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FEATURE: Celebrating St Patrick’s Day in a time of war & revolt
A postcard from St Patrick's Day 1909. Photo: New York Public Library

FEATURE: Celebrating St Patrick’s Day in a time of war & revolt

by Mike Cronin

Ireland’s national day, the 17 March, reputedly celebrates the day of the death of the national apostle, St Patrick, in the second half of the fifth century. The day was listed as a saint’s day in the Irish legal calendar as early as 1607, and had been recognised in the religious calendar by the Vatican in 1631. The day grew in importance in the eighteenth century and, after legislation introduced to parliament by John Redmond, became a public holiday in 1904.

Prior to the outbreak of the First World War the day in Ireland was, for most people, a day of quiet observance. The tradition of towns and cities staging parades had not begun, and the main event was staged under the auspices of the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin Castle. The event there began with a trooping of the colour in the Castle Yard, and then in the evening a major banquet for the elite of society. For the remainder outside the Castle gates, the day passed quietly with race meetings and other sporting events the main attractions. The pubs across the country remained closed. Where St Patrick’s Day was significantly celebrated was across the diaspora and particularly in North America. As the immigrant Irish and their descendants had risen through the ranks of American society, so they took their annual celebrations onto the streets. By the second decade of the twentieth century there were major public parades in all the major cities that had large Irish populations such as New York, Boston and Chicago, as well as others including New Orleans, Savannah and San Francisco.

The Countess of Limerick, founder of the Shamrock League in 1901, in 1915 organised for the first time the sale of the Irish emblem on the streets of London for St Patrick's Day. (Image: Irish Life, 19 March 1915. Full collection of Irish Life is available from the National Library of Ireland)

In 1915 the nature of the day in Ireland had inevitably changed because of the War. The traditional events in Dublin Castle were cancelled. The weather, although forecast to be poor, actually turned out fresh and spring like and this seemed to have encouraged people to get outside. Large crowds attended the races at Baldoyle, while the trains to coastal towns such as Bray were busy, as were Dublin Zoo and the Botanic Gardens. It was noted by the major newspapers that the crowds were well behaved wherever they gathered, with many of them wearing shamrock as a symbol of their allegiance to St Patrick.

Due to the war there were a large number of troops stationed in the various Dublin barracks in training. Regiments such as the Royal Irish Rifles, the Irish Regiment and the Inniskilling Fusiliers opened their barracks at Richmond and Portobello and put on displays of gymnastics and football. At Portobello the band of the Dublin Metropolitan Police played in the afternoon and Countess Limerick presented all the soldiers with shamrock for their caps.

After attending Mass the Volunteer units across Dublin took part in route marches, eventually coming together to march through the city centre. They were led by the Corporation fife and drum band, and all the Volunteers on parade were wearing full equipment and carrying rifles and bayonets. They were watched, as were other city centre marches by the Irish National Foresters and the Boy Scouts, by large crowds of onlookers.

The National Museum had on display an exhibition of national plants and flowers, including the shamrock, while a good crowd attended the Royal Hibernian Academy to inspect the new spring exhibition. The theatres, music halls and cinemas all operated a full programme during the day and into the evening and all of these attracted big crowds.

An example of St Patrick's parades from around the world. Left: from the United States in 1914. Right: Palmerin Street, Warwick c. 1915 (Images: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA and State Library of Queensland)

In New York there was the traditional parade through the city, which was well attended. While the majority of Irishmen in the parade continue to support John Redmond’s stance that Ireland should support the war, more radically minded nationalists dissented from this view. The Chair of the New York parade committee, Roderick Kennedy, banned the playing of the popular tune ‘It’s Long Way to Tipperary’ because of what he considered its aggressive pro-British overtones. One band, the Eccentric Fishermen, did begin to play the tune as it passed the reviewing stand. This resulted in Kennedy leaving his seat, and threatening the band with instant expulsion from the parade unless they stopped. The band acquiesced and Kennedy retook his seat to be informed by Cardinal Farley that the tune was in fact one of his favourites. No women are allowed to take part in the New Parade, so a group of suffragettes, led by Kathleen Taylor, addressed the crowds gathered on the sidewalks to demand votes for women. Parades also took place in Queens and Brooklyn.

In Boston a crowd estimated at 100,000 people gathered to watch the traditional South Boston parade in freezing cold weather. They watched a parade that included 14,000 participants drawn from various Irish societies, the police, fire service and military associations. The main parade was preceded by a parade of vehicles including the an Irish jaunting car said to have been used by General William Howe 139 years earlier when the British had evacuated Boston.

In Washington, while there was no parade and no official event in the White House, President Wilson did wear shamrock throughout the day, as did each of the Supreme Court judges that were sitting. Large parades also took place in many other American cities and also in Ottawa and Montreal. Across the world in Australia large parades were witnessed in Melbourne and Sydney but, because of the huge mobilisation of men to take part in the war, men in uniform were a dominant feature of the parades.

In London there was no parade due to the war, and the traditional banquet at the Hotel Cecil was rebranded as a Belgian Relief meeting. It was addressed by John Redmond who drew attention to the plight of Belgium at the present time, and more generally spoke of the need for small nations to have their independence and for that status to be protected. He was received warmly by the crowds. For those Irishmen serving in the army in Belgium and France the day was marked. In the area around Bethune, where there is currently a large contingent of Irishmen stationed, the majority of men wore shamrock, and were also given a period of free time to celebrate the day.

The Irish Volunteers parading in Cork on St Patrick's Day 1916. (Image: Manchester Guardian, History of War)

In 1916, St Patrick’s Day was remarkably similar to 1915. With the war on, many traditional events were cancelled, but in Dublin the day was still marked by a holiday - and the usual mix of sea side trips, sports events and cinema-going occupied the populace. The most notable event on St Patrick’s Day 1916 was a parade of the Irish Volunteers through Dublin, culminating in a show of strength at College Green. It was estimated that over 700 men and women paraded, and many, despite the presence of the police, were armed. Similarly, Irish Volunteer parades took place across the country, with a particularly large gathering in Cork. Little did those who watched the Volunteers on St Patrick’s Day 1916 realise that within a matter of weeks these men and women would strike for Irish freedom.

By St Patrick’s Day 1917, daily life in Ireland was still suffering from the absence of men who were at the front, but it was also recovering from the upheavals caused by the Rising of 1916. While the majority of men and women who had been arrested in the wake of the Rising had returned home, many remained in prison. In Dublin, the physical scars of the Rising, particularly the wide spread destruction of buildings in and around O’Connell Street were plain to see. 17 March 1917 was beautiful and sunny, and while there were no official state or city events planned, the good weather encouraged big crowds to take to the streets to enjoy the national day. It was noticeable, according to the newspapers that many who were in Dublin and filled the streets ‘were from the country’. All shops and businesses were closed for the day, and apart from the fine weather options for marking the day were limited.

The big draw in 1917 were sporting events. The racing at Baldoyle attracted a bumper crowd, who were treated to a day of highly competitive racing. In soccer there was a Leinster Senior Cup final, in which Shelbourne beat St James Gate 1-0. The theatres and cinemas were reportedly busy, but it was clear that the war still affected the way the day was marked. As the Irish Times noted, many Dubliners took to their allotments for the day ‘endeavouring to increase the production of the country’s food’. It was also noticeable that unlike 1916, there were no parades or meetings of a political nature. For the bulk of the population the celebration of St Patrick’s Day in 1917 was quiet. The morning Church service was followed, for most, by a simple day of leisure.

In Cork, the traditional parade through the city did take place, but participation in it was restricted to religious organisations. No political groups were allowed to take part. Large crowds gathered to enjoy the parade, and many gave money to a flag day that was held in aid of the Irish language. Parades in Limerick and Athlone were banned by the authorities who feared that they would be hijacked by political concerns. The main political event of the day took place in Sligo where Count Plunkett was awarded the freedom of the borough. In a speech to a large crowd, Plunkett stated that Home Rule was ‘a dead horse and there was no use flogging it’. He also promised that Sinn Féin would organise a body that would represent the interests of Ireland at any peace conference to be held at the end of the war.

Image of St Patrick, taken from the Father Matthew Record newspaper. (Image: Courtesy of the Irish Capuchin Provincial Archives)

In the United States, St Patrick’s Day was widely celebrated, and crowds - given that the 17th fell on a Saturday - were large in those towns and cities where parades took place. In New York, on what was the 150th anniversary of the first St Patrick’s parade through the city, the event was cancelled at the last minute. As the marchers gathered in the morning, a huge and violent storm passed over New York and parade organisers had to make the difficult decision to cancel the parade. Alongside the cancelling of the parade, it was also noted that shamrock from Ireland was also absent on the day. The war, and the associated problems with shipping in light of U-Boat attacks, meant that no shamrock was shipped from Ireland to the United States.

What was noticeable in 1917 was how little attention was given to events in Ireland, particularly in light of the 1916 Rising. By March 1917, it was clear that the United States was stepping ever closer to war with Germany. As such, the celebrations of St Patrick’s Day were marked more by statements and displays of American patriotism as opposed to political statements relating to conditions in Ireland. In a range of speeches across the United States, the various Irish societies and organisations were told that they should pledge their loyalty to President Wilson and any difficult decisions he would have to make in the coming weeks. Irishness was positioned as being loyal to the United States and American patriotism the most important value of the moment. As Justice Dowling stated in an address to the members of the Friendly Sons of St Patrick in New York, ‘Ireland has never bred a traitor to America’.

Large parades also took place in the major cities of Australia and Canada. In Australia, and in particular Melbourne, many observers had been concerned that the parade would serve as a venue for statements of disloyalty. This concern was driven by the role that the Irish community, and in particular Archbishop Mannix had played in defeating the referendum on compulsory conscription into the military that had taken place in October 1916. In the event, 50,000 gathered for the parade in Melbourne, and the newspapers noted that it was entirely uncontroversial. The largest parade in Canada took place in Montréal, where a large crowd gathered to watch the procession which was led by an Irish jaunting car. The parade itself passed off without controversy, but there had been a formal objection from the Ancient Order of Hibernians in the lead up to the event. The Irish Rangers, who were awaiting to be sent to France, were included in the parade line up. The Hibernians took offence arguing that the British military had no place in an Irish parade. Despite the objection, both Rangers and Hibernians took part in the parade.

St Patrick’s Day in 1917 demonstrated how the war continued to affect all aspects of life in Ireland and across its diaspora. It is also telling in how the events of 1916 were either deliberately omitted from the day to avoid controversy, or else were forgotten in the United State,s in particular as the looming issue of entry into the war meant that Irish-American patriotism to the Stars and Stripes was more pressing than any embrace of the dead of Easter Week.

Prof. Mike Cronin is Academic Director at Boston College-Ireland and a Director of the Century Ireland project.

RTÉ

Century Ireland

The Century Ireland project is an online historical newspaper that tells the story of the events of Irish life a century ago.