How March became Irish-American Heritage Month

Estimates suggest that two million Irish people emigrated to the US in the decade following the Great Famine. But this was just the peak of a longer term trend. Since 1820, over six million Irish people have settled in the US. As a result, just under 10% of US residents claim Irish heritage today.

It has long been a tradition for Irish communities across the US to come together and celebrate their heritage on March 17th – the feast day of Ireland’s patron St. Patrick. The first parade took place in Boston way back in 1737 when a group of Irish people publicly celebrated the foundation of the Charitable Irish Society. But it was in New York that the modern tradition was first established in 1762 when a group of Irish soldiers paraded through the streets wearing green, singing songs and beating their military drums.

Annual celebrations became commonplace but, for a long time, only Irish Americans got involved. Today, this has completely changed. In fact, for the past 30 years, the White House has declared the whole month of March to be Irish-American Heritage Month across the US.

What is Irish-American Heritage Month?

Back in 1991, the US Congress designated March as Irish-American Heritage Month – a month dedicated to recognising the contribution that Irish immigrants and their descendents have made to American society.

Congress passed a subsequent law to designate March 1992 Irish-American Heritage Month. They did the same for years 1993-1996 too. But since 1997, presidents have simply issued proclamations declaring its observance.

The joint resolution which first brought it into law referred to influential Irish figures from American history, including James Hoban, who designed the White House; Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress and the eight Irish signatories of the Declaration of Independence. It also highlighted how nearly 50 million US residents claimed Irish heritage in the 1980 census.

Every year, the US president issues a proclamation to mark the occasion and calls on people to celebrate Irish Americans’ achievements with ceremonies, activities and cultural programmes.

The first proclamation in 1991 was issued by the 41st president, George H. W. Bush, who has Irish ancestors from county Down. He spoke of the 300,000 Irish natives who had emigrated to the US prior to the birth of the nation in 1776.

“Many of these courageous individuals played crucial roles in America’s War for Independence,” he said. “Irish-Americans not only helped to win America’s Independence but also helped to fashion a system of government for our young nation.”

Every president, from both the Democratic and Republican parties, has issued a similar proclamation ever since. In fact, with the exception of Donald Trump, they have all issued one each year of their presidential terms. This means Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all proclaimed March as Irish-American Heritage Month eight times.

Bush’s speechwriter even complained about the difficulty he had freshening up the yearly speech. “How many different ways can you… celebrate the sterling qualities of the noble Irish people?” he wrote in The New York Times back in 2005.

As part of the celebrations, Ireland’s Taoiseach also attends a shamrock giving ceremony and reception at the White House every year. But this tradition actually precedes Irish-American Heritage Month and was simply integrated into the newly created celebration.

A custom sprouting from a box of shamrock

“It is an honour and a pleasure for me to be here with you sharing the spirit and the festivities of St. Patrick’s Day. The blessed St. Patrick, we are told, died on this day in the year of our lord 461 – and leave it to the Irish to be carrying on a wake for 1,500 years.”

This was the opening quip of Ronald Reagan’s 1987 St. Patrick’s Day speech, which began just after he was presented with a bowl of shamrock by Ireland’s Taoiseach Charles Haughey. Reagan, who’s great grandparents hailed from counties Antrim and Tipperary, was the first president to turn the shamrock giving ceremony into a day-long event.

The custom of giving the US president a bowl of shamrock began in 1952, when the Irish ambassador sent some to president Harry Truman. At the time, Washington didn’t even have a Patrick’s Day parade and relations were at a low because of Ireland’s neutrality during World War II. However, the gesture received a warm response from Truman, who had Irish roots. So the following year, shamrock was presented in a Waterford Crystal bowl to the newly elected president Dwight D. Eisenhower.

By 1956, the event had turned into a photo opportunity. Though it became more muted in the 1960s, successive presidents kept the tradition going. It was then revived by Reagan and took on new significance under Bill Clinton because of his involvement in the Northern Ireland peace process.

During his seventh shamrock ceremony, Clinton joked: “Upstairs in our residence, there is so much Irish crystal now that sometimes I have guests from other countries that ask me if I’ve ever been anywhere but Ireland.”

Today, the ceremony is an official fixture of the annual Irish-American Heritage Month events.

The impact of this presidential recognition

The introduction of Irish-American Heritage Month has done much more than just formalise the shamrock giving ceremony and the annual meeting of Irish and American leaders. With cultural events, exhibits and other educational programmes taking place every March, it has shone a light on the achievements of Irish Americans throughout the country.

The Library of Congress, for example, regularly expands its Irish American resources for the occasion, while the Irish American Heritage museum attracts renewed attention for its programmes each March.

It has also made St. Patrick’s Day celebrations more inclusive and appealing. In 1990, the year before Irish-American Heritage Month began, 206 parades took place throughout the US. In 2022, this number will have grown to at least 260.

Although the number of US residents calling themselves Irish American is declining, the tradition of celebrating America’s Irish links is still on the rise.

EPIC the Irish Emigration Museum tells the story of the Irish diaspora around the world. To find out more about the influence of Irish Americans, book a visit.