ST. PATRICK'S DAY AND THE AOH
Gerry Curran, Deputy National Historian
As we again prepare for the Feast of our Order's patron this March 17th we should be aware that the general American celebration of the holiday leaves many American Irish and the Irish in Ireland bewildered or, at best, indifferent. In Ireland, most regard the day as a holyday and see the American counterpart as somewhat ridiculous if not sacrilegious. In America, St. Patrick's Day has, unfortunately, become a collection of extravagant parades, shamrocks and leprechauns on napkins and party hats, chartreuse apparel, maudlin Irish-American songs, and green beer in which the nexus between the Irish and alcoholic drink is reaffirmed. Even serious efforts to properly venerate the saint's memory, in the form of well meaning but often speculative and somewhat farfetched biographies of St. Patrick, do little to educate their readers about the evolution of the day as a cultural celebration. Few special interest or news accounts in the contemporary media tell the fascinating story of how St. Patrick's Day has become an American national institution. In those that have made the attempt, fewer have properly accredited the Ancient Order of Hibernians with the crucial role it has played in this development.
Although St. Patrick's Day parades can be traced to Boston in 1737 and New York in 1762, these events were relatively simple processions that were common in Ireland and other areas of Europe on saints' feast days. These processions were always religious in nature and were largely unnoticed by the larger Anglo-Saxon Protestant population in the United States. As the Catholic Irish population in America slowly grew, stereotypes of the Irish and cultural prejudice against them grew as well. Situated as the English colonies were between French and Spanish settlements (both Catholic), anti-Catholicism was rife in America from the beginning. As early as 1799, frightened Irish Catholics on New York's Lower East Side defended their national dignity against native-born Americans who paraded through their neighborhoods on St. Patrick's Day bearing insulting effigies (dubbed "Paddies") of the glorious saint.
The custom of "Paddy making" became widespread in the early 1800's and continued unabated until the middle of the nineteenth century. These provocative caricatures incensed those affronted by them. The social historian George Potter described the "Paddy" as: "an effigy dressed in rags, its mouth smeared with molasses, sometimes wearing a string of potatoes around its neck or a codfish to mock the Friday fasting and with a whiskey bottle stuck out of one pocket...set up in a public place on the eve of St. Patrick's Day."
In the 1820's Protestant Ulster immigrants brought the Orange order to New York. By 1824 the order was strong enough to again insult Irish Catholic sensibilities by parading all day on July 12th (the anniversary of the infamous "victory" of the Protestant William III over the Catholic James II and his Irish allies at the Boyne River in 1690) with orange and purple flags through the Catholic community in Greenwich Village singing "Croppies Lie Down", "Protestant Boys", and "Boyne Water". As Irish and American natives combined to promote discrimination against Catholics, most immigrants retreated into the safety of the Catholic Irish communities and the institutions that emerged to protect them - the Catholic Church, the Democratic party and the organizations of the Irish nationalist movement - the largest and most prominent of which was the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Organized in New York and Pennsylvania in 1836 the A.O.H. grew rapidly, appealing to a broad segment of the Irish Catholic community by asserting issues of self-defense and social and economic justice, as well as Irish nationalism. It also spread to other cities and states by appealing to the similar grievances of canal and railroad laborers, and their nationalistic sentiments (this growth of the Order also helped increase the number, size, and significance of St. Patrick's Day celebrations in cities throughout the nation).
In 1853, the Order was chartered by the state of New York and also appeared in its first St. Patrick's Day parade under the name Ancient Order of Hibernians. From this date on, the A.O.H. played a dominant role in the development of the parade and was ultimately destined to assume total responsibility for the parade tradition. Writing in 1923, former National Historian John O'Dea stated: "The feature of the Order which impressed the public in the early days of our American annals was the great procession on St. Patrick's Day. The romantic attachment for their native land and the precepts of Ribbonism had made a reverence for the immortal apostle a part of the creed of every Irishman. For almost fifty years these St. Patrick's Day processions were the chief public functions of the Order, not only in New York City, but in every city where the Order had found a foothold."
During the July 4, 1853 Independence Day parade in New York, members of the A.O.H. were attacked at Abingdon Square when a wagon and team of horses were driven into the marchers and bloody fighting broke out between the Hibernians and elements of the "Know Nothing" organizations led by the shameful bigot Bill Poole. With "Know Nothing" attack a genuine threat, an unusually large number of Irish units of the state militia, including the 69th, the 9th, and the 72nd regiments, as well as many volunteer units, acted as escort to the parade on the following March 17th. Protection of their community in general, and of the marchers in particular, motivated these men (many of whom were A.O.H. members). Their demeanor stood in striking contrast to the proverbial Irish faults of violence, indolence, and intemperance with which the popular media of the time portrayed them. The inclusion of these military units helped transform the St. Patrick's Day procession into the parade we recognize today.
Moreover, in 1856, Peter R. Gaynor, A.O.H. National Delegate (the title then used for National President) led the Father Mathew Total Abstinence and Benevolent Society in the parade. This famous Irish temperance organization helped bring a new dimension of order to the line of march and deflated the myth that the Irish were, as suggested by Henry Cabot Lodge: "...a hard-drinking, idle, quarrelsome, and disorderly class, always at odds with the government."
By the beginning of the Civil War and in large part due to the efforts of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the New York St. Patrick's Day parade was no longer a small and simple procession. As a result of its unqualified success (and our Order's rapid growth) St. Patrick's Day parades became a feature of every substantial American city. The celebration of St. Patrick's Day has become a symbol not only of devotion to our patron saint and ancestral home but also of our constitutional right to freely assemble in our streets as respected American citizens.
As we prepare for St. Patrick's Day let us recall those brave Hibernians who defended their right to express devotion to our faith with their lives. Let us pray for them as we honor the institution they helped create.