The first St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the U.S. was – where else? – in New York City. Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through the city March 17, 1762. The parade and traditional Irish music helped them connect with each other and their Irish heritage. This deep Irish pride led to the formation of the organizations like the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick in 1771 to help Irish immigrants in America.
St. Patty’s Day parades were not always the happy occasions they are today. In fact, because of the reputation given to Irish-Americans by the media as nothing but drunk, violent troublemakers, their celebrations were largely avoided by the upper class. But as the numbers of Irish-Americans swelled, especially after the spike in numbers during the potato famine in the 1840s, so did their strength.
Even in Cincinnati, the Irish were looked down upon. Most native Cincinnatians were white Protestants and had mixed feelings about the immigrants. They were blamed for overcrowding in the city and seen as a threat to American democracy because of their Catholic heritage. Cincinnati natives thought the immigrants would take jobs from them, cause trouble and just generally destroy the city. But what actually happened is the Irish helped build the transit systems around the state.
The Irish who came to America thought they could get work as farmers, but things didn’t work out that way. Instead, the skill-less workers were left finding whatever meager jobs they could find. They helped build the Erie and Miami Canals and helped lay railroad tracks. Can you imagine how different Cincinnati would be without Union Terminal?
Irish American’s really got a boost when President Truman visited the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City in 1948. It was a proud moment for the Irish who knew what struggles had been overcome to gain enough respect to overcome stereotypes.
St. Patty’s Day didn’t start out exactly as the party it is today. It has been celebrated in Ireland for thousands of years as a way to honor St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. In fact, until the 1970s, pubs in Ireland remained closed on the holiday. Families attended mass in the morning and held feasting celebrations in the afternoon. It was the traditional day to pray for missionaries all around the world.
Finally, in 1995, the Irish government realized what a cash cow St. Patrick’s Day could be. Ireland began using the traditionally religious holiday as a way to increase tourism and give Ireland some face time with the press. And, of course, throw the best St. Patty’s party in the world – literally.
Not much is known about St. Patrick except that he was born to wealthy British parents and that he was brought captive to Ireland as a teenager. Many of the stories told about him have been proven wrong, such as the one about how he banished all the snakes from Ireland.
According to the story, St. Patrick climbed up what is now known as Croagh Patrick with nothing but a wooden staff and banished all the snakes from the island, causing them all to go into the sea and be drowned. In fact, Ireland has never been home to snakes. Now the story is seen more as a metaphor for how St. Patrick chased paganism out of the country.
One account of his life says he was captured by Irish raiders and brought back to the island as a slave.
According to the story, St. Patrick ended up in an Irish prison, where he claimed to be visited by God. He heard a voice in a dream tell him to leave Ireland. He escaped and returned to Britain where he was visited in a dream by an angel telling him to go back to Ireland. Then, St. Patrick began religious training to become a priest.
Back in Ireland as a free man, St. Patrick was faced with trying to save the heathen from their pagan gods. Before he came, most of the Irish had a nature-based religion, so he found ways to incorporate parts of their religion into Christianity so it would seem more natural to them. He would have bonfires because the Irish worshipped their gods with fire. He also created the Celtic Cross by adding the sun to a typical Christian cross so it would seem more natural to them. He even used the clover to illustrate the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
The leprechaun, however, had nothing to do with St. Patrick. Its association with St. Patrick’s Day came from none other than Walt Disney.
“Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” a Disney film released in 1959, depicted a cheerful, friendly leprechaun that morphed into the St. Patrick’s Day leprechaun we know today. The original Irish name for a leprechaun is “lobaircin,” cranky little men with supernatural powers who repaired fairies’ shoes.
So, when you tip back your green beer next week to celebrate the luck of the Irish, stop for just a moment to think about the struggles Irish-American’s faced as immigrants and tip one back for old St. Pat!