employers refused to hire Irish, due to a stereotype associated with the Irish of excessive drinking and rowdy behavior.

The half-starved immigrants had fled their famished home to Lady Liberty’s land of opportunity and prosperity. When they arrived, they brought along their culture and customs and assimilated into the Great Melting Pot. By 1910, there were more Irish in New York City than Irish citizens in Dublin. Gradually melting into the American culture, many Irish became police men, mayors, and other federal agents. Today, 10.5% of Americans identify as Irish ancestry (the most of any ethnic group in America, followed by German). 

The Great Famine
Immigrants spot Lady Liberty

While St. Paddy’s Day is a jovial affair to honor the patron saint of Ireland and to celebrate Irish heritage, what is notable is the fact that Irish immigrants over the years have held fiercely onto their identity in the Great America Magnificent Experiment.

St. Paddy's Day parade watchers circa 1954
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