It’s St. Paddy’s Day and the streets of New York are teeming with people decked out in green and eager to celebrate! According to census data, the neighbourhood of Riverside had a fairly substantial Irish population in the 1870s – how might St. Paddy’s Day celebrations have gone down in late 19th Century New York?
While the spectacle of thousands of people marching down Fifth Avenue would have been a well-established tradition by the 1890s, its roots reach back before the American Revolution. New York St. Patrick’s Day observances began in the British Army, where officers of regiments with large Irish contingents formed organizations like the Society of the Friendly Brothers of St. Patrick. Participants would gather on March 17 to drink toasts and commemorate the occasion with fife and drum ensembles.
As the Irish population of New York increased during the years of the Great Famine, the number of organizations and their participants grew substantially. In fact, at one point there were two large competing parades, until the Ancient Order of Hibernians organized everyone into one massive event. While St. Paddy’s in the 1860s was marked by violent incidents and drunken rowdiness, by the 1870s organizers of the parade were more anxious for an orderly celebration of Irish-American solidarity and Irish nationalism. Not until 1891, however, did the parade follow its modern route down Fifth Avenue accompanied by brass and bagpipe bands.
Have a happy and safe St. Patrick’s Day!