The Mystery, The History…and the rest of the story
Yes, its time for our fair city to be inundated with the annual tide of green pride, packing the curbs and corners of South Boston, to the stately sounds of bagpipes and marching bands. It wouldn’t be spring without the St. Patrick’s Day Parade--the first sign that it’s finally warm enough to go outdoors again. This spirited celebration is both homage to the perseverance of Boston’s proud Irish American community, as well as Boston’s excuse to throw a “Mardi Gras North” party, full of decorated floats, marching bands, cheap plastic beads, goofy leprechaun hats, costumes, and plastic cups filled with, well whatever you fancy.
Of course, if you (like me) didn’t grow up as an Irish American, you may be wondering: so, what’s all the fuss about, anyway? Who was St. Patrick, and what’s the story with all of this Boston Irish pride? Growing up, I couldn’t imagine any of my neighbors even making it as far as East Boston, let alone all the way back to the “motherland”, and nobody seemed to know a lick of Gaelic past “erin go bragh” or “slainte”. All I knew was that: 1. we got the day off (thanks St. Patrick, whoever you were!) and 2. Wow, people here really like being Irish, and I’m a wee bit jealous.
The folklore of the Irish Diaspora in Boston, as I understood it, went something like this:
Once upon a time in Ireland, land of rolling green hills, sheep, and leprechauns, there was a terrible plague of snakes, until the Great Saint Patrick drove them off of the island, perhaps with a magical penny whistle. Or wait; maybe that was the Pied Piper of Hamlin? At any rate, fast-forward about 1500 years or so, to when all of the potato crops in Ireland began to fail due to blight. A mass exodus followed, with many folks seeking refuge in the USA; that land of opportunity across the pond, rather than face starvation and continued religious persecution back home, at the hand of Anglicans and supporters of the British crown. Many landed in thriving port cities such as New York, New Orleans, and Boston, where their resilient communities began to thrive, eventually producing some of our most beloved political figures, like our own John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In fact, Irish Catholic politicians had so much clout in this city that they invented this holiday called “Evacuation Day”, so that we could take St. Patrick’s Day off from work and enjoy the cultural festivities in the early spring weather. Now, we flock to the wonderful parades in the rough streets of South Boston, where Whitey Bulger once led his rein of terror (which has inspired at least two glamorized Hollywood blockbuster films, #atrocious Boston accents).
Of course, the true story is much more complicated than that.
For example: St. Patrick was a 5th Century missionary to Ireland, from Roman Britain, and therefore, not Irish, though perhaps of Celtic origin. While we’re on the subject of ol’ Saint Pat and his famous disappearing snake act, well... according to that no-fun threat to misinformation, science, there were never any snakes in Ireland, and this story likely refers to his work to rid the country of pagans, or at least paganism, through missionary work.
That’s all well and good, but this next fact might come as a surprise to Boston’s predominantly Catholic Irish American community: many if not most of the first wave of Irish settlers in Boston were Protestants, and it was these folks who organized the first celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in the colonies—specifically, the Charitable Irish Society of Boston in 1737. In fact, the idea of St. Patrick’s day as day of secular, colorful, boisterous revelry was quite alien to the people of Ireland until fairly recently, as the date was meant to commemorate the day of the Saint’s death in 493CE—more of a solemn day of holy reverence, than a day of Irish-nationalism, pageantry, and spectacle.
The main wave of Irish Catholics did arrive after the Great Famine, but weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. The only arms they were welcomed with were the arms being stockpiled by the Boston Brahmin elite, in the Armory (aka, “the Castle” at Park Plaza) due to their paranoid fears of mob violence and an Irish revolt. Because of this fear and ethnic discrimination, it took quite a while for the Irish American community to fully assimilate into the larger Bostonian society. As with many other immigrant communities facing exclusion in their early American histories, the Irish community saw the appearance of supposedly “protective” organized crime syndicates, like that of local villain (or “hero”, depending whom you ask) James “Whitey” Bulger and company. Of course, we have also had a slough of highly successful and respected politicians as well, including a couple of those Kennedy fellas.
But how exactly did St. Patrick’s Day become an official Suffolk County holiday? Well, “Evacuation Day” did in fact occur on March 17th, 1776, when the British retreated from George Washington’s troops after facing an overwhelming amount of cannons at Dorchester Heights (which is, coincidentally, also in the Irish enclave of South Boston), effectively chasing them from the city once and for all. It’s alleged that Washington used the phrase “St. Patrick” as some sort of code word for this historic event, perhaps to indicate that the redcoat “snakes” had been driven out; and thus, commemoration of our city’s independence was born.
AND THE REST. . .
And since we’re dealing with popular misconceptions, we can’t neglect old South Boston. It seems like we can’t go a whole year without some filmmaker caricaturing that “gritty” but earnest working class Irish American community here in Boston. Of course, Hollywood loves to focus on the darker, more sensational aspects of that story. But the truth is, even “Southie” itself has undergone numerous changes and seen heavy development in the past 15 years. These days, you’re more likely to rub elbows with yuppies than with gangsters at the dingy local watering hole. But retaining and celebrating that local character, with its old world ties, are part of what makes Boston what it is. Whether its Saint Patty’s Day down in South Boston, one of the Italian Saint’s Festas up in the North End, or the Puerto Rican “Festival Betances” in the South End. All are welcome.
Don’t miss out on getting a taste of the city’s Irish heritage this month—but please note - only we Bostonians have an official excuse on March 17th to stay home from work, put on green Red Sox hats, break out our Pogues, U2, and Dropkick Murphys records, (for the older crowd it’s the Chieftains, The Clancy Brothers or the Dubliners) dance a jig, shout things like “erin go bragh” and “Slainte!” (that’s “sloan-cha”, folks), and raise a glass, as I’m sure St. Patty would have wanted us to. Okay, he probably wouldn’t have wanted any of that, but we’re doing it anyways – Boston style!