In Ireland, until recent decades St. Patrick’s Day was a somber occasion. In the first half of the last century, it was a day in the middle of Lent when people went to an extra mass. No parades, no breaking the Lenten fast, no green beer. The joyful celebration enjoyed around the world is really one of the bigger Irish gifts the Irish American community has sent back to the auld country, and indeed everywhere the Irish have settled.
The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in New York City in 1762, and it bore little resemblance to today’s celebrations. It was organized by Irish soldiers serving with the British army in the colonies – so actually, it predates the United States. Those soldiers were not the first Irish people in the land that would become the US, though. Irish people were among the first white European settlers. The English were the only group larger than them. And they did not settle in New York or Boston, but mostly in and around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
It was a century after that in the 1840s and ‘50s that the massive wave of immigration from Ireland hit as people fled the devastating effects of the Great Famine. They were fleeing not just a crop failure, but an oppressive political system that left them dependent on a single crop and then effectively blocked food aid sent from abroad.
The flow of immigrants from Ireland has waxed and waned over time, but for generations North America has held a fascination for the Irish – both those escaping dire political and economic circumstances and those in search of adventure. When Ellis Island opened in 1892, the first immigrant processed was an Irish woman named Annie Moore from County Cork. She was a teenager, and she arrived with two younger brothers.
Regardless of why they left, most Irish immigrants have a degree of nostalgia for Ireland. Today’s technology lets our current emigrants who have settled around the world stay in touch to a degree incomprehensible only a generation or two ago, when snail mail was the only option for letters and Irish gifts from home were a rarity.
Today’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations grew out of Irish-America’s love of both countries. Some Irish soldiers, perhaps from homesickness or a desire to make their own identity clear as they served amongst the British, made a decision to celebrate Ireland’s patron saint that became one of the most beloved Irish gifts to the world- a festival when everyone is invited to be Irish for the day and enjoy Irish music, dance, food and culture wherever they are.
Dublin now hosts a whole four days of revelry including performances, children’s events and of course a massive parade, and pretty much every village in the country has a St. Patrick’s Day parade. Local marching bands and dancers race from one rural parade to another, and no village parade is complete without a few tractors and a showing from the local fire department.