Saint Patrick’s Day, is celebrated each year on March 17. It is the feast day of Ireland’s patron saint, the cleric Patrick (386–461), in the Catholic liturgical calendar and a legal holiday in the Republic of Ireland, in the Ulster province of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom and in two Canadian provinces. But it is celebrated informally worldwide by people of every ethnic background
America Goes Green for St. Patrick’s Day
Little girls in brightly embroidered dresses squirm under last-minute smoothing of hair and bows. Nearby, Irish setters get the same treatment while steadfastly ignoring their larger brethren, a pack of Irish wolfhounds. Ahead, an emerald-green fire truck idles behind an equally bright convertible carrying the parade’s grand marshal and Rose of Tralee, the local Irish-American beauty queen.
The scene could be any city in America in early to mid-March; the participants’ surnames might be Dougherty or O’Toole or McGinty, but they are just as likely to be Kaufman or Hu or Gomez. In the United States, everybody is a little bit Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.
St. Patrick’s Day might be one of the world’s most celebrated holidays, with city-sponsored festivities held in Japan, Australia, Canada, Malaysia, Great Britain and the United States as well as the saint’s beloved Ireland. That geography reflects the broad dispersion of Irish, through choice or necessity, in a 300-year, globe-spanning migration. But perhaps in no other adopted nation is the Irish presence felt as keenly as in the United States, where an ethnic holiday has expanded to embrace all Americans.
In virtually every U.S. primary school, public or private, classrooms are decorated with green; a failure to wear green to school on St. Patrick’s Day might be punished with a playful pinch. Stationery stores sell St. Patrick’s Day greeting cards, bakeries offer shamrock-shaped cookies sprinkled with green sugar, and local pubs serve green beer.
Historians Mike Cronin and Daryl Adair, in their book The Wearing of the Green, called the festivities “markers of the success of Irish enterprise, and a celebration of the liberty that was won in America.”
Celebrated from colonial times onward
The first recorded celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in the American colonies was in Boston in 1737, and the first St. Patrick’s Day celebration in New York City was held at the Crown and Thistle Tavern in 1756.
Those early American celebrants were gentlemen of means. But in the wake of American independence from Great Britain, Irish Catholics from all social classes increasingly were lured to the United States by the promise of religious freedom, and St. Patrick’s Day festivities began to take on a decidedly less upper-class tone.
Changes in British law lifted restrictions on Irish emigration in 1827; by 1835 more than 30,000 Irish were arriving in New York annually. These waves of uneducated, impoverished immigrants initially threatened already established Irish Americans with mainstream employment at police forces, fire departments and railroad companies, but the threat was mitigated by the newcomers’ clear loyalty to their adopted country. As the Irish-American population grew, so did St. Patrick’s Day observances, and the political power of Irish communities in large U.S. cities like Boston, New York, Chicago and New Orleans.
That Irish-American voting bloc in the 19th and 20th centuries was courted by Irish and non-Irish politicians alike. A New Yorker with political aspirations who ignored St. Patrick’s Day imperiled any hope of achieving office. With increasing frequency, big city mayors carried an Irish surname; in the 1960 national election, John Fitzgerald Kennedy became the first Irish Catholic president of the United States.
The Irish in America also used the March 17 celebrations to focus attention on the plight of the Irish still in Ireland by exercising their American right of free speech. During the 1970s, St. Patrick’s Day in America assumed a tone of political activism, with fundraising for Irish charities with “rebel” ties and calls for British withdrawal from Northern Ireland.
That activism set the stage for President Bill Clinton’s imaginative use of March 17 as a major political event in which all parties involved in the Irish conflict were invited to hammer out a peace process in Washington. That initiative resulted in the Good Friday Accord of April 10, 1998, which called for Protestants to share political power with the minority Catholics, and gave the Republic of Ireland a voice in Northern Irish affairs.