9 Uniquely American
St. Patrick’s Day Traditions
By Catherine Davis
March 14, 2018
From Honolulu to Hot Springs, North America has some of the oldest – and quirkiest – St. Patrick’s Day traditions.
On the morning of March 17, 1853, Archbishop of New York John Hughes addressed a crowd of worshippers at St. Patrick’s Cathedral about the special significance that St. Patrick’s Day had taken on in recent years. He declared:
“… the very misfortunes of a temporal kind that have fallen on Ireland have sent forth the children of that unhappy land to every clime and to every latitude, from the north to the south pole; and wherever they are found … not only do they cherish [the] fond memory of the apostle of their native land, but they propagate it, and make the infection as if it were contagious, so that those who would not otherwise have had any knowledge of St. Patrick become thus desirous to enter into those feelings, and to join in celebrating the anniversary festival of the apostle of Ireland.”
This speech was made just a decade after the initial influx of what amounted to over a million impoverished Irish immigrants to America. After this mass exodus from Ireland, through the initial hardships and a long journey to acceptance, a cohesive Irish-American identity began to form and developed an increasingly powerful influence on American culture. Below are some of the most long-standing, interesting and surprising ways St. Patrick’s Day, which was originally just a feast day in Ireland, is celebrated in North America.
The first-ever St. Patrick’s Day Parade took place not in Ireland, but in the U.S. – in Boston in 1737, organized by a group called the Charitable Irish Society.
2. New York City
On St. Patrick’s Day, 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the British Army marched in New York City. In the 1850’s and 1860’s the parade drew an ever-growing audience as Irish-Americans laid claim to a new cultural identity. The New York parade is now the largest in the world.
The St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Montreal has run consecutively since 1824. While the parade in Quebec, which was first held in 1837, was cancelled during WWI and only resumed in 2010.
Savannah, Georgia’s parade is second in size only to New York City’s. Events, including the greening of the fountain in Forsyth Park, Tara Feis, and the Celtic Cross Mass and Ceremony, begin two weeks before the 17th.
5. Hot Springs
The world’s shortest Saint Patrick’s Day Parade will be held once again this year, in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Inaugurated in 2004, it takes place on Hot Springs’ 98-foot-long Bridge Street, capitalizing on the street’s being named by Ripley’s Believe It or Not as “The Shortest Street in the World.”
For students at Ithaca’s Cornell University, St. Patrick’s Day is better known as “Dragon Day.”
Every year, first-year architecture students design a dragon several stories high, which is paraded around campus and then ceremoniously set on fire. This tradition can be traced back to the early 1900s, when student Willard Dickerman Straight chose March 17 as the day on which the College of Architecture would celebrate itself.
It began with adorning the main architecture building with ostentatious Irish decorations, but grew to involve a large cut-out of the saint being carried around campus, pursued by a 20 ft model serpent. By the 1950s, St. Patrick was out of the equation and the snakes had evolved into dragons.
Blue was the color originally associated with St. Patrick, though as the patron saint is believed to have used a shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity, it became a popular symbol of the day, and that symbolism eventually spread to the color green in general.
In addition to the now traditional (if not exactly authentic) green bagels, carnations and beer, some of the more surprising U.S. recipients of green dye include the White House Fountain and the Chicago River. The Chicago tradition began when Stephen M. Bailey, business manager of the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local Union 110, got the brainwave to experiment with a dye used to detect leaks in the city’s drainage system. On St. Patrick’s Day 1962, 100 pounds of the dye were pumped into the river, which remained in its festive state for a week. Eventually, 25 pounds was settled upon as the appropriate amount.
Hawaii does not have a very large Irish population – not even when compared to its Pacific Rim neighbors – but its enthusiasm for the 17th is well known.
According to local Murphy’s Bar & Grill owner Don Murphy, the Guinness Book of Records has dubbed Honolulu’s Historic Chinatown Block Party, “the single biggest St. Patrick’s Day party any one bar throws in the U.S.” Other Hawaiian Patrick’s Day events are the Corned Beef Musubi Eating Contest and The Emerald Ball at the Japanese Cultural Center, which raises money for the Society of the Friends of St. Patrick.
Hawaii’s celebrations also have the distinction of being the last St. Patrick’s Day festivities on the globe, being the closest to the International Date Line.
The Iditarod isn’t the only March sporting event to take place in America’s coldest state. In Nome, Alaska, where the race finishes, another competition combines American ingenuity with Irish whimsy in the form of the Bearing Sea Ice Classic Golf Tournament.
Held every third Saturday in March, the tournament is a distinctly Alaskan take on one of Ireland’s favorite pastimes. The six-hole, par 41 course is played on the frozen Bering Sea, with holes marked by orange flags on green turf and using bright green golf balls. The rules, too, are unique, with a three-point deduction for hitting a polar bear and mandatory breaks between holes at a local bar to warm up.
Archbishop Hughes was correct: Irish cheer is infectious. The Irish diaspora turned March 17 into a day of Irish pride and revelry, reviving various folk traditions and creating a new mythology of celebration; one that could be enjoyed by all. This, far and above the beer and the funny hats, is surely the reason why such an ostensibly culture-specific day has taken hold of the most diverse nation in the world. ♦
A version of this article originally appeared in the April / May 2012 issue of Irish America.