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The grim roots of St. Patrick's Day

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Skibbereen by James Mahony,
The scene at Skibbereen, west Cork, in 1847. From a series of illustrations by Cork artist James Mahony (1810–1879), commissioned by Illustrated London News 1847. “The first Sketch is taken on the road, at Cahera, of a famished boy and girl turning up the ground to seek for a potato to appease their hunger. ‘Not far from the spot where I made this sketch,’ says Mr. Mahoney, ‘and less than fifty perches from the high road, is another of the many sepulchres above ground, where six dead bodies had lain for twelve days, without the least chance of interment, owing to their being so far from the town.'”
Feb. 20, 1847

By James J. Brodell

March 17, the day of the amateur drinker, rapidly approaches. The meaning of St. Patrick's Day, originally a religious feast day, has been flipped on its head to become a secular celebration well removed from its Irish root.

There will be no accusations of cultural appropriation on this day this year even though the festivities portray the Irish as a superstitious and alcoholic rabble. In Chicago they will turn the river green, and in other major cities a theme parade will step off, virus restrictions permitting.

Curiously St. Patrick's Day is really a North American holiday, although the custom has recently been adopted in Ireland itself.

Few understand that the Irish for many years in America were the uneducated underclass who faced Jim Crow-like discrimination. Few also realize that the first major arrivals of the Irish in the Western Hemisphere were as virtual slaves, having been exported by their British masters.

There is a lot of quibbling among academics if the Irish in the 17th century really were slaves or if the better word might be indentured servants. For the estimated 300,000 or more who were were forcibly banished in the mid-17th century to hard labor in the Amazon or Caribbean islands, the semantics makes little difference.

St. Patrick, of course, was a Brit who was himself carried into slavery to Ireland and later returned as a priest to bring Christianity to its people. He died in 461, and March 17 is the traditional date of his death. That connection will be lost on the many revelers who drink green beer and cultivate hangovers this year.

Historians say that the first celebration of the day in what is now the United States took place in 1601 in St. Augustine Florida, then a Spanish holding. A local priest organized a small march. Later British troops stationed in New York marked the day.  A high percentage of redcoats were Irish because its own people became a major export for the small island.

New York contractors imported 5,000 Irish to help dig the Erie Canal around 1817. Canals were a major transportation network in the early and mid-19th century until the development of the railroad. After the European potato fields were hit with disease in 1845 many more Irish arrived in the United States. They were the wetbacks of the day who occupied the lowest rung of society. They held the menial jobs. The men dug ditches or worse. The woman were the domestic workers. The jobs were similar to those held today by illegal Mexicans and Central Americans.

 A small item in an upstate New York newspaper of the time simply noted that “An Irishman named Burke was found dead floating in the Chenango Canal Saturday night.” A lost dog would have earned more news space.

The underclass was feared. After all, they were Catholic in a mostly Protestant United States. They owed their allegiance to a foreign prince, the pope, claimed their social betters. The Irish Potato Famine killed the Irish for seven years. More than 2.5 million died, and at least a million emigrated, many to the Americas. English officials had conquered the land and imposed its own nobility.  The famine opened the door to genocide to sweep away the native inhabitants. Even at the height of the Potato Famine, great quantities of grain, beef and other foodstuffs were exported to the mother island. In some places in Ireland, the soup kitchen only served those who would renounce their Catholic faith and accept the Anglican Church.

The descendants of the Irish remember this treatment even today.

Irish immigrants also were recruited to the U.S. military. A largely Irish and Catholic detachment deserted and joined the Mexican Army during the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848. This artillery brigade, called the Batallón de San Patricio, was one of the most effective Mexican units. They are heroes in Mexico even today, but most were hanged by the U.S. Army at the victorious conclusion of the campaign. Historians attributed the desertion, in part, to discrimination the Irish Catholic soldiers faced from their comrades.

Meanwhile in America, the tattered immigrants were willing recruits to the urban Democratic Party.  Those who viewed “Gangs of New York,” which starred Leonardo DiCaprio, saw a bit of the Protestant-Irish conflict that raged for much of the 19th century.

Many of the newly arrived Irish were drafted into the Union Army. Many others joined willingly for the financial bounty enlistees received. The draft triggered days-long riots in northern cities. An estimated 150,000 Irish wore Union uniforms during the conflict. And some units fought under a green flag. There were significant although lesser numbers of Irish fighting for the Confederacy.

Despite many being in military service, many northern Irish were suspicious of the freed blacks because they feared workplace competition from the former slaves.

Although he was of Scottish descent and not Irish, William Tweed, was highly effective in recruiting the New York Irish to support his political objectives. Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall cronies became famous as the most corrupt politicos of the day. He was the prototype of the many Irish-American bosses who controlled major U.S. cities through World War II and into the 1960s. The primary tools were patronage and kickbacks.

The St. Patrick's Day parades of the day were mass protests against the abuse the Irish were suffering. The color green predominated because wearing the green was a protest against British domination of the island. The color also relates to St. Patrick and his parable of the shamrock to explain the Catholic dogma of the Trinity.

Irish Catholic and Protestant conflicts continued through the 19th century. Even in 1960 John F. Kennedy had to confront anti-Catholic prejudice by addressing Protestant clergymen in Houston, Texas. Some interpreted the opposition in the U.S. Senate to Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett as evidence that U.S. anti-Catholic prejudice continues to exist.

The training that some Irish immigrants received during the U.S. Civil War was put to use in fighting against the British in their homeland. Not until 1949 did the Irish Republic gain full independence. The six counties of Northern Ireland remain in the British sphere, and the Catholic-Protestant divide remains a flashpoint.

There may be a character flaw in the Irish that keeps them from unifying. Elizabeth I of England was able to gain control of the island mainly because the Irish chieftains could not unify against the British. 

The book “How the Irish Saved Civilization” by Thomas Cahill recounts the critical role the island's elite played in preserving intellectual history during Europe's dark ages. The monks of the period were responsible for the spectacular illuminated manuscripts, among them The Book of Kells and The Book of Durrow. Although the most popular of these Eighth and Ninth century manuscripts are religious in content, monasteries were required to maintain libraries, so books on many topics were collected, copied and maintained.

The prehistory and history of Ireland has been one of invasion after invasion and battle after battle. The capital Dublin began as a town founded by Viking invaders. The British exploitation starting in the 16th century  reduced the native Irish to little more than tenant farmers with gradually dwindling land allotments. The impact of the potato famine was magnified because most farm holdings were so small that only potatoes could provide the sustenance for a family.

The native Irish were reduced to the uneducated, untrained rabble depicted in so many contemporary accounts. The Catholic Church, too, bears responsibility for its own brand of exploitation and for promoting superstition.

The Irish might even be better known for their superstitions than their love of strong drink. Banshees, fairies, leprechauns and all sorts of other fantastic creatures populate Irish tales and, frequently, beliefs. Many have been exported to the Americas. The propagation of superstitions is easy to understand among a people living a hard life, denied education and facing an early grave. Such superstitions go hand-and hand with strong drink.

There is something about the Irish personality, the love of tall tales, and the the pure joy of talking that sets them apart from other nationalities. Consequently the Irish and the Irish-Americans have excelled in politics, literature, religious life and other enterprises involving the written word. All that in spite of strong drink.

As columnist Jim Bishop once said, quoting  his father “God invented whiskey so the Irish wouldn’t rule the world.”

Posted March 12, 2021

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All news articles on this website copyright 2018 and 2019 by James J. Brodell  and/or used with permission from Consultantes Río Colorado S.A.