Sunday 4 March 2012

The Scots-Irish origins of St. Patrick's day parades in America.

the first Irish society in America was formed by Ulster  Presbyterians

It is usually assumed that Irish Catholics were the first to bring the traditions of St. Patrick's day to America and were the first to hold parades on that day to celebrate their Irishness. That assumption is wrong... 

In 1737 the Charitable Irish Society was formed in Boston by Scots-Irish Ulster Presbyterian colonists. The Society was set up with the purpose to assist newly arriving fellow immigrants from Ireland in the traumatic process of settling in a strange new country.  In March 17th of that year they decided to mark St. Patrick's day with a dinner at a local tavern followed by a modest parade through the streets. This was to be the first St. Patrick's Day parade in America, and most likely the world (Ireland didn't commemorate Patrick with parades until the 1930's). The Charitable Irish Society is the oldest Irish organisation in America and it is still in existence. It was exclusively Presbyterian until 1804 when the society became non-denominational. Today, understandably, it's membership is mostly made up of Catholics. 

greeting card  featuring the St. Patrick's flag of Ireland.

It is often wrongly cited that the first St. Patrick's Day parade was held in New York but the first records of celebrations for the Irish apostle in that city come from 1762 (25 years after the Boston event). An Irish Protestant called John Marshall invited Friends to his house at Mount Pleasant for a party to celebrate the day. His guests marched as a body to the party thus forming the first unofficial "parade". 

In 1766, the first proper St. Paddy's day parade in New York was held when soldiers from the British Army's Irish regiments met at the Crown & Thistle tavern in Manhattan, drank a toast to King George III and then paraded through New York with the "playing of fifes and drums, which produced a very agreeable harmony." before heading back to the pub for more drinks.  These were Irish Protestant soldiers, as Catholics were forbidden from joining the army until 1778. Today, Irish regiments in the British Army still mark St. Patrick's day with a parade. 

British colonial troops in NYC
 Also in 1766 the New York Gazette reported on a notable March 17th celebration at the house of a gentleman by the name of Mr. Bardin. Among the toasts raised on the evening were; "The prosperity of Ireland!", "Success to the Sons Of Liberty in America!" and "The glorious memory of King William of Orange!". 

On 17th March 1780,  in honour of his large contingent of Irish soldiers, General George Washington issued a General Order to give his troops the day off for St. Patrick's day. Over one third of the Continental Army were of Irish descent or Irish born, the vast majority of whom were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. Soldiers from within these ranks had formed a society called The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in 1771 of which George Washington was an honorary member. The original society was largely Scots-Irish in membership with some Anglo-Irish Episcopalians and three Irish Catholics, one of whom they elected as their first president; General Stephen Moylan. The Friendly Sons held the first St. Paddy's celebrations in Philadelphia in 1771 where the organisation had been formed. They also organised the official St. Patrick's day parades in New York city from 1784 into the 1800's.

The Friendly Son's membership was originally mostly Scots-Irish (Ulster-Scots)

On March 17, 1812, in Savannah Georgia, thirteen men founded the Hibernian Society, dedicated to aiding  largely Catholic destitute Irish immigrants. 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, 1813 the group held the city's first St Paddy's day parade. They marched in procession to a Presbyterian church. 

It's a similar story with Canada's oldest parade; Montreal’s St. Patrick’s Day parade was first held in 1824.  Soon after, the St. Patrick's Society was born in the city, it's membership was overwhelmingly Protestant. In 1856, many of the members left and formed the Irish Protestant Benevolent Society.  However, the first recorded celebration of St Patrick's Day in Canada was in 1759, again by Irish Protestant soldiers serving with the British army, this was  following their conquest of part of New France, a French colony in North America.

The Canadian Irish Protestant Benevolent Society

From the mid 1800's, as Catholic immigrants from Ireland started to outnumber their Protestant counterparts the parades started being organised and controlled by the exclusively Catholic Ancient Order of Hibernians, which was formed in New York in 1836. The parades became less secular and took on a Catholic, Nationalist political outlook. Non-denominational societies such as The Friendly Sons, The Charitable Irish & the Hibernian Society became more Catholic & Gaelic, moving away from their Protestant origins. Thanks though, to it's Irish Protestant beginnings in America, St. Patrick's Day celebrations remained less serious than in Ireland, where it was considered a day of holy obligation. In fact, until the 1970s the bars in Dublin were closed on March 17.

St. Patrick stained glass window in Armagh's Protestant cathedral.


Another common misconception today is that Irish-Americans are predominately Catholic. This is an easy assumption to make as in the last 160 years the overwhelming majority of  Irish immigrants to the USA have indeed been Catholic... But in fact more than half of the 40 million Americans who claim Irish heritage are Protestant in faith. One of the main factors for this is that  in the colonial period 30 percent of all immigrants from Europe arriving between 1700 and 1820 came from Ireland and the great majority of those were Presbyterians from Ulster. 

To give perspective on this; in 1790, when Fr. John Carroll was ordained as the first Roman Catholic bishop of the USA, there were approx 30,000 practising Catholics (around 1% of the population) and 22 priests in the new United States. This number represented Catholics of all nationalities (English, Irish, Dutch, German etc.). At the same time there were around 200 practising Presbyterian ministers from Ulster alone and an estimated 250,000 Scots-Irish.

Although they didn't come in numbers as huge as the later Catholic wave of immigration the  descendants of these early Scots-Irish arrivals have been multiplying ever since. A study in the 1970's showed that  83% of Irish-American Protestants have been in America for four generations or more compared to only  41% of Irish-American Catholics. 

Patrick, apostle of Ulster

There seems to be a growing trend in America for people of Irish Protestant heritage to wear orange on St. Patrick's day in recognition of their faith & heritage. In the video clip below from The Simpsons, the Orange & the Green fight it out on St. Paddy's Day!

Saint Patrick's story is essentially an Ulster story. According to the legends it was Ulster where he was enslaved as a boy, that is where he returned to as a man. It's where he built his first church, it's where he evangelized and it is where he lived & died. Today, St. Patrick's grave stone can be viewed in the grounds of Down Anglican Cathedral in Downpatrick, Ulster... not far from where he built his first house of Christian worship in Saul, Co. Down.

St. Patrick mural in an Ulster-Scots district of Belfast.


  1. "There seems to be a growing trend in America for Protestant Irish to wear orange on St. Patrick's day in recognition of their faith & heritage."
    I sure hope so. My grandfather was in the Royal Ulster Rifles so I found the picture above really poignant. Thanks for that.

    1. Respect to the man and thanks for his service.

  2. Good post!
    Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig ar gach duine!
    May the Blessings of St. Patrick's Day be on each of you!

  3. Whatever our origin, let us reflect on what we have in common for St. Patrick's Day.

    Loved the Simpsons clip... describes The Fleg issue currently burning Belfast to a T!!!

  4. Actually, the first Saint Patrick's Day parade in America was in Boston in 1724. This parade was held as a show of force--an assertion of self protection. Irish people were being persecuted by the Puritans in Boston. The Puritans held a parade every year on Pope's Day. The parade was aimed at harassing and intimidating Irish Catholics. The parade featured a man dressed as the Pope riding arm in arm with a man dressed as the Devil. They were depicted as buddies. After the parade, the Irish would be attacked and beaten. The Irish Parade was held to demonstrate the Irish numbers and their unity and defiance to Pope's Day.

    1. Ignorance is bliss, Anonymous, and your post proves it. Any neophyte historian and genealogist would know the Irish Catholics were NOT in Boston in 1724. Any closet Catholic would have been from the Scottish prisoners from 1650s, and those guys could care less about St. Patrick. Questioning the ability to house, clothe and feed thousands of arriving Protestant from Ireland emigrants is NOT prosecution. It's simple economics. The Scotch-Irish who DID arrive 1718+ despised the Pope also- why would they complain about harassing Catholics??

    2. Liars from cradle to grave...continually repeating a lie does not make it true you muppet!!!!

  5. What is your source for this? Yes the Puritans in America & England paraded on Pope's Day (called Guy Fawkes Day in England)on November 5th but there is no evidence i can find from any Boston Irish history that mentions any Irish parade on St. Patrick's day before the one by by the Charitable Irish Society as mentioned in the article.

  6. A very enlightening article, thanks!

  7. Irish catholics destort history as they see fit ..take the famine in ireland were the catholic church demanded a percentage on grain from britain ...chiefly why there was no hand outs because the catholic church embargoed it .... irish catholics still distort the truth today ... they plead they are under some sort of mistreatment from protestants ...fact is they have murdered85% of peoplein the troubles in fact the ira killed more catholics than loyalist paramilitaries and brithish forces combined...educate yourselves and help the ulsterscotch back home ...they need it

    1. great read thanks for sharing pity some people cant except the truth of history, we are not even supposed to mark St patricks day in our own city of Armagh, as its not our day!!! but articles help us educate the youth that its right we mark this day

  8. Very interesting and instructive page. I particularly liked the Simpsons video.

  9. Great stuff! I hope the 12th of July will be a day of celebration for ALL Irishmen too. Great to see you guys embracing your Irishness at last. The mural of the great Catholic saint on a wall in a loyalist part of Belfast is a heart warming step forward!

  10. Were all fighting over this WELSH bloke fantastic!!