The Colorful History of the St. Patrick's Day Parade

The St. Patrick's Day Parade Was a Political Symbol in 19th Century New York

St. Patrick's Day parade in New York City in the 1890s
Marchers in the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York City in the 1890s. Getty Images

The history of the St. Patrick's Day parade began with modest gatherings in the streets of colonial America. And throughout the 19th century, large public celebrations to mark St. Patrick's Day became potent political symbols.

And while the legend of St. Patrick had ancient roots in Ireland, the modern notion of St. Patrick's Day came into being in American cities in the 1800s. Over more than two centuries the tradition of the St. Patrick's Day parade flourished in American cities. In the modern era the tradition continues and is essentially a permanent part of American life.

Fast Facts: The St. Patrick's Day Parade

The earliest St. Patrick's Day parade in America was conducted by Irish soldiers serving in the British Army.

  • In the early 1800s, the parades tended to be modest neighborhood events, with local residents marching to churches.
  • As Irish immigration increased in America, the parades became large an raucous events, sometimes with dueling parades held on the same day.
  • The famous New York City St. Patrick's Day parade is massive yet traditional, with many thousands of marchers yet no floats or motorized vehicles.

Roots of the Parade In Colonial America

According to legend, the earliest celebration of the holiday in America took place in Boston in 1737, when colonists of Irish descent marked the event with a modest parade.

According to a book on the history of St. Patrick's Day published in 1902 by John Daniel Crimmins, a New York businessman, the Irish who gathered in Boston in 1737 formed the Charitable Irish Society. The organization comprised Irish merchants and tradesmen of Irish of the Protestant faith. The religious restriction was relaxed and Catholics began to join in the 1740s. 

The Boston event is generally cited as the earliest celebration of St. Patrick's Day in America. Yet historians as far back as a century ago would point out that a prominent Irish-born Roman Catholic, Thomas Dongan, had been governor of the Province of New York from 1683 to 1688.

Given Dongan's ties to his native Ireland, it has long been speculated that some observance of St. Patrick's Day must have been held in colonial New York during that period. However, no written record of such events seems to have survived.

Events from the 1700s are recorded more reliably, thanks to the introduction of newspapers in colonial America. And in the 1760s we can find substantial evidence of St. Patrick's Day events in New York City. Organizations of Irish-born colonists would place notices in the city's newspapers announcing St. Patrick's Day gatherings to be held at various taverns.

On March 17, 1757, a celebration of St. Patrick's Day was held at Fort William Henry, an outpost along the northern frontier of British North America. Many of the soldiers garrisoned at the fort were actually Irish. The French (who may have had their own Irish troops) suspected the British fort would be caught off-guard, and they staged an attack, which was repulsed, on St. Patrick's Day.

The British Army in New York Marked St. Patrick's Day

In late March 1766, the New York Mercury reported that St. Patrick’s Day had been marked with the playing of “fifes and drums, which produced a very agreeable harmony.”

Prior to the American Revolution, New York was generally garrisoned by British regiments, and it has been noted that usually one or two regiments had strong Irish contingents. Two British infantry regiments in particular, the 16th and 47th Regiments of Foot, were primarily Irish. And officers of those regiments formed an organization, the Society of the Friendly Brothers of St. Patrick, that held celebrations to mark March 17th.

The observances generally consisted of both military men and civilians gathering to drink toasts, and participants would drink to the King, as well as to “the prosperity of Ireland.” Such celebrations were held at establishments including Hull’s Tavern and a tavern known as Bolton and Sigel’s.

Post-Revolutionary St. Patrick's Day Celebrations

During the Revolutionary War the celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day seem to have been muted. But with peace restored in a new nation, the celebrations resumed, but with a very different focus.

Gone, of course, were the toasts to the health of the King. Beginning on March 17, 1784, the first St. Patrick’s Day after the British evacuated New York, the celebrations were held under the auspices of a new organization without Tory connections, the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. The day was marked with music, no doubt again by fifes and drums, and a banquet was held at Cape’s Tavern in lower Manhattan.

Huge Crowds Flocked to the St. Patrick's Day Parade

Parades on St. Patrick’s Day continued throughout the early 1800s, and the early parades would often consist of processions marching from parish churches in the city to the original St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mott Street.

As the Irish population of New York swelled in the years of the Great Famine, the number of Irish organizations also increased. Reading old accounts of St. Patrick’s Day observances from the 1840s and early 1850s, it’s staggering to see how many organizations, all with their own civic and political orientation, were marking the day.

The competition sometimes became heated, and in at least one year, 1858, there were actually two large and competing, St. Patrick's Day parades in New York. In the early 1860s, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish immigrant group originally formed in the 1830s to combat nativism, began organizing one massive parade, which it still does to this day.

The parades were not always without incident. In late March 1867, the New York newspapers were full of stories about violence that broke out at the parade in Manhattan, and also at a St. Patrick's Day march in Brooklyn. Following that fiasco, the focus in following years was on making the parades and celebrations of St. Patrick's Day a respectable reflection on the growing political influence of the Irish in New York.

The St. Patrick's Day Parade Became a Mighty Political Symbol

A lithograph of a St. Patrick's Day parade in New York in the early 1870s shows a mass of people assembled in Union Square. What's noteworthy is that the procession includes men costumed as gallowglasses, ancient soldiers of Ireland. They are marching before a wagon holding a bust of Daniel O'Connell, the great 19th-century Irish political leader.

The lithograph was published by Thomas Kelly (a competitor of Currier and Ives) ​and was probably a popular item for sale. It indicates how the St. Patrick's Day parade was becoming an annual symbol of Irish-American solidarity, complete with ​the veneration of ancient Ireland as well as 19th century Irish nationalism.

Photograph of 1919 St. Patrick's Day parade
1919 St. Patrick's Day parade in New York City.  Getty Images

The Modern St. Patrick's Day Parade Emerged

In 1891 the Ancient Order of Hibernians adopted the familiar parade route, the march up Fifth Avenue, which it still follows today. And other practices, such as the banning of wagons and floats, also became standard. The parade as it exists today is essentially the same as it would have been in the 1890s, with many thousands of people marching, accompanied by bagpipe bands as well as brass bands.

St. Patrick's Day is also marked in other American cities, with large parades being staged in Boston, Chicago, Savannah, and elsewhere. And the concept of the St. Patrick's Day parade has been exported back to Ireland: Dublin began its own St. Patrick's Day festival in the mid-1990s, and its flashy parade, which is noted for large and colorful puppet-like characters, draws hundreds of thousands of spectators every March 17th.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Colorful History of the St. Patrick's Day Parade." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 28). The Colorful History of the St. Patrick's Day Parade. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Colorful History of the St. Patrick's Day Parade." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).

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