Great parade yesterday up Fifth Avenue and past Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Cardinal Dolan was the Grand Marshal. Previous Grand Marshals include Governor Al Smith, (first Catholic to run for President of the United States)1925; Mayor Jimmy Walker (1932); Mayor Robert Wagner (1954); Governor Hugh Carey (1976); Cardinal John J. O’Connor (1996); Maureen O’Hara (1999); and Cardinal Edward Egan (2002). There was some controversy because for the first time in parade history a LGBT group, Out@NBCUniversal marched under their own banner. (It would be naïve—at the least—to think this was the first time gays marched in the parade.) While openly gay participation in the past has been blocked, Grand Marshal Cardinal Dolan made a point of saying that he thought it a wise decision to make the parade more “inclusive” and that he welcomed everyone. The Krazies, of course, are furious but then anger is their mother’s milk.
I only watched the first half hour or so of the parade, but one curious factoid I heard implied it (wasn’t actually said) that this parade has always been a Catholic celebration. The panel of NBC commentators were remarking on the history of the parade which originally was in lower Manhattan. (In the eighteenth century today’s midtown site of the parade was nothing more than open fields and “truck gardens” that supplied the city with food.) One of the commentators, admittedly I don’t remember who, remarked that this was because the Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral was in Greenwich Village. Two problems. The Old Saint Pat’s is not in the Village but on Mulberry Street in what would become Little Italy and is now Chinatown. But the more egregious mistake is that while the parade dates back to 1762, the Cathedral was built only in 1809-1815. You see, despite the implication—and the common historical misperception—the parade was not originally a Catholic sponsored event. To the contrary: those who marched in the first parade of 1762 were all Protestants. And such would have been the case for the first twenty or more years—it was a Protestant event. In fact it was at least predominately a Protestant event well into the 19th century.
The first Saint Patrick’s Day parade in New York was comprised of Irish soldiers in the British Army. Until 1778 Catholics were prohibited from joining the army (and their commissioning as officers was even later). In fact, while all other churches and religions, even Judaism, were legally tolerated, it was illegal to be a Catholic in New York until the 1777 State Constitution that marked independence from Great Britain.
The 1737 Boston Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, generally considered the first in the colonies—and thus the oldest American Parade to honor Ireland’s national saint, was also comprised of Irish Protestants who had immigrated to Massachusetts. Irish nationalism in the 18th century—and the Saint Patrick Day Parades were celebrations of Irish Identity and Nationalism within the British Empire—was not a Catholic phenomenon but a Protestant one. The Catholics had been so beaten down by the Penal Laws, and especially so in Ireland after the 1688 victory of William of Orange over the Catholic James II, in the British Empire that they were a political non-entity. The principal advocates of Irish Nationalism from William Molyneaux to Jonathan Swift to Henry Grattan to Samuel Nielson to Wolfe Tone to Robert Emmet were all Protestants as would later be Charles Stewart Parnell, and literary figures W.B Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Seán O’Casey. And the artist and indomitable Irish revolutionary, Baroness Markievicz, who advised her female admirers to: “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver,” was Protestant until she was in her 50’s when she was received into the Catholic Church.
Two of the first four Presidents of Ireland, Douglas Hyde and Erskine Childers were Protestants. By no means has Irish Nationalism been a exclusively—or even predominately—Catholic phenomenon.
In those pre-Revolutionary (and Protestant) days in America, Saint Patrick’s Day was marked by the Irish in the larger colonial cities such as New York by dinners in the more elegant taverns such as Bolton and Sigel’s, now known as Fraunces Tavern. For a day such as St. Patrick’s Day they would feast on oysters, lobster, turtle soup, cod, duck, goose, venison, and smoked hams. Meats would be eaten roasted, or potted, or cooked in pasties—pies and hot-pockets. Winter vegetables would include turnip, parsnips, carrots, squashes and winter cabbage. Apples and pears conserved from the previous autumn would be pricey but available and a wide variety of summer fruits would have been put up into jams that might be served as is or used as fillings for pies. Hard cider was the most common drink, but ales and beers would be common enough as well as rum imported from Jamaica and home-distilled whiskies. Alcoholic beverages were drunk with no thought of moderation, especially for celebrations like today’s feast. Desserts would include a variety of pies, sweetmeats (candied fruits), nuts, and boiled puddings such as whitepot, figgy pudding, or plum duff. There were also such puddings as flummery, syllabub, and blancmange. Celebrants would sit down to dinner midafternoon and the feast would last into the night or as long as the alcohol held out.
It was only in the 1820’s that Catholic Irish began to migrate to New York in significant numbers and the floodgates opened with the Great Famine after 1846. The second half of the nineteenth century and the first three decades of the twentieth were the high-water mark of Catholic Irish immigration. The “established Irish,” Protestant and Catholic, did not particularly welcome the immigrants who were of much lower social and educational status. The Catholics were embarrassed by their immigrant co-religionists and the Protestants disowned them completely thinking them to be superstitious savages. But the immigrants were quick to organize themselves in an effort to better themselves by mutual help. Among their first acts was to organize a separate Saint Patrick’s Day Parade which they had done by 1858. Immigrant Irish participation in the Northern cause of the American Civil War not only united the Irish among themselves but gave them a certain political clout in New York and other Northern cities. By the end of the Civil War the New York Parade was firmly under the control of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an immigrant association formed to fight the prejudices against (Irish) immigrants that had been strong in the decade immediately before the Civil War. From that time on the New York Saint Patrick’s Day Parade has been firmly in the hands of Irish Catholics, yet it has always been a civic parade and not a religious procession. Never in its history has it been a religious procession and while there was an active policy of excluding groups identified with the LGBT movement these forty years and more since the gay liberation movement has appeared, the exclusion of LGBT marchers or groups certainly can’t be argued on religious grounds.