St. Patrick’s Day is another holiday that has a historical association with New York City. (Last fall I wrote about the first Columbus Day celebration, which took place in NYC.) The first recorded St. Patrick’s Day parade was held not in Dublin but in New York in 1762 by Irish soldiers serving in the British army. According to the official New York St. Patrick’s Day website:
The first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York was held on lower Broadway in 1762 by a band of homesick Irish ex-patriots and Irish military serving with the British Army stationed in the American colonies in New York City. This was a time when the wearing of green was a sign of Irish pride and was banned in Ireland. The parade participants reveled in the freedom to speak Irish, wear the green, sing Irish songs and play the pipes to Irish tunes that were very meaningful to the Irish immigrants who had fled their homeland.
With the influx of Irish immigrants to the city after the Great Famine in 1848, the parade took on an even more political cast. According to William Federer, the author of St. Patrick: The Real History of His Life, From Tragedy to Triumph, “The Irish population went from two percent to 20 percent in just a decade. Half of New York City was now Roman Catholic Irish! The same thing happened in Boston, and there was an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Irish backlash.” The parade, which became much larger in 1851 after the various societies united under the aegis of a single grand marshal, became a way of suggesting that Irish Americans were an important political constituency in New York. Federer suggests that when 15,000 Irish Americans showed up to march on St. Patrick’s Day, “politicians in New York City said, ‘wait a minute, they haven’t decided who to vote for yet,’ so they decided to march with them.”
The picture above, an engraving from an original drawn by Lucius gray in 1874, shows the parade marching through Union Square (the German Savings Bank can be seen in the upper right hand corner of the frame). The float in the center bears a bust of the Irish national hero, Daniel O’Connell. The picture comes from the collection of the Library of Congress.