How St. Patrick’s Traditions Got Their Start

Written by Megan Finnegan Bungeroth on . Posted in Arts & Film, Breaking News, Lifestyle, News West Side Spirit, NY Press Exclusive, Our Town, West Side Spirit.


With St. Patrick’s Day just around the corner, many New Yorkers are gearing up to take part in what have become ingrained traditions for many city dwellers. A stereotypical holiday itinerary might start with a hearty meal of corned beef and cabbage, followed by swilling green beer, donning plastic green leprechaun gear, cheering on a parade and continuing to celebrate until the wee hours with shots of whiskey. For many, Irish or not, these activities have become routine, but not many know where, exactly, these traditions originated or why they engage in them.

The St. Patrick’s Day parade that takes over Fifth Avenue has been around longer than the United States itself; it began 251 years ago, when Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through Lower Manhattan.

“The massive parades started after the Civil War,” said William Hurley, the library and archive curator at the American Irish Historical Society. “If you look at [the] period, that was really when the people who had been oppressed came to more power. The Irish became a cohesive voting bloc.” Political dissidents in Ireland like Daniel O’Connell, who fought for Irish independence from Great Britain in the early 19th century, also spurred increased interest in Irish heritage across the pond and made parades more popular in America.

While the grand parade is run by a Catholic organization, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, other elements of an American St. Patrick’s Day have evolved far beyond religious roots.

“There’s always been a battle between the religious and the secular. It is a saint’s day, but it’s become a much bigger thing, really,” said Ray O’Hanlon, editor of the Irish Echo. “By all means, have a party, but I think the basis of that holiday is spiritual in origin.”

And what of the daylong drinking fests that seem to engulf the city streets? Many Irish people shudder at the representation of their history in slurred speech and sloppy antics, and point out that it’s Americans who have infused the day with special alcoholic meaning.

“When I was growing up in Dublin, we had a day off school. If you were Catholic, you went to Mass. It was a very low-key day, in fact,” said O’Hanlon. “In a way, Ireland is oddly mimicking America now; the celebration has become much more American in that regard.”

Copious drinking and the promotion of concoctions like the “Irish car bomb” are largely generated by bars to make money and don’t really tie in to any Irish traditions. Car bombs, legend has it, were invented by a bartender in Connecticut in the 1970s who noticed that when he dropped a shot made up of half Jameson whiskey and half Bailey’s Irish Cream into a half-finished pint of Guinness, the result fizzed up like an IRA bomb. What started as a slightly dark joke took off as a favorite drink of frat boys, but many Irish take offense to the name that conjures images of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

Some, in fact, are opting to forgo drinking of any kind this year.

“What we’re doing is introducing a whole new event for St. Patrick’s Day that really focuses on the culture and heritage and not the alcoholic element,” said Maura Kelly, one of the organizers of the first annual Sober St. Patrick’s Day on the Upper East Side. They’re selling $12 tickets to a day of food, music, dancing and visits by Irish celebs and dignitaries.

“We’re presenting it both ways. It’s for the recovery community, for people who have abandoned the holiday,” said Kelly. “I like a glass of wine, but for me it was sort of more about combating the negative stereotype of the day, the public drunkenness. I know there’s more than that.”

“There’s no cultural aspect to it that demands that you have to drink on St. Patrick’s Day at all,” said O’Hanlon. He said he continually runs stories in the Echo debunking the harmful stereotypes of the drunken Irish and calling out retailers like Urban Outfitters who sell cheeky T-shirts with slogans like “Irish I Were Drunk.”

“Irish Americans who take their holiday seriously and believe it’s a holiday for everybody tend to sort of get their hackles raised—and rightly so, because you’re parading and pushing a stereotype for profit,” O’Hanlon said.

Jeff Cleary, the executive director of the Irish American Heritage Museum in Albany, said he has sensed a shift in recent years away from the inebriated revelry and toward a keener interest in Irish heritage.

“People want to learn more about their heritage and they want to celebrate more,” Cleary said. “You’re seeing less and les of the old crappy plastic bowler caps and the ‘Kiss me I’m Irish’ shirts.”

Cleary said he hopes New Yorkers will use the day to remember and celebrate the contributions of Irish Americans to the city and taking advantage of events like parades, lunches and ceremonies honoring Irish heritage.

“There’s so much more than just sitting in the Irish bar and listening to ‘Danny Boy,’” he said.

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