On March 17, Boston will be awash in St. Patrick’s Day revelry. All nonsense such as green beer, green plastic derbies, “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” badges, and faces reflecting various stages of inebriation and emblazoned with painted shamrocks or the Irish tricolor aside, the Saint’s High, Holy Holiday can be celebrated with unabashed abandon. It is worth remembering, however, that what we take for granted in 2013 was not ever so. For the Boston Irish, honoring – let alone celebrating – St. Patrick’s Day proved a long struggle.
The first local stirrings to commemorate Ireland’s patron saint came in 1737. On March 17th of that year, 26 men gathered in the heart of Puritan Boston to hold 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 the 26 men pulled it off was that they were Protestant; however, since some were formerly Roman Catholics who had “embraced” a new faith to assimilate in Boston, their devotion to Protestantism may have been wan. The religious question aside, the men drew up a charter that professed their pride as sons of the Emerald Isle when they met 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, 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 Boston’s vehement prejudice toward Catholics of the 18th century, the society ignored the religious restriction in 1764, after a historically short term of 27 years. The members officially removed the Presbyterian requirement in 1804. Today, the tradition that began on March 17, 1737, continues. The Charitable Irish Society holds a unique place in the annals of the Boston Irish and Irish America alike.
Perhaps the best-known Boston Irish symbol of St. Patrick’s Day is The Parade. Locally, the phrase means one thing – South Boston’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade. It all started officially in 1901, but the procession that so many both enjoy but take for granted today did not arrive easily for the Boston Irish.
As Irish-Catholic immigrants landed in Boston in ever-increasing numbers in the 1840s and 1850s and staked their claim to a new life in America, they soon thumbed their collective nose 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 single building, however, would long serve to hold the growing numbers of local Irish longing to celebrate the day in a bigger way. A historian noted: “No banquet room was broad enough to comprehend all the Sons of Erin, even had they the price of dinner.”
There was only one way, Boston Irish leaders decided, to include not just Irishmen, but also women and children, in a celebration of St. Patrick. The solution was a parade.
As early as 1841, without official sanction by Boston’s government officials, more than 2,000 local Irish had marched through the North End, their bands booming, crowds singing. Earlier, they had honored their patron saint at a traditional Mass.
The cant of Brahmins who reviled the St. Patrick’s Day Masses and revelry notwithstanding, the Boston Irish prayed and paraded on March 17. In 1886, Hugh O’Brien, Boston’s first Irish-born mayor, infuriated the Yankee nabobs of Beacon Hill with his decision to close the Boston Public Library in honor of the revered saint and the celebrations in his name.
By 1900, St. Patrick’s Day parades organized by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which numbered some 8,000 members in Boston alone, had become the norm. Bands, organizations, refreshments – all were handled by the Hibernians’ Entertainment Committee. In the hands of Ward 17 boss “Pea Jacket” Maguire and other Boston Irish leaders, fun, festivities, and pride in Irish roots ruled the city on March 17.
In March 1901, the blare of bands and the vibrations of marchers’ feet pealed 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. The date, however, was March 18 – with good reason. The city’s leaders had sanctioned South Boston’s first official St. Patrick’s/Evacuation Day Parade for the 18th because the 17th had fallen on Sunday and was subject to the Blue Laws. On that Monday morning, the procession commenced with a rattle of drums, the cries of pipes, and the pounding notes of brass bands.
A newspaper column captured the essence of St. Patrick’s Day in Boston then – 1901 – and now: “A sign that, although scattered far and wide, Irishmen still hold to their love of country and countrymen, and never forget the verdant home they fondly call the gem of the sea.”