Saint Patrick’s Day

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, an Irish and Irish-American holiday commemorating the death, as legend has it, of Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, on March 17, circa 492. It is also the occasion, in many American cities, for celebrating Irish heritage with a parade. Among the most renowned of these festival traditions are the New York City parade, which officially dates to March 17, 1766 (an unofficial march was held in 1762); the Boston parade, which may date as far back as March 17, 1775; and the Savannah, Georgia parade, which dates to March 17, 1824.

Oh! Erin, must we leave you?…Must we ask a mother’s welcome from a strange, but happier land? Where the cruel Cross of England’s thralldom never shall be seen; And where, thank God, we’ll live and die still wearin’ the green.

Wearing of the Green. In Colonel J. W. O’Brien. Wilbur Cummings, interviewer; Wood River, Nebraska, Nov. 11, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

New York city views. Axis of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, with tower between spires. Samuel H. Gottscho, photographer, April 13, 1933. Gottscho-Schleisner Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

When St. Patrick’s Cathedral was completed in New York City in 1879, the parade was extended up Fifth Avenue in order to allow the archbishop and clergy to review the festivities while standing in front of the church.

The Irish presence in America increased dramatically in the 1840s as a consequence of Ireland’s potato famine of 1845-49, which left more than a million people dead from starvation and disease. Most of the Irish who immigrated to the U.S. during this period arrived with little education and few material possessions. They encountered systematic economic discrimination, and the longstanding prejudice of many members of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority toward both the Irish and Catholicism.

Harrison’s Landing, Va. Group of the Irish Brigade. Alexander Gardner, photographer, July 1862. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Prints & Photographs Division

The Civil War provided an occasion for recent Irish immigrants to prove their mettle as U.S. citizens. During the fall and winter of 1861-62, Thomas Meagher, an Irish Revolutionary who had immigrated to New York City after escaping from a British prison in 1852, organized the Irish Brigade.

“More than the abstract principles of saving the Union,” historian Phillip Thomas Tucker writes in his introduction to The History of the Irish Brigade: A Collection of Historical Essays, “these Celtic soldiers were fighting most of all for their own future and an America which did not segregate, persecute, and discriminate against the Irish people and their Catholicism, Irish culture, and distinctive Celtic heritage like the hated English in the old country”(p. 3). The brigade, composed primarily of Irish and Irish-American soldiers, most of whom were recent immigrants to the Northeast, earned a reputation for bravery and sacrifice in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, including the First Battle of Bull Run, the Battle of Antietam, the first Battle of Fredericksburg, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.

The Irish Regiment. By H. Maylath; New York: E. H. Harding, 1877. Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1870 to 1885. Music Division

Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1870 to 1885 consists of tens of thousands of pieces of sheet music registered for copyright during the post-Civil War era. Included are popular songs, piano music, sacred music and secular choral music, solo instrumental music, method books and instructional materials, and music for band and orchestra.

Learn More