Happy St Patricks day!
It is usually assumed that Southern Irish Catholics were the first to bring the traditions of St. Patrick’s Day to America and were the first to hold parades on that day to celebrate “Irishness”. That assumption is wrong…
In 1737 the Charitable Irish Society was formed in Boston by Scotch-Irish Presbyterian colonists. The Society was set up with the purpose to assist newly arriving fellow immigrants from Ireland in the traumatic process of settling in a strange new country. In March 17th of that year they decided to mark St. Patrick’s day with a dinner at a local tavern followed by a modest parade through the streets. This was to be the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in America, and most likely the world (Ireland didn’t commemorate Patrick with parades until the 1930’s). The Charitable Irish Society is the oldest Irish organisation in America and it is still in existence. It was exclusively Presbyterian until 1804 when the society became non-denominational. Today, understandably, its membership is mostly made up of Roman Catholics.
It is often wrongly cited that the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in New York but the first records of celebrations for the Irish apostle in that city come from 1762 (25 years after the Boston event). An Irish Protestant called John Marshall invited Friends to his house at Mount Pleasant for a party to celebrate the day. His guests marched as a body to the party thus forming the first unofficial “parade”. In 1766 the New York Gazette reported on a notable March 17th celebration at the house of a gentleman by the name of Mr. Bardin. Among the toasts raised on the evening were; “the prosperity of Ireland“, “Success to the Sons Of Liberty in America” and “The glorious memory of King William of Orange“. The first proper St. Patrick’s day parade in New York was in that same year (1766) when soldiers from the British Army’s Irish regiments (Catholics were forbidden to join the army until 1778) met at the Crown & Thistle tavern in Manhattan, drank a toast to King George III and then paraded through New York with the “playing of fifes and drums, which produced a very agreeable harmony.” before heading back to the pub for more drinks. Today, Irish regiments in the British Army still mark St. Patrick’s day with a parade.
On 17th March 1780, in honour of his large contingent of Irish soldiers, General George Washington issued a General Order to give his troops the day off for St. Patrick’s Day. Over one third of the Continental Army were of Irish descent or Irish born, the vast majority of whom were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. Soldiers from within these ranks had formed a society called The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in 1771 of which George Washington was an honorary member. The original society was overwhelmingly Scotch-Irish Presbyterian in membership with some Episcopalians and three Catholics, one of whom they elected as their first president; General Stephen Moylan.
The Friendly Son’s membership was originally mostly Scotch-Irish
The Friendly Sons held the first St. Patrick’s celebrations in Philadelphia in 1771 where the organisation had been formed. They also organised the official St. Patrick’s day parades in New York city from 1784 into the 1800’s. The American War of Independence had struck a sympathetic chord in Ulster. Many thousands of Ulster people had emigrated to America and some were in the forefront of the Revolution. However when France declared its support for the Colonists, Volunteer Companies were formed to counter any possibility of a French invasion of Ireland. Ulster at that time was the cradle of progressive ideas in Ireland. “May the northern lights ever illuminate the Irish nation” became a popular toast.
Many of the volunteers were politically-conscious and democratically minded. They used the strength of the Volunteer Movement to press for radical reform, including a demand for legislative independence. Although the Volunteers were Protestants, the Belfast Companies called vociferously for Catholic emancipation and resolved that: “We invite to our ranks persons of every religious persuasion”. Indeed the Belfast Companies not only raised half the building costs of St Mary’s Chapel and St Patrick’s Catholic Church in Donegall Street but on the day of its opening in 1784 paraded in full dress and marched to attend the Mass, which according to the Belfast Newsletter, was also attended by great numbers of the other Protestant inhabitants.
Father O’Donnell published a letter of thanks from the Roman Catholics of Belfast to the Volunteers “for their generosity in enabling them to erect a handsome edifice for the celebration of divine worship. They know not in what adequate terms to express their feelings and were excited by the attendance and so respectable a protestant audience on Sunday last at the opening of the House- the impression of which mark of regard is never to be effaced”.
A few years later, in 1789, the Siege of Derry centenary commemorations showed, as A T Q Stewart pointed out, how the celebration of the historic event could not have developed in a more natural way, allowing all the townspeople to take civic pride in it. An early nineteenth Century account describes how the day’s celebrations culminated. The Derry Corporation, the Clergy, the Officers of the Navy and Army, the gentlemen from the country, Volunteers, Scholars and Apprentices sat down to a plain but plentiful dinner in the Town Hall. Religious dissentions in particular seemed to be buried in oblivion. Roman Catholics vied with Protestants in expressing their sense of the blessing secured to them by the event which they were commemorating.
On March 17, 1812, in Savannah Georgia, thirteen men founded the Hibernian Society, dedicated to aiding largely Catholic destitute Irish immigrants. A few months later, the group, now up to 44 members, adopted a constitution and the motto, “non sibi sed alis” (not for ourselves, but for others). Not one charter member was a Catholic. One year later, on March 17, 1813 the group held the city’s first St Patrick’s day parade, they marched in procession to a Presbyterian church. It’s a similar story with Canada’s oldest parade; Montreal’s St. Patrick’s Day parade was first held in 1824. Soon after, the St. Patrick’s Society was born in the city, it’s membership was overwhelmingly Protestant. In 1856, many of the members left and formed the Irish Protestant Benevolent Society.
At the beginning of the 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars, the demand for timber for sailing ships could not be met from the traditional source of the Baltic States due to a blockade by Napoleon’s navy. Emigration through the ports of Moville and Derry was to British North America, where timber was plentiful, rather than the new United States. Due to technological changes in linen production, cottage-based weavers and their impoverished families were left with no option but to migrate to the Maritime Provinces of what is now Canada.
This immigration started about 1815 following the battle of Waterloo and it is thought that 80% of passengers landed in Canada, with perhaps half of that total going on to the United States. By 1871 they made up 24.3% of Canada’s population, with 35% of the population of Ontario and New Brunswick being of Irish origin.
In this pre-famine period of genuinely mass immigration (1815-45) in both the United States(400,000) and Canada (450,000), protestant Irish migrants continued to significantly outnumber Roman catholic Irish. As a consequence in 1871 60% of the Irish in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were protestant. Furthermore they were rural settlers, in contrast to the United States where the Irish immigrant’s principal role was to service the industrial revolution.
The Canadian Irish Protestant Benevolent Society
With the failure of the Potato crop in 1845 thousands upon thousands of desperate and diseased men, women and children from every corner of Ireland sought escape by boarding ships bound for America. And it is this period (1845-50) that has received the most attention. There is still a tendency to see the Great Famine as the prime cause of the Irish Diaspora, when in reality heavy emigration from Ireland began well before the Famine and continued well after it.
From the mid 1800’s, as Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland started to outnumber their Protestant counterparts in the Northern Yankee cities, the parades started to become controlled and organised by the Roman Catholic only Ancient Order of Hibernians, which was formed in New York in 1836. The parades became less secular and took on a Catholic Nationalist political outlook. Non-denominational societies such as The Friendly Sons, The Charitable Irish & the Hibernian Society became more Roman Catholic and Gaelic, moving away from their Protestant and Cruthinic origins. Thanks though, to its Irish Protestant beginnings in America, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations remained more secularized than in Ireland, where it was considered a day of holy obligation. In fact, until the 1970s the bars in Dublin were closed on March 17.
Another common misconception today is that Irish-Americans are predominately Roman Catholic. But in fact more than half of the 40 million Americans who claim Irish heritage are Protestant in faith. One of the main factors for this is that in the colonial period 30 percent of all immigrants from Europe arriving between 1700 and 1820 came from Ireland and the great majority of them were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians from Ulster. To give a perspective on this; in 1790 when Fr. John Carroll was ordained as the first Roman Catholic bishop of the USA there were around 30,000 practising Roman Catholics (around 1% of the population) and 22 priests in the new United States. This number represents Roman Catholics of all nationalities (English, Irish, Dutch, German etc.). At the same time there were around 200 practising Presbyterian ministers from Ulster alone and an estimated 250,000 Scotch-Irish.
The descendants of these early Scotch-Irish arrivals have been multiplying ever since. A study in the 1970’s showed that 83% of Irish-American Protestants have been in America for four generations or more compared to only 41% of Irish-American Catholics. The National Opinion Resarch Centre at the University of Chicago produced statistics which demonstrated that 12% of modern adult Americans named Ireland as the country from which most of their ancestors came and 56% belonged to one of the Protestant churches. Not many are now Presbyterians for most became Methodists and Baptists according to conscience.This was due to old-time preachers whose traditions also lived on in the American Black community to be personified by Martin Luther King . There seems to be a growing trend in America for Protestant Irish to wear orange on St. Patrick’s day in recognition of their faith and heritage.
Saint Patrick’s story is therefore essentially an Ulster story. This is where he was enslaved as a boy from Britain by the Cruthin Chieftain Milchu, this is where he returned to as a man. It is where he built his first church in a barn, , it is where he evangelized, among his first converts being the daughter of Milchu, the Cruthin princess Bronagh, it is where he lived and died. And it is where his cult became established in Connor, Dalaradia, in Antrim,before moving to Armagh. Today, St. Patrick’s so-called “grave stone” can be viewed in the grounds of Down Church of Ireland Episcopalian Cathedral in Downpatrick, Ulster… not far from where he built his first house of Christian worship in Saul, the barn, Co. Down. So his story is an Appalachian story too…And,of course, Patrick is also the Patron Saint of Nigeria and a potent symbol of Common Identity with the Black Community….