By Sam Smith
St, Patrick’s Day celebrations were begun by American Irish Protestants. According to Edward T. O’Donnell in the History News Network:
“The practice of honoring St. Patrick on March 17, traditionally understood as the day of his death (c. 493) at Downpatrick in County Down, is a tradition that comes from old Ireland. For centuries the people of Ireland marked the day as a solemn religious event, perhaps wearing green, sporting a shamrock, and attending mass, but little more. No one knows for sure when the first commemoration of St. Patrick’s Day in America took place. One of the earliest references is to the establishment of the Charitable Irish Society, founded on St. Patrick’s Day in Boston in 1737. Another early celebration took place in New York City in 1762, when an Irishman named John Marshall held a party in his house. Although little is known of Marshall’s party, it is understood that his guests marched as a body to his house to mark St. Patrick’s Day, thus forming an unofficial ‘parade.’ The first recorded true parade took place in 1766 in New York when local military units, including some Irish soldiers in the British army, marched at dawn from house to house of the leading Irish citizens of the city. With few exceptions, the parade in New York has been held every year since 1766. Thus was a tradition born – an American tradition only recently adopted in Ireland itself.”
The idea spread. For example, on March 17, 1812, in Savannah GA, thirteen men founded the Hibernian Society dedicated to aiding destitute Irish immigrants, largely Catholic. A few months later, the group, now up to 44 members, adopted a constitution and the motto, “non sibi sed alis” (not for ourselves, but for others). Not one charter member was a Catholic. One year later, on March 17, the group marched in procession to a Presbyterian church for a service and oration.
Thanks to Irish-American Protestants, St. Patrick’s Day became secularized rather than, as in Ireland, considered a day of holy obligation. In fact, until the 1970s the bars in Dublin were closed on March 17.
Over the next few decades, groups such as the Hibernians, the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, and Irish Aid societies sprung up in America as a reflection of Irish loyalty and concern for Irish immigrants.
The Catholics were not the only religion persecuted by the English. Presbyterians, who had fled Scotland to escape persecution, found a similar fate in Ireland. It was one of the causes of Irish emigration to America prior to the potato famine. As one history recounts:
“Though they naturally contributed to the stipend of their own preachers, Presbyterians (and other dissenters: Quakers, Baptists and, later, Methodists, as well as Roman Catholics) were obliged by law to financially support the Church of Ireland, through payment of tithes; this provoked deep resentment. Ulster Presbyterians deeply resented being obliged to submit to, support and obey the Episcopalian church interests of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy . . . By the archaic Test Act, Presbyterians were barred from holding public office — unless they took the communion sacrament according to Church of Ireland rites.”
This account also describes a fundamentalist twist that may seem odd to today’s reader:
“The radical biblicism of Ulster Presbyterians meant that they took most seriously scriptural concern for social and political justice. When oppressive, despotic government denied them civil and religious liberty, liberal Presbyterians in late 18th century Ulster began to clamor for constitutional reform of their (Irish-based) British parliament. Political questions, they contended, were ultimately moral and religious concerns and Presbyterians saw it as their duty to create a just society; the state needs be ‘born again.'”
1791 saw the creation of the multi-denominational United Irishmen. Its members initially merely sought political and economic reforms, but within four years had begun arming themselves and talking of liberation. They also revised their oath to read:
“In the awful presence of God, I do voluntarily declare that I will persevere in endeavoring to form a Brotherhood of affection among Irishmen of every religious persuasion. And that I will also persevere in my endeavors to obtain an equal, full and adequate representation of all the people of Ireland.”
While many Presbyterians declined to support or withdrew from the United Irishmen, the group was central to the uprising of 1798. This largely Protestant revolt was a failure and, with the exception a minor skirmish in Tipperary in 1848 and one at Chester Castle in 1867, there would not be another Irish armed rebellion until the 20th century.
Irish Protestant emigrants played a major role in the American Revolution and the revolution in turn influenced events in Ireland. For example, the first copy of the Declaration of Independence to be printed outside of North America appeared in the pages of the ‘Belfast Newsletter.’ A less direct influence came when England was forced to rely on Irish volunteer companies to defend Ireland because its regular troops were in America. After the war, the 80,000-strong Volunteers pressed for political reform.
Some Irish Protestants and Catholics joined in support of the French revolution and in encouraging a French invasion of Ireland on behalf of the Irish cause. The French national assembly even promised military and financial support for an uprising against the English.
Among the influences on Irish Protestants were the writings of Tom Paine. His ‘Rights of Man’ was declared “the Bible of Belfast.’ 40,000 copies were sold in Ulster and it was reprinted in four Irish newspapers.
Following the American revolution, Paine encouraged similar uprisings in Europe, suggesting, “it is not difficult to believe that the spring is begun”.
Among pro-nationalist Protestants of the time was Theobald Wolfe Tone, who wrote an early “Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland.” He also served as secretary of the Catholic Committee. Tone, upon his capture in 1798, was refused a soldier’s execution by gunshot and was sentenced to be hung. He made an eloquent speech about the virtues of republicanism in court and then returned to his cell where he cut his own throat.
Irish Protestant Thomas Addis Emmett, brother of 1798 uprising leader Robert Emmett, was captured and condemned but later won a reprieve. In 1804, a year after his brother was hung, he emigrated to America. He became the highly regarded attorney general of New York, well enough known nationally that a New Orleans attorney said of him, “his name rings down the valley of the Mississippi, and we hail his efforts with a kind of local pride.” Tom Paine liked him well enough to leave him $200 in his will.
A 20th century Protestant fighter for the Irish cause, Erskine Childers, was executed on charges of possessing a small pistol after helping Eamon de Valera and other IRA members lead a rebellion against the Irish free state government. His son would become president of Ireland in the 1970s. Childers, regarded as the father of the modern spy novel (“Riddle of the Sands”), used his 50-foot ketch to smuggle arms to the Irish rebels. In support of his execution, Winston Churchill said, “no man has done more harm or done more genuine malice or endeavored to bring a greater curse upon the common people of Ireland than this strange being.”
Although he would later become far more conservative, Protestant poet WB Yeats as a young man was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. An 1899 police report called him as “more or less revolutionary” and he wrote a poem about the 1916 uprising:
Now and in time to be,
Wherever the green is worn,
All changed, changed utterly;
A terrible beauty is born
Yeats said of Irish Protestants during a 1925 Senate debate on divorce, “We . . . are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence.”
History News Network -In several polls and surveys conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, researchers discovered what at first seemed an astonishing fact: a majority of Americans who identify themselves as Irish also identify themselves as Protestant. For a nation (and an ethnic group for that matter) that had grown so accustomed to conflating Irishness with Catholicism, this announcement was greeted with disbelief. Among some Irish Catholics, the reaction was anger.
The explanation for the find is actually quite simple. Huge numbers of Irish immigrants came to America in the colonial period (indeed, 30 percent of all immigrants from Europe arriving between 1700 and 1820 came from Ireland) and the great majority of them were Presbyterians from Ulster. Of the many thousands of Catholics who came in the 17th and 18th centuries, most appear to have converted to some form of Protestantism.
The Protestant descendents of these early Irish arrivals have been multiplying ever since. In contrast, the great migration of Irish Catholics began only in the 1830s (during which time, of course, many Protestant Irish continued to come). A poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center makes this point clear: in the 1970s, only 41% of Irish Catholics were fourth generation or more as compared to 83% of Irish Protestants.