New York’s famous St. Patrick’s Day Parade is perhaps one of the oldest traditions celebrating an aspect of American diversity, an annual event which dates back to 1762.
By eighty years later, with the first wave of massive immigration of an impoverished Irish working-class escaping widespread poverty and starvation due, in large part, to Ireland’s potato famine, a sharp and overt bigotry arose across the United States.
A great amount of the suspicion and hatred of the Irish was due to the fact that the immigrants coming at that time were almost universally Roman Catholics, and Protestants feared that they would be loyal first to the Vatican in Rome and not to the American Constitution.
In such an atmosphere, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day had all the more of an emotional meaning, a thumb in the nose at the largely Anglo-Saxon racism towards the Irish but also a showing of strength and pride of national origin and culture.
The engraving above, appearing in an 1860 issue of Leslie’s Weekly Illustrated News, however, is not only among the earliest to depict the St. Patrick’s Day parade, but it also showed Irish-Americans to be as orderly and sober and conventional as Americans of other ancestries.
Disseminated across the nation into far more non-Irish households, it may have played a small, unconscious part in the process that eventually dissipated the bigotry.
The first New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade was held in 1762, an impromptu gathering of native Irish soldiers then serving in the British Army. Like all of the other thirteen colonies, New York was then under the rule of the English crown.
A brief description of the parade described a float carrying an Irish harpist, with a long white beard, dressed “in the ancient Irish garb.”