March 17: thoughts of a patron saint, milestones for Boston’s Irish heritage

Marching along Broadway in 2016. Chris Lovett photo

As St. Patrick’s Day 2018 nears, the “wearing of the green” will hold sway in Boston and environs. Still, amid all the genuine or faux pride on display in pubs, along parades, and as part of all other manner of revelry, it’s a sure bet that a great many celebrants are unaware that March 17 teems with uniquely Boston milestones.

The Big Parade: Landmark Tradition
“The Parade.” In Boston, the phrase means one thing – South Boston’s annual St. Patrick’s Day event. The 2018 march marks the event’s latest incarnation in a tradition that began in 1901.

The milestone notwithstanding, the procession that so many enjoy today did not arrive easily for the Boston Irish, who long had to battle prejudice before they could have their celebration. Have their parade, Boston’s Irish would, and proudly so.

As Irish-Catholic immigrants landed in Boston in ever-increasing numbers in the 1840s and staked their claim to new lives in America, they were soon thumbing their noses at Yankee antipathy to any commemorations of St. Patrick’s Day. One of the early manifestations of the local Irish love for their “old sod’s” patron saint was the Shamrock Society, a social club that gathered on March 17 to defiantly toast the saint and “sing the old songs,” the revelers’ voices pealing from Dooley’s, the Mansion House, and Jameson’s. No one building, however, would long serve to hold the growing numbers of local Irish longing to celebrate the day in a bigger way.

There was only one way, Boston Irish leaders decided, to include not just Irish men, but also women and children, in a celebration of St. Patrick. Their solution was a parade. The unofficial St. Patrick’s Day marches that wound through every Irish ward in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s set the stage for the history-making “Big Parade” in 1901.

On March 18, 1901 – yes, March 18 – the blare of brass bands and pipers and the stomps of marchers’ feet pealed along and above South Boston’s streets. Banners awash with glittering shamrocks, harps, and images of the patron saint himself nodded in the gusts racing in from the Atlantic. It was the 18th for a good reason: The 17th had fallen on Sunday and organizers were subject to Boston’s strict Blue Laws. So, on Monday, the procession commenced with the rattle of drums, the cries of pipes, and the pounding notes of brass bands.

Cheering throngs greeted the waves of marchers as they streamed along Southie’s streets, wound across the bridge, and surged into downtown Boston to the ear-throbbing cheers and applause of thousands massed along the route. The outpouring of “Irish Pride” reached a throaty crescendo at Faneuil Hall.

This year, the same sentiments and traditions will fill the route of the Southie parade’s 109th procession – as they always do.

Celebrating in Style in 1737: Charitable Irish Society

It was 280 years ago, on March 17, 1737, that 26 men gathered in the heart of Puritan Boston to commemorate a decidedly Improper Bostonian event. They were Irish-born men living in a place where most locals loathed anything that smacked of “Popery,” and celebrating a Catholic saint’s holy day could well have proven a risky proposition.

The reason that these men pulled it off was that they were Protestant; however, since some were formerly Roman Catholics who had “embraced” a new faith, their devotion to Protestantism may have been found wanting by some in the citizenry. The religious question aside, the men drew up a charter that professed their pride as sons of the Emerald Isle, and they were meeting on the day dedicated to Ireland’s patron saint. The first St. Patrick’s Day celebration of the Charitable Irish Society was under way.

To become members, men had to be reasonably successful and “natives of Ireland, or Natives of any other Part of the British Dominions of Irish Extraction, being protestants, and inhabitants of Boston.”

Of the first members of the Charitable Irish Society, historian James Bernard Cullen has written: “An important part of the membership of The Charitable Irish Society was the Irish Presbyterian Church, established in Boston in 1727. They first worshipped in a building which had been a barn on the corner of Berry Street and Long Lane [now Channing and Federal Streets]; and this unpretentious building served them, with the addition of a couple of wings, till 1744.”

Despite 18th-century Boston’s vehement prejudice toward Catholics, the society began ignoring the religious restriction just 27 years later, in 1764, and formally removed the Presbyterian requirement in 1804.

Today, the tradition that began on that March day 280 years ago remains strong. The Charitable Irish Society holds a unique place in the annals of the Boston Irish and Irish America alike.

Two for One

Whether one calls the day “St. Patrick’s Day” or “Evacuation Day,” the Irish can lay claim to both celebrations on Mach 17. Many men bearing surnames of “the old sod” were nestled behind bristling cannons that peered down from Dorchester Heights on that day in 1776. The redcoats, or “Lobsterbacks,” were fleeing Boston aboard Royal Navy vessels straining to haul anchor and hightail it out of the harbor – which lay directly under the Rebels’ heavy guns.
Commanding the Patriots was George Washington, who held a deep regard for the Irish-born troops serving in his ranks. On March 17, 1776, Washington was well aware that it was St. Patrick’s Day and that many Irishmen had fought at Bunker Hill and had just helped drag those cannon up the Dorchester slopes. Washington proffered a tip of his tri-cornered hat to Patriots with Irish surnames as the British troops boarded their transports. On that momentous day, he had General John Sullivan countersign the dispatch making “Saint Patrick” the army’s official watchword.

A few months earlier, Washington had received a letter from Colonel Henry Knox, a Bostonian of Belfast lineage. A bookseller by trade, Knox had been sent by Washington to Fort Ticonderoga, in upstate New York. The fortress, which had been taken by Ethan Allen and his Vermont Green Mountain Boys, contained the heavy artillery so sorely needed by Washington, and it was Knox’s mission to get the armaments down to Boston.

According to historian James Bernard Cullen, “Colonel Knox kept his word. With an enterprise and perseverance that elicited the warmest commendations, be brought, over frozen lakes and almost impassable snows, more than 50 cannons and mortars, [and other material]. With this train Washington was enabled to strengthen his position, and to make a more decisive move against the enemy.”

Once the cannons were brought up to Dorchester Heights and trained on the British in Boston, the Redcoats had no choice but to evacuate their exposed positions. The “lobsterbacks” never returned.

One look at the muster rolls of the Continental Army proves the Irish presence not only on March 17 at Dorchester Heights but throughout the Revolutionary War. They witnessed what their countrymen on the “old sod” could only dream of: the British in full flight.

This month, 241 years later, March 17 fittingly marks both St. Patrick’s Day and Evacuation Day – a dual celebration of Ireland’s venerated saint and the day the Redcoats were forced out of Boston for good.