A Brief History of St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S.

It’s about more than just green beer.

A Brief History of St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S.

It’s about more than just green beer.

The celebration of St. Patrick in the United States, despite being dressed in leprechaun garb, is more American than apple pie, which is actually an Asian/European mashup. In the US, March 17th has become about green beer, fighting with bar patrons over whether they were looking at your girlfriend, pinching, shamrock shakes, and marching bands playing “Danny Boy” until it qualifies as an auditory hate crime. For those addicted to fun facts they can spill out whether anyone wants them or not, here’s a brief history of St. Patrick’s day in the US.

St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland

In order to talk about St. Patrick’s Day in the US, we must first talk about the land where the tradition began. In Ireland, St. Patrick is a holy figure who is credited with spreading Christianity to the emerald isle. Since Ireland tends to be extremely religious, their holiday is less about revelry and more about reflection. There’s no jade foods or booze. Partly because blue was the color traditionally associated with St. Pat. Ordinarily the Irish begin the day with church, and follow it up with some gentle feasting and camaraderie in the afternoon. Most importantly, since it’s a religious observance, drunken debauchery is generally lower than average. Certainly it’s lower than during football—what they erroneously call soccer—matches.

How St. Patrick’s Day Staggered into the US

Boston lays claim to having the first St. Patrick’s Day celebration, and most other cities don’t argue for fear of being on the receiving end of Boston’s ire, which always manifests as a wicked headbutt.

So the lore goes, in 1737 a couple dozen Presbyterians got together to form the Charitable Irish Society on March 17th. Apparently, that’s how 18th century Presbyterians partied. The aim of the group was to help Irish immigrants who had fallen on hard times in the colonies. This was common, as back then the Irish were considered dangerous, trashy immigrants. This is because the New World was largely ruled by England, back when England was an empire and not just a place to film dry, wry comedies.

A Brief History of St. Patricks Day in the US_The First Brawl

That’s a Lie: The First St. Patrick’s Day Brawl

Because it wouldn’t be St. Patrick’s Day without a fight, there’s actually some debate about whether or not Boston’s wild and wacky Presbyterians with their charitable organization hijinks were actually the first commemoration of St. Patty in the land that a sly explorer would name America. Another, far less likely place also says it has the first celebration of the vaunted saint. Naturally, this usurper is Florida.

Some records unearthed by Historian Michael Francis, who apparently can’t leave well enough alone and wants Boston to headbutt him, found that in 1600 the Spanish garrison town of St. Augustine, Florida fired cannons in honor of Patrick. There was also supposedly marching in the streets. This may or may not have been brought about at the suggestion of an Irish priest who lived in St. Augustine. 

Massive gunplay and needless pageantry sounds much more like the St. Patrick’s Day celebration we know, love, and sometimes hide from today. Thus, a Spanish city named after another holy figure in the church may actually have been where the whole thing started.

How It Really Started

A few cannon blasts or some folks filing for non-profit status doesn’t really sound like the quasi-holiday we see today. Where the first celebration began isn’t as important as where some of the time-honored, or ignored-if-you-feel-like-it, traditions started.

The first known parade began in 1762 when some English army men who had been born in Ireland took to the streets of New York. They marched through lower Manhattan to have breakfast, because how else would you honor a saint than beans on toast after a hard walk?

This march turned into a yearly event that would become the parades that are popular today. Oddly enough, the drinking portion was actually caused by anti-Catholic sentiment. Many people hated the parades, which is another tradition that lives on, especially in New York. In protest of these Irish traffic disruptions, many people would put out effigies of the Irish, garbed in green, wearing necklaces of potatoes, and holding whiskey bottles. It seems some took this less as a racist protest than a hearty suggestion.

A Brief History of St. Patricks Day in the US_Goes Mainstream

St. Patrick’s Day Goes Mainstream

The parades went on for many years, but really picked up steam after the potato famine of 1845. At that point, many of the Irish were fleeing hunger by coming to the United States. Since Ellis Island was the biggest immigration center, most of these new Irish-Americans landed and made their home in New York. With so many of them, the parades became huge bacchanals where the Irish would show solidarity, since they were still regarded by most as “bad” immigrants who were ruining the American dream.

Many of these immigrants had very little money. Therefore, they frequently ate corned-beef and cabbage, which was cheap and similar to the Irish cuisine of ham and cabbage. The corned-beef was often left-over food from ships that had been trading tea in China. This is how the most traditional cuisine of the holiday, which is actually an American bastardization, came to fruition.

A Brief History of St. Patricks Day in the US_The Booze
rina Wilhauk

At Last: The Booze

Though feasting and parades came out of deeper history, the tendency to drink on St. Patrick’s Day is actually a relatively new, and endlessly delightful, development. Irish pubs typically would close on holy days, which included March 17th. In fact, until 1961, in the country of Ireland, it was harder to get a drink on St. Pattys than most of the rest of the time.

The only place you could drink on March 17th in the land of shamrock was actually the Royal Dublin Dog Show. Which no doubt made it the rowdiest dog show ever, and a tradition that Westminster desperately needs to adopt.

Stateside, drinking merely began to slip in, especially as enterprising pubs and restaurants saw a chance to profit off the people who were gathering for parades. In 1914, a coroner of Irish American descent named Dr. Thomas Hayes Curtin made the magic elixir that is green beer. It began at a Bronx social club, but quickly spread, becoming forever entwined with Irish culture, and the St. Patrick’s Day celebration specifically

The Spread

When the television arrived on the scene and allowed people to see how much fun everyone else was having, St. Patrick’s Day took on the proportions it has today. Seeing people reveling, screaming “erin go bragh,” and tossing their cookies in the street naturally enticed other people to do the same. More towns, cities, and bars started upping the ante and doubling down on celebrations. Consequently, it has grown to shocking proportions as everyone with a camera in their pocket tries to out-Irish other Americans in a decidedly un-Irish way.

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