American St. Patrick festivities have deep roots

The celebration of St. Patrick’s Day is very closely associated with Irish Catholic America today. But like several other American cultural celebrations or rituals, such as placing candles on birthday cakes, hiding decorated eggs on Easter Sunday or bringing evergreen trees into our homes during the Christmas season, we participate in the ritual even though we’ve lost or are unaware of the story behind the action.

The rituals of St. Patrick’s Day parades, Irish music and dancing and the wearing of a bit o’ green didn’t occur in a vacuum, but have developed over a course of 265 years of historical situations and events. The early history of the first Irish Catholics of Foxborough is a poignant reminder of how subtly historical events can fade from the collective memory of a community or society.

The first recorded festivities associated with St. Patrick occurred in Boston on March 17, 1737, with the founding of the Charitable Irish Society by 28 Ulster Presbyterian Protestants. The association was established “to aid unfortunate fellow countrymen, to cultivate a spirit of unity and harmony among all Irishmen in the Massachusetts colony and their descendants, and to advance their interests socially and morally.” The expressed purpose of the association was to assist fellow Irish immigrants in the traumatic process of settling in a strange new city and country. In most cases, Catholics were specifically banned from participation, but by 1742, wealthy Catholic members had joined the Society.

The honor of the first St. Patrick’s Day parade belongs to New York City. In 1762, a group of Irish militiamen were on their way to a St. Patrick’s Day tavern breakfast when they decided to march behind their band and display their regimental banners. The spectacle delighted participants and onlookers. It was the birth of an American way of life and the ritual of the marching on March 17 to the sound of Irish tunes.

During the American War of Independence, military celebrations also took place on March 17. It was on March 17, 1776, that the British evacuated the city of Boston and George Washington led the American rebels into the city to take possession. In 1778, Washington’s army at Valley Forge celebrated St. Patrick’s Day.

Between 1801 and 1921, more than eight million people emigrated from Ireland. Most of the emigrants settled in America, especially in the cities of Boston, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. The longing for home turned into homesickness, which was sentimentalized in songs. St. Patrick’s Day provided the perfect occasion for the Irish to lament together their native homeland. It also was an occasion to join together in celebrating their nationality. The military example had displayed the effectiveness of marching behind an Irish band that was enjoyed by spectators and marchers. Parading in green along the street and playing uplifting, rousing melodic music ensured an enjoyable occasion of patriotic self-indulgence.

The first evidence of Irish Catholics living in Foxborough dates to around 1830. It was an era characterized by city-dwelling Irish Catholics migrating out into the outlying rural communities. The impetus for this migration centered on the harnessing of steam power that resulted in the building of railroads and factories throughout the region. The demand for labor to dig foundations, lay iron tracks, construct bridges, operate machinery, work the farms and provide domestic service were the principle reason for the influx of Irish Catholics migrating to Foxboro and the surrounding towns.

The best evidence that documents the presence of Irish Catholics living in Foxborough is located within the archives of Archdiocese of Boston. It is one of the original posters printed in 1861 advertising the first celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in Foxborough. In addition, it announces the completion of the first church building, originally located on the site of the present Knights of Columbus hall. This new church was strategically located to serve the Irish Catholics not only of Foxborough, but also of Mansfield, Franklin, Walpole and Wrentham — which at that time included the areas of Norfolk and Plainville. The poster also advertises a grand celebration, including a procession to be formed at the pastor’s residence to march to the new church and a Mass. The distinguished artists listed include Professor M. J. Mooney’s “celebrated choir” accompanied by Miss Josephine O’Donnell of Roxbury. It advertises that the Mass will be one of Mozart’s sung by the pastor, Father Michael X. Carroll, with a “grand concert” to be given in the evening. The poster describes St. Patrick’s Day as a “great and national occasion.”

By the 1900s, second- and third-generation Irish Americans were established as an influential and powerful section of American society. The St. Patrick’s Day parade provided an opportunity for the community to celebrate not only its ethnic origin but also its successful integration into American society.

Today, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated throughout the world. The parades are mostly secular, communal celebrations where the saint and his life are forgotten. In this way, the celebration is one in which we perform the ritual but are unaware of why we perform the actions.

William Milhomme lives in Foxborough and is the Massachusetts Archives field archivist.