The New York St. Patrick's Day Parade: Still going strong at 245

The New York St. Patrick's Day Parade:
Still going strong at 245

By Joseph E. Gannon, Managing Editor, The Wild Geese Today

"Monday last being the Day of St. Patrick, tutelary Saint of Ireland, was ushered in at dawn, with fifes and drums, which produced a very agreeable harmony before the doors of many gentlemen of that nation and others." --- A report on the 1766 New York St. Patrick's Day procession - John D. Crimmins: "St. Patricks Day: Its celebration in New York and other American places, 1737-1845"

On March 17, 1762 it is believed that a small group of Irish people marched through the streets of New York to the inn of John Marshall at Mount Pleasant to celebrate the life of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. Perhaps a few New Yorkers took notice of this modest procession. It's unlikely that any of the marchers or those that observed them could have dreamed they had just witnessed the traditional first marching of the largest annual parade in the world.

Museum of the City of New York
An illustration of the parade in 1874, looking south into Union Square.

How far has it come since that barely noticed event in 1762? This St. Patrick's day, there will be an estimated one hundred fifty to two hundred thousand marchers. That's approximately five or six times larger than the entire population of New York in 1762. It's estimated that close to two million spectators will watch this year's parade. If the entire population of the thirteen colonies had made the trip to New York for that first procession, they would have fallen short of that number.

Though the1762 procession is used as the start date for the New York parade, it was not until 1766 that any written evidence of a parade can be found, as noted above. In later years, Irish nationalism became a dominant theme of the parade. So it might not be pleasant for many to recall that for some time before, and then through the years of the revolution, it was actually Irishmen in British infantry units that had much to do with organizing the parades.

From the Revolution and up until the great influx of Irish in the mid-19th century, various Irish militia units and social groups had a hand in the parade. They had names such as the Republican Greens, the Hibernian Volunteers, The Shamrock Friendly Association, the Shamrock Benevolent Society, Hibernian Burial Benevolent Society and the Hibernian Universal Benevolent Society. Sometimes these groups had separate parades.

By the late 1700s, more New Yorkers had begun to take notice of this celebration of Irish heritage, and many were not pleased. Some began to mockingly parade an effigy of St. Patrick through the streets. In other cases, it would be set up in some Irish neighborhood the night before with potatoes or a codfish strung around its neck. It came to be known as "Paddy making." By the early 1800s, it must have become a serious problem. An ordinance was passed making it illegal to "carry or drag through or along the streets an effigy of St. Patrick."

If nativists thought New York had an "Irish problem" in the first few decades of the 19th century, one can only imagine their horror at the torrent of destitute famine Irish who began to flow in during the late 1840s. This tidal wave of Irish would eventually transform the St. Patrick's Day parade from the fairly unobtrusive affairs it was up until then to the mammoth event it is today.

From 'The St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York" by John Ridge
A parade notice from "The Irish World in 1871.

With the anti-immigrant "Know-Nothing" party growing in direct proportion to the influx of Irish immigrants, a number of Irish militia companies began to form to defend their neighborhoods. In the 1850s, those groups also began to march in the St. Patrick's Day parades. The most prominent and longest lasting of these militia units was the 69th NY, the famous "Fighting Irish" that later fought in the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and provided security around the World Trade Center following 9/11. Today, though no longer a predominantly Irish unit, they proudly lead the parade up 5th Ave. every year.

Another group that first became involved with the parade in 1853 was the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The AOH would become the predominant social group in the parade, as they would eventually become in the community as a whole. Groups from the other boroughs of New York began to send marching units to the parade, and by the mid-1860s the numbers marching had swelled to over twenty thousand. A new addition to the parade, that continues to this day, was the Irish county associations. As many as 30 march most years. The first to march was the County Monaghan Social Club in 1860.

The ups and downs of the parade would often reflect all the various passions and causes of Ireland and Irish-America. The decade of the 1880s would see a decline in interest in the parade, and disputes that would sometimes result in two parades. The number of marchers would not reach those of the Civil War era again until some time into the new century. But in the 1890s the interest would build again, perhaps influenced by the rise of the Gaelic League in Ireland, which invigorated the nationalist movement, and also by a new anti-Catholic group called "the American Protective Association," which tried -unsuccessfully - to stop the practice of flying an Irish harp flag on city building on St. Patrick's Day.

Get a St. Patrick's Day t-shirt, sweat shirt or other commemorative item with our new graphic shown above from the Wild Geese Today's St. Patrick's Day Shop

In 1915 issues revolving around the World War in Europe had caused a rift in the Irish community. The chairman of the Arrangements Committee for the parade, Roderick Kennedy, was a strong Irish nationalist, and opposed any support Great Britain and her allies. He issued ban on the playing of "It's a long way to Tipparary" which the British were then using to help recruiting in Ireland. The mayor of New York at the time was John Purroy Mitchel, grandson of Young Irelander John Mitchel, one of the most uncompromising Irish nationalists of his, or any other generation. However, John Purroy was among those advocating support of the British, surely causing his grandfather much discomfort on "the other side." One band attempted to play the banned song near St. Patrick's Cathedral, but Kennedy emerged from the reviewing stand and physically stop them in mid-tune.

The split in the nationalist cause during the Irish Civil War would also be reflected in the parade. The organizers of the parade were aligned with the Free State; many republicans refused to participate. The split would hold the number of marchers to around the ten thousand mark for most of the decade. By the 1930s the Irish-American community began to come together again. From that time forward, the parade grew nearly every year. In 1948 the parade, and perhaps Irish-America itself, received its final acceptance from America when President Harry Truman attended at the reviewing stand.

In the 70s, "The Troubles" began to intrude on the parade with the marchers sometimes carrying signs or chanting slogans related to problems in the six counties. But the worst controversy involving "The Troubles" came in 1983, when Irish War of Independence veteran and Irish Northern Aid leader Michael Flannery was named the Grand Marshal. Though all the military bands were pulled from the parade and much pressure was put on the AOH to remove Flannery, they refused and most Irish groups rallied behind him.

For the last decade, with the peace process in the north of Ireland relaxing tensions, a new controversy has become prominent: the right of gay groups to march behind their own banners. To date, the AOH still refuses that. Each year a number of gays will protest before the start of the parade, and a few may be arrested, all pre-arranged with the police. Then the parade proceeds.

Through nearly two-and-a-half centuries of controversy, politics, and the frequent recurrence of anti-Irish bigotry, the New York St. Patrick's Day parade has reflected the trials and tribulations of the of the Irish-American community. When the band strikes up "Garryowen" this year and the 69th steps off, the New York area Irish community can be proud of the fact that, like the Irish-American community as a whole, they have persevered and eventually prospered, and created the largest, single-day ethnic

JEG: The majority of the information for this article came from "The St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York," by John T. Ridge. For more informatoin on his book, including information on how you can order a copy, please read the review by WGT's John Concannon, below.

An Historical Account of the Long Green Line

The Irish have been parading in mid-March in Old New York for well over 225 years. Over the years "a long green line" of Irish Americans has moved along the Empire City's main thoroughfares in generally good order, under all types of conditions, weather-wise and otherwise, overcoming all kinds of obstacles, internal and external, somehow sticking together to mark the Saint's Day and keep the tradition alive.

Many of us who consider the parade a wonderful event and regard the Big Apple's St. Patrick's Day Parade as "our thing -- our Irish-American thing," have long felt that the unique, heroic accomplishments of New York's Irish in annually putting on the world's largest and greatest parade deserved to be put on the written record, chronicled in book form.

All praise to John T. Ridge of Brooklyn, because the story of the "Big Hibernian Parade" is now on record.

Ridge's new book, "The St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York," was a long time in coming and all reports are that I was well worth waiting for. The 212-page book traces the parade form 1762 to 1987, and is divided into six chapters: 1) The Early Years: 1762-1850; 2) The Exiles Come Together 1851-1875; 3) Troubled Times, 1876-1899; 4) The Age of Irish Nationalism, 1900-1922; 5) Chairman (Roderick) Kennedy's Parade, 1923-1936; 6) The Modern Parade, 1936-1987.

The author gives a capsulated history of each year's parade from 151 to date, and along the way, frequently quotes form contemporary newspaper accounts to set the parade scene and to provide information on the grand marshal, the marchers, and the current parade committee, and key parade figures. Ridge deals with the troubled times and many problems the parade faced over the years. He notes that the Irish marched during tempestuous and troubled times, during the famine days, the Mollie Maguire persecutions, the Know Nothing rampages and Orangeism heyday.

Ridge maintains that the parade "has not been a passive witness of the history of the Irish in the United States or in Ireland, "but on the contrary," notes that the contemporary concerns of the Irish and the Irish-American political, social, cultural and even economic life appear in the parade" and that many causes that tripped Ireland from time to time were well reflected in the parade.

The author cites ample evidence that it as not been "a pleasant walk in the sun" for the parade and its marchers. They nave endured physical attack, a wickedly hostile press, animosity caused by the growth of Irish power in New York City's affairs, factionalism within the parade itself, denunciation by prominent clergymen, and anguished complaints of interfering with the business life of the city.

Author Ridge's factual account of what the parade has gone through and survived in it's "earlier" days has helped restore any wavering faith and faltering optimism in the future of the parade.

Ridge's historical account of my favorite parade gives me hope that that just as the parades of the past found ways and the wisdom to defend and perpetuate itself, despite the siren song of those who would change its inherent design, so, to, will the leaders and lovers of today's parade be able to keep "our Irish-American thing" a good-spirited, ear-and-eye pleasing annual celebration and reunion of Irish and Irish-Americans.

Through a special arrangement with the author, you can now purchase this book via WGT, along with "Erin's Sons in America," Ridge's book on the early history of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians in American, both out of print for many years. You can obtain either for $18, or both for just $34. Click here: tip page. At the end of the process, be sure to click on the "Let them know you've given" option so we can get your address and product details. To pay by check (allow a week for the check to clear), mail your payment, made out to GAR Media, to GAR Media, 38-11 Ditmars Blvd., #193, Astoria NY 11105-1803.

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