St. Patrick's Day Celebrations and the Formation of Irish-American Identity, 1845-1875

By Moss, Kenneth | Journal of Social History, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

St. Patrick's Day Celebrations and the Formation of Irish-American Identity, 1845-1875


Moss, Kenneth, Journal of Social History


I

On the morning of St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 1853, Archbishop John Hughes delivered an oration on the significance of the occasion before a crowd of worshipers at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. Hughes dwelt on Saint Patrick's success in converting "a pagan into a Christian nation" which had since zealously maintained and propagated Catholic doctrines despite extraordinary misery and oppression. Turning to the condition of the Irish immigrant community in America, he sought spiritual value in the immigrants' famine-induced emigration from Catholic Ireland: "But the very misfortunes of a temporal kind that have fallen on Ireland have sent forth the children of that unhappy land to every clime and to every latitude, from the north to the south pole; and wherever they are found ... not only do they cherish fond memory for the apostle of their native land, but they propagate it, and make the infection as if it were contagious, so that those who would not otherwise have had any knowledge of St. Patrick become thus desirous to enter into those feelings, and to join in celebrating the anniversary festival of the apostle of Ireland."(1)

That same morning, several thousand Irish-American men, arranged in armed military formation or grouped according to membership in various civil and fraternal societies, marched through New York City under the command of parade marshal Thomas McKiernan and "Acting-Brigadier General" Captain Kerrigan. The military and civic societies, accompanied by spectators, paraded from East Broadway, through the Park, and down to Canal Street, where the civic societies dispersed. The military formations continued on to "the Tabernacle," where a number of units stayed to hear an address delivered by a Lieutenant Colonel Doheny on the history of the Irish Brigade, which served France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Doheny prefaced his lecture by reminding his listeners of Ireland's conquest in the seventeenth century by "a new race of undertakers who had all the treachery, all the audacity, and none of the valor of the Norman freebooters"; he went on to emphasize the valor of the Brigade against all foes, including the foul English, and concluded by praising the United States and vowing the loyalty of the Irish-American militias to the "'starry flag of liberation."'(2) Doheny was "frequently applauded during his lecture ..."(3)

In the evening, a number of fraternal organizations and eating clubs held their annual dinners in honor of the day. The select members of the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, which at the time admitted only those of Irish birth and "respectable standing in society,"(4) celebrated the occasion with a series of customary toasts hailing the memory of Ireland, Irish unity, and the glory of the United States. The toasts were punctuated by pertinent speeches: one member took the occasion to remind the assembled guests of the high price that religious hatred had already claimed in Ireland and to call for genuine Christian brotherhood which would transcend the Protestants-Catholic division. The mixed crowd of wealthy Irish Protestants and Catholics responded with applause.(5)

This cursory retelling of a day's events seems at first to present an untidy mix of disparate celebrations and addresses. It is significant, however, because it makes manifest the shifting and conflicting currents of Irish-American identity in the mid-nineteenth century and after. In the early part of the nineteenth century, the Irish community in America was small, relatively wealthy, and dominated by merchants of both Catholic and Protestant extraction. Due to their wealth, their status, and their accommodating attitude toward the Anglo-Saxon Protestant elements of the American elite, the members of this mixed community were able to assimilate into Anglo-American society without extreme difficulty. However, in the immediate wake of the Great Famine which devastated Ireland in the late 1840s, more than a million impoverished and unskilled Irish Catholics flowed into the port cities of the Eastern seaboard. …

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