St. Patrick’s Day: Religious Holy Day or Ethnic Holiday?

March 17 is the feast day of St. Patrick, the missionary who brought Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century and who is the Patron Saint of Ireland, as well as the Archdiocese of New York.

Observance of the day, whether in Ireland or among the Irish diaspora, has been hybrid in nature: religious but also an occasion of ethnic celebration and assertion of nationalist pride.

Historically in Ireland the day had religion at its heart. It is a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics, requiring Mass attendance. It was a public holiday even before the formation of the state. Evidence of the national solemnity on St. Patrick’s Day could be seen in the requirement that public houses (i.e., bars and taverns) be closed (just as on Good Friday and Christmas Day).

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Alas, things have changed. The public houses in Ireland are open on St. Patrick’s Day as well as Good Friday. Faithful Catholics observe the Holy Day obligation, but their numbers have declined. Current public festivals and parades are of a decidedly secular, even carnival character. The Irish state, the Irish language, Irish arts, music and dance are all rightly celebrated. Notably underplayed, however, are the Irish Saint himself for whom the day is named and his religious Christian legacy.

It is also remarkable how members of the Irish government tend to spend the day. While St. Patrick’s Day is (ostensibly!) the Irish national holiday, many politicians, including the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), some cabinet members, and even figures in local county governments, use the day as a reason to travel abroad, ostensibly to promote Ireland economically. Naturally, the United States is a popular destination: witness the annual pilgrimage to the White House with a bowl of shamrocks for the president. But imagine if our president went abroad on July 4, or if the French government were missing on Bastille Day!

In the United States, St. Patrick’s Day has always reflected both religious feelings and ethnic pride. Usually no difficulties emerged in this duality since most Irish in the United States who observed the day were Catholics.

Many of the earlier immigrants from Ireland, mainly from Northern counties, were Protestants. Their descendants tended to allow themselves to be labelled Scots-Irish to distinguish themselves from the impoverished and mainly Catholic throngs who came to America from Ireland in the middle of the nineteenth century.

The most celebrated St. Patrick’s Day Parade was always in New York, a tradition here since 1762. The city’s Catholic cathedral was named after St. Patrick. Indeed, the parade virtually emerges from Mass in the cathedral and was for decades under the direction of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), a Catholic organization.

Many of the contingent units of the parade, especially student groups, are from Catholic institutions. Also marching are the Emerald Societies of various public departments, whose members are invariably Catholic and hold annual Communion breakfasts. The religious character of the county organizations is often reflected in their colorful banners.

Even the most notable of the public organizations marching, the 69th regiment of the National Guard (the Fighting Irish), attends the Mass in the cathedral. To be sure, some elected public officials who attend are not Catholic or, at least, not practicing Catholics.

Because of the Irish experience of associating religion with national identity, the nationalist message in the parade usually did not cause conflict. For instance, “England Get Out of Ireland” banners were carried by some counties, and, in the late 1970s, blankets were worn by a few sympathizers for the IRA prisoners in Northern Ireland who refused to wear prison uniforms—a prelude to the later hunger strikes.

In 1983, the parade organizers selected Michael Flannery to be the Grand Marshall. Flannery was the head of the Irish Northern Aid Committee. This organization supported the IRA cause in Northern Ireland, both rhetorically and financially. Flannery’s selection prompted representatives of the Irish Government, as well as then United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to absent themselves.

Also absenting himself from reviewing the parade from the steps of the cathedral, at least until after the Grand Marshall had marched past, was Cardinal Terrence Cooke, who felt his presence could be seen as an endorsement of the IRA. However, Cooke did not object to Flannery attending the Mass before the parade and even had a private meeting with him in which he explained his position.

Flannery was a devout Catholic who received Communion daily, notwithstanding his allegiance with the IRA. In fact, years ago he and I were colleagues on a local Catholic parish council. Although we frequently clashed on both radio and television over the Northern Irish issue, we remained friends.

A few years before, Cooke had gotten into a controversy with the parade organizers on a completely different issue: For a number of years some contingent groups had allowed unruly and inebriated marchers. In addition, great numbers of young people watching the parade were consuming alcoholic drinks in spite of laws against such being done in public.

As a solution, the cardinal suggested that the parade be held on the nearest Sunday to March 17. The obvious reason was that bars are not allowed to open, nor drink sold, until midday on Sundays, which would be well after the parade had started.

The cardinal’s suggestion contradicted the virtually exclusive privilege the Irish parade had in contrast to other ethnic marches, namely that of always taking place on the actual date (March 17) rather than a weekend or on an existing public holiday. This privilege had always caused great public discomfort on working days in view of crosstown traffic and the normal crowds on parts of the parade route.

But there was a further feature to the privilege: the parade was never held on a Sunday, even if Sunday was March 17. One suspects that the outrage of some Irish over the cardinal’s tampering with the parade date was prompted primarily by anxiety regarding its effect on the bar and liquor trade—usually thriving on St. Patrick’s Day—were the parade to be moved permanently to Sunday with its more restricted drinking hours.

The solution arrived at was a stricter enforcement of public laws and the parade rules so as to curb disorderly behavior and thereby allow the existing date rule to continue.

More recent controversy has grown from the efforts of ILGO, Irish Lesbians and Gays, to march in the parade under its own banner. Originally a federal court upheld the right of the parade, then run by the Catholic AOH, to exclude such an organization. That policy of exclusion applied only to organizations, not to individuals, and some groups made a point of inviting individuals to march with them. But ILGO remained banned.

Public authorities allowed a large section of a block on the East side of Fifth Avenue, in the lower 60s near the reviewing stand, to be reserved for those protesting the exclusion. Also, some elected figures boycotted the parade in sympathy with the protest.

Eventually in 2014, with new leadership of the parade, the exclusion was lifted under pressure from NBC, the parade’s official broadcaster, who wanted gay members of their staff to be able to march. The following year the Irish Gay organization was given a formal place in the parade. Dependence on the good will of a broadcasting company apparently was as important to the direction of the parade as had been concern for the bar and liquor trade decades earlier.

A response to the dilemma is the increasing appearance of localized St. Patrick’s Day Parades in various communities, both within the city and in the suburbs, on dates, usually weekends, near March 17. Many of these have their origins and sponsorship in Catholic parishes and tend to preserve their distinct Catholic character. Others might be more inclusive, such as the parade in the Queens community of Sunnyside, which was started specifically to allow organized gay participation when such was not available in the Fifth Avenue Parade.

The Fifth Avenue Parade is unlikely to reverse its new comprehensive course, especially since so many of the bands and participants are from other parts of the country, often with minimal contact with the traditional earlier components and roots of the parade.

Perhaps the time has come then to change both the name and the date of the parade given its diminished Catholic character. It could simply be called the Irish Parade and could be held on a Saturday or Sunday near March 17. It perhaps ought to be disconnected with Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Clergy who wish to view the parade should join the other luminaries on the reviewing stand further up Fifth Avenue, rather than from the steps of the cathedral.

St. Patrick could still be honored by Mass on the actual feast day and by a public expression of some sort, such as a procession in the vicinity of the cathedral under ecclesiastical direction.

Editor’s note: Pictured above, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar of Ireland (left), United States President Donald J. Trump, and first lady Melania Trump pose with a bowl of shamrocks presented by Varadkar to Trump during the Shamrock Bowl Presentation at the White House on March 15, 2018, in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Alex Edelman-Pool/Getty Images)


  • John P. McCarthy

    John P. McCarthy is Professor Emeritus of History and former director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Fordham University. He is the author of Hilaire Belloc: Edwardian Radical (1978); Kevin O’Higgins: Builder of the Irish State (2006); and Twenty-first Century Ireland: A View from America (2012).

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