St. Patrick's Day Parade


Perhaps no event is more connected to the Irish American identity than the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.  So important to Irish Americans, the parade allowed them to celebrate Ireland, remember St. Patrick, and show Americans they could be American too.  As Matthew Frye Jacobson argues, “the popular religiopolitical mythologies surrounding…St. Patrick…countered American patterns of nativism and interethnic prejudice by evoking long, grand traditions and flattering notions of chosenness” (Jacobson 56).  To face of prejudice against them, St. Patrick’s Day allowed the Irish to come together and celebrate both their religious mythology and political aspirations (Jacobson 66).  At its core, the parade allowed “Irish Americans [to] rhetorically and symbolically [ground] their present in a remembered and constructed past…” (Moss 130). 

The parade provided an opportunity to counter the pervading images and popular perception of the Irish in American society.  “The long, orderly ranks of Irishmen marching in solemn attire and handsome regalia attempted to show their ofttimes critical non-Irish fellow citizens that the Irish could look every but as prosperous as anyone else” (Coffey 72).  They could be successful Americans too; they were not the wild, rowdy, uncivilized immigrants so many had painted them as.  The parade’s route past statues of American heroes, such as George Washington, and marching in front of city hall was no accident (Kelton 97; Coffey 72).  Such a route “established the loyalty of Irish-Americans to their adopted country in an obvious and unambiguous manner” (Kelton 96) and showed political leaders that the thousands of discipline marchers could be “…disciplined voters marching to the ballot box on election day as well” (Coffey 72).  Celebrating a shared Irish past and projecting a common American loyalty, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade worked to establish the Irish American identity and help change societal perceptions.

Surveying the changes in the representations of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade over time, from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, illustrate the changing perceptions.

The 1867 political cartoon is similar to the one on the front page.  Rowdy, wild, and uncivilized, the St. Patrick’s Day festivities are shown full of violence and chaos as the Irish fight with each other and the Anglo-Americans.  This cartoon displays the typical nineteenth century image of the Irishmen.

By 1872, there seemed to be more acceptance of these Irish festivities.  The New-York Daily Tribune article, “St. Patrick’s Day: A Peaceful ad Orderly Celebration,” describes the parade as peaceful and orderly.  The article is on the front page denoting that the parade must have warranted attention, but since it is all the way off to the side it was not the most important news of the day.  The language of the article is dry, simply reporting the details of the day, perhaps surprise at the peace and order not usually associated with the Irish.  Yet, a later paragraph reveals that the entire police force was ordered on duty, the city no doubt fearful of the Irish. 

The representation of the 1906 St. Patrick’s Day Parade represents the most drastic change underscoring the transformation of the society’s beliefs and the Irish American identity. The article’s positioning and language reveal a changing societal perception of the Irish.  The New York Tribune was one of the nation’s leading and most influential papers.  A front-page story, the prominence of this article illustrates the importance of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade to the entire city and to the nation.  The articles surrounding “Shamrock To The Fore” are important city, national, and international stories. Not only does the newspaper place the story in a position of great importance, the language of the article is positive, almost celebratory highlighting this impressive event.  Detailing the events and people that comprised the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the article speaks of the great Irish heritage of the event and the pleasant atmosphere enjoyed by all.  The crowds of thousands of men, women, and children are not decried as a threat to society or the city, but celebrated as participants of a great cultural heritage. The details of the parade provided in the article illustrate elements of the growing Irish-American identity.  Thousands of people participated and watched the parade.  This large number of people indicates the growing role of Irish-Americans within New York; they are part of the city and other people are excited to share and celebrate in their heritage.  If New Yorkers feared the Irish, such a large parade would have been viewed as threatening to the city.  Thousands of Irish men, women, and children marching up Fifth Avenue could be seen as invasion, a menacing crowd displaying their beliefs to everyone else.  But, instead of a threat, the parade was a sea of Irish pride; they were “…decorated with green badges, green sashes and that greenest of all things that grow, the immortal shamrock” (Shamrock To The Fore).  The parade is celebrated, not feared. The spirit of St. Patrick’s Day filled the entire city, touching not only Irish Americans, but also all New Yorkers.  Yet, the parade celebrated not only Irish heritage, but a developing hybrid Irish-American identity.  Symbols of the Irish and American nationalities were displayed together; “…Irish flags and banners fluttered side by side from house and office buildings with stars and stripes” (Shamrock To The Fore).  The Irish and American flags flew together side by side illustrative of the merging of two nationalities for the growing number of Irish Americans in New York.  The image of these two flags flying together was expected on St. Patrick’s Day.  Even the most patriotic Irish viewed the sight of Irish flag hanging alone above Tammany Hall as conspicuous.  The St. Patrick’s Day Parade celebrated the legacy of St. Patrick and Irish heritage; in New York this celebration expressed a blend of Irish and American.