Editor’ note: In honor of St. Patrick’s Day on Sunday, TLD columnist Eric Ferrara of the LES History Project takes a look back at the origins of one of New York’s most famous parades:
St. Patrick holds a special place in the hearts of many New Yorkers. Not only is he the primary patron saint of Ireland, he is also the adopted patron saint of the Archdiocese of New York, so it is no surprise that tens of thousands of people show up every year just to participate in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade—while spectators run into the millions.
Though very little documentation exists about the life of St. Patrick, the narrative which has become universally accepted is that the former slave rose to great prominence in the 5th century, bringing Christianity to Ireland. One famous legend states that St. Patrick taught the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) utilizing the symbol of the three-leaf shamrock.
By the 10th century, a Roman Catholic holiday in honor of St. Patrick was celebrated in Ireland annually on what is considered to be the anniversary of his death, March 17. It wasn’t until the 18th century that an official parade was organized in St. Patrick’s honor and that took place over 3,000 miles from his homeland, here in Lower Manhattan.
Though it is thought of as the oldest and largest non-military parade in the nation, details about when New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade started are just as fluid as the legend of St. Patrick itself.
Some books and archived newspaper articles cite March 17, 1763 as the first St. Patrick’s Day celebration—claiming it was held not as a parade, but as a breakfast meeting at the Crown and Thistle Inn on Whitehall Street. Then in 1779, the annual breakfast turned into a staged parade where “400 Irish volunteers marched behind a British band from Lower Broadway to a tavern on the Bowery.”
However, according to other sources like the History Channel, the St. Patrick’s Day parade started on March 17, 1762, as “Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City.” (Presumably under the auspices of ghost Nazis from outer space.) And a 1917 New York Times article claimed that it was the 150th anniversary of the parade that year, dating its origins to 1767.
According to the New York State Ancient Order of Hibernians, the association which has organized the event since the early 19th century, the parade will mark its 252nd anniversary this Sunday. You can do the math.
Regardless of the parade’s exact date of origin, its route was contained to Lower Manhattan for over a century. And as the city’s Irish population grew in the 1840s and 50s, the annual festivities expanded greatly and took on a whole new meaning.
Most Irish living in the city before the Great Potato Famine were of Protestant faith, which complemented the majority religious practice of the population at the time. However Irish immigrants arriving in the mid-nineteenth century were predominantly Catholic, resentful of the English powers which caused such hardships in their homeland.
Settling into a city where English Protestantism still held sway was complicated to say the least; a subject explored over and over in numerous books and movies like Martin Scorsese’s fictional Gangs of New York.
However one thing the Irish did have going for them was their numbers. They were too large a voting block to dismiss altogether, so the St. Patrick’s Day Parade evolved into a political grandstanding opportunity with eventual full support from the city.
By the 1860s, tens of thousands of Irish citizens participated in the yearly event, sprinkled with ambitious politicos who became “Irish for the day.” Marchers organized early in the morning at City Hall Park—with ranks spilling over the Bowery and all the way up East Broadway to Grand Street. After the firing of a cannon at 12 noon, the procession folded together at Chatham Square and advanced up the Bowery to the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Prince Street.
By 1870 the parade expanded, with the participants lining up around 2nd Avenue and East 10th Street before following an unusual route: south along 2nd Avenue, west on 2nd Street, south along the Bowery, through Chatham Square to City Hall, north along Broadway to Union Square, across 14th Street to 9th Avenue, north to 23rd Street, and east to 1st Avenue before heading back south to Cooper Union at East 8 Street and 3rd Avenue where the parade ended. Did you get all that? Now try to follow it after three or four Jamesons.
Soon after a new St. Patrick’s Cathedral was erected at 5th Avenue and 50th Street in 1879, the parade route was moved further uptown to 5th Avenue where it takes place to this day.
In 1888, the New York City Board of Alderman introduced a resolution to fly an Irish flag at City Hall every March 17th. With 27% of the board, 28% of the police department and 16% of the city’s population by that time of Irish decent, the proposal had wide support from many civic and fraternal organizations. However, anti-Tammany Mayor Abram Hewitt shot the plan down, stating, “I am in favor of raising the American flag on the City Hall under any pretext, but foreign flags under no pretext.”
By this time, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade was not without its share of controversy. Some Irish-nationalists complained of the parade’s political hijacking and boycotted the event, while some non-Irish citizens felt it was, well, too Irish:
“It has been celebrated rather in a spirit of hatred and revenge toward England than in spirit merely of attachment to Ireland,” one Opt-Ed author wrote in 1887, calling the procession “aggressive and defiant in character.”
By the 1960s, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade evolved into treasured event in New York City, attracting spectators from across the globe (along with their spending dollars). Perhaps its success made the city go a bit parade-crazy, because it issued 552 parade permits in 1966 alone. There was a strong push by merchants at the time to remove the growing number of parades from 5th Avenue to Central Park but the plan was determined by the City to be “unfeasible.”
Judge James J. Comerford, who also happened to be chairman of the St. Patrick’s Day parade committee, said that merchants “have no real reason for complaints” since the parade was on Fifth Avenue “before they were.”\
Eric Ferrara is founder and director of the non-profit Lower East Side History Project, and author of several New York City history books including two new titles, Lower East Side: Then & Now & Lower East Side: Oral Histories. Ferrara has consulted numerous movie and television projects for HBO, Warner Brothers, National Geographic, History Chanel and many more.
A personal note from Eric: Please join me this St. Patrick’s Day, Sunday March 17, 2 p.m. at the Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue & Museum, 280 Broome Street, for a presentation of my new book, “Lower East Side Oral Histories” and on Wednesday March 20th for a very important Bowery preservation fundraiser at the Bowery Hotel. See http://leshp.org for more information.]