- Historic Sites
The Gra-a-nd Parade
Every March 17 on Fifth Avenue shamrocks bloom, bagpipes skirl, and colleens prance prettily along. Begorra, it’s a great day for the Irish!
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
After the Revolution, Saint Patrick’s Day parades in New York were organized by the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, which was composed, like the Philadelphia society of the same name, mainly of Irishmen who had served under Washington or who had supported him financially. (A prominent Friendly Son in New York, an undercover agent for Washington in Manhattan during the war, had the memorable name of Hercules Mulligan.) The Friendly Sons, like most Irish in America then, were Protestants; the founder of the association in New York, Daniel McCormick, was treasurer of Manhattan’s Grand Lodge of Masons. The Sons were also bitterly anti-British because many of them had been forced to flee from Ireland to America for political reasons. These Irish Protestants were strongly resented by New Yorkers of British birth or descent because of their ancestry and politics. The British New Yorkers outrageously taunted the parading Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day by dragging through the streets comic effigies of Saint Patrick made of straw and rags and hung with potatoes and codfish. Brawls between the two factions became so bloody that in 1803 the city passed a law imposing a ten-dollar fine on anybody dragging an effigy of the saint through the streets.
The character of Saint Patrick’s Day parades began to change in the decades before the Civil War, when the potato famine in Ireland brought a huge influx of Irish Catholic peasants to New York and other eastern seacoast cities. The sudden invasion of these Papist aliens stirred up a strong antipathy among American Protestants and fanned the persecution that blazed up in the Know-Nothing party of the 1850’s and again in the American Protective Association of the 1880’s. To defend themselves, the Irish Catholics banded together in the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a militant organization with close ties to the Roman Catholic hierarchy; in 1844 the group guarded the old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral at Mott and Prince streets in downtown Manhattan against threatened attacks by anti-Catholic mobs. It was the Hibernians who in 1838 took over the management of the Saint Patrick’s Day parade and converted it from a rough and informal social outing to a large, well-organized civil rights demonstration.
The big change took place in 1832. By then there were enough Irish militia groups in New York to make the parade into a long, impressive march of well-drilled, smartly uniformed state guard regiments and volunteer companies. The route was moved uptown; the hour-and-a-half procession crossed Twenty-third Street from Third Avenue to Eighth Avenue and circled back to City Hall, where it was reviewed by Mayor Ambrose C. Kingsbury and the City Council before it marched on to be greeted by Archbishop John Hughes at the cathedral on Prince Street.
“Green filled the eye everywhere,” one historian wrote of the day, “girls in green dresses and bonnets, men in broad green scarves, the military companies in green uniforms, and green banners, Hags and emblems waving in the wind.”
First in the line of march were Irish horse troops, light artillery, and companies of dragoons, followed by volunteer companies bearing such Irish names as the Emmet Guard—headed by Lieutenant John Kelly, later the boss of Tammany Hall—the Smith O’Bricn Guard, the Irish Rifles, and the Montgomery Rides. Then came the city’s three Irish militia regiments, the 9th, the 75th, and, marching in a parade for the first time in its brand new uniforms, the 69th. (The Ogth later became famous as the Fighting 69th in the Civil War and again in World War I in France with Colonel “Wild Mill” Donovan as its commanding officer and Father Francis Patrick Dulfy as its chaplain.) In 1860, before going oil to the Civil War as part of General Thomas Francis Meagher’s Irish Brigade, the 69th embarrassed Xcw York City officials by flatly refusing to march in a parade honoring the visiting Prince of Wales, later Edward VII.
Then as today, the Irish military units were followed by various Irish county associations, fraternal groups, and chapters of the Ancient Older of Hibernians. In later years, the parade included elegantly decorated floats drawn by teams of six or eight horses. A print of a Saint Patrick’s Day parade passing through Union Square in the 18jo’s shows one Moat displaying as its centerpiece a huge bust of Daniel O’Conncll, the liberator of Ireland’s Catholics, surrounded on a velvet pedestal by young women in long, flowing gowns (one of them strumming a harp) and a watchful Irish wolfhound.
As the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in New York became a demonstration of Irish Catholicism, it was closely identified with Saint Patrick’s Cathedral; Patrick is the patron saint not only of Ireland but of the Catholic archdiocese of New York as well. In 1879, when the new cathedral on Fifth Avenue at Fiftieth Street was opened, the parade moved to Fifth Avenue.
By that time the Irish were becoming such a powerful political force in New York that the aspect of the parade as a civil rights protest had grown dim. In fact, things had changed so much that in 1888, when Mayor Abram S. Hewitt, Peter Cooper’s son-in-law, refused to review the parade because Irish politicians had tried to high-pressure him into doing so, his refusal was hailed as a rare act of political courage.