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The Rise of the St Patrick’s Day Parade

Although St. Patrick’s Day has long been celebrated in Ireland, the tradition of holding a parade on March 17th didn’t begin here. It actually developed among those who left Ireland and settled in faraway places.

These parades have evolved over the years and many countries have created their own unique traditions. This year, some parades will even move online for the first time. So we are contributing to the virtual celebrations by taking a look at parades of the past.

The very first St Patrick’s Day parade

Old Spanish Fort in St. Augustine, Florida

Until recently, it was believed that the first St Patrick’s Day parade was held in Boston in 1737. But a few years ago, historian Michael Francis discovered it actually took place over a hundred years earlier in a Spanish colony that was located in modern-day Florida.

In 2017, Francis spent months studying a 2,000-page bundle of colonial documents in Spain’s Archivo General de Indias. As he read through old inventory lists and accounts, two words jumped out at him: ‘San Patricio’. The saint’s name was mentioned on St. Augustine’s hefty gunpowder expenditure report for 1601.

As it turns out, the town didn’t just use gunpowder for defense. Firing artillery was also a common part of public celebrations and, during this period, it was used to honour St. Patrick – or San Patricio.

Not every saint was honoured with religious processions. But it would appear St. Patrick held a special significance for the local people of St. Augustine. Records identify him as the official ‘protector’ of the city’s maize fields.

Michael Francis, who discovered the documents, told The Washington Post that residents gathered together to honour St Patrick in 1601. As they moved through the streets, the town’s fort fired its cannons and the marchers carried images of the saint. Afterward, they would have continued the celebrations with food, drink and music.

He also wrote that the procession would have included “a blend of Spaniards, Africans, Native Americans, Portuguese, a French surgeon, a German fifer, and at least two Irishmen.”

He believes that Padre Ricardo Artur – aka Fr. Richard Arthur – was responsible for the saint’s popularity in St. Augustine at this time. The Irishman, who may have been born in Limerick before travelling the world as a soldier, was one of the first parish priests in America and served St. Augustine from 1598 until 1606. When he disappears from the town’s records, so do references to St. Patrick’s Day processions.

The beginning of parades in America

St. Patrick’s day in New York City, 1874. Designed by Hogan; drawn by Lucian Gray

Emigrants leaving Ireland brought the tradition of celebrating St. Patrick to other parts of the world too. Cities in the United States, in particular, have become known for elaborate parades that honour all things Irish.

Boston held its first St. Patrick’s Day parade way back in 1737. When the Charitable Irish Society was founded by leading Irish protestants on St. Patricks’s Day, members of the Irish community in the city took to the streets to celebrate. But it was in New York that the modern tradition was first established.

In 1762, years before American or Irish independence, there were countless Irishmen serving in the British army. Many of them were stationed in its American colonies. On March 17th, a group of homesick Irish soldiers who were stationed in New York paraded through the streets to show pride in their roots. They wore green, sang emigrant songs and played Irish tunes on their military fifes and drums.

Postcard view of a crowd watching the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Shamrock, Texas, 1959.

That same year, an Irish migrant called John Marshall also held events at his home in New York. Annual events soon became customary and, as the number of Irish people living in the US soared throughout the 1800s, parades became a widespread tradition.

Coming home to Ireland

The first parade didn’t take place in Ireland until 1903 – the same year that St. Patrick’s Day was declared a public holiday. The Gaelic League, which aimed to revive Irish language and culture, had declared an Irish Language Week as well.

In Waterford, the League organised a parade to spread the w