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                      Sons of Ireland - AOH Division 17

The History of  The St. Patricks Day Parade                        in Philadelphia



The Irish in Philadelphia first celebrated St. Patrick's Day in 1771, five years before the Declaration of Independence was signed ! The first documented St. Patrick's Day Celebration Parade in Philadelphia was held in 1771, marking over 245 continuous years of celebrations. The current parade, which is hosted by the St. Patrick's Day Observance Association, was incorporated as a non-profit corporation in 1952.


Philadelphia's St. Patrick's Day Parade is a long-standing event of great civic pride. The Annual Parade is held on the Sunday before St. Patrick's Day. If March 17th falls on a Sunday, the Parade Board has the option of having it on March 10th, since so many groups who march are already committed to other events. This Delaware Valley event is the largest Philadelphia Parade by number of participants, approximately 20,000. More than 200 groups are represented in the parade including: Marching bands, dance groups, youth groups and Irish associations. Thousands of spectators line the Parkway to enjoy the Parade each year.

Irish Americans have celebrated St. Patrick's Day in Philadelphia since their arrival in America. George Washington, a member of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, actively encouraged Irish American patriots to join his colonial army. Over the years, these celebrations reflected the times with several themes emerging;- religious, patriotism honoring military service, remembrance of the political struggles in Ireland and a celebration of Irish culture. The common theme remains honoring St. Patrick's work.


An Irish Celebration of Freedom From the Beginning Through 1980
Written by Dennis Clark

INTRODUCTION What is St. Patrick's Day all about? March 17th is about Patrick, a former slave, who became an unforgettable leader. It is about the Irish people whose history he shaped and inspired. Why is it such a big celebration in American communities? One reason is that the freedom of democratic life is such a great experience that people simply cannot be kept from celebrating it. The Irish have had to struggle so long and hard for their freedom that they take a special delight in celebrating the religious liberty and free association that they have enjoyed in America.

In Philadelphia, there has been an Irish community since before the founding of our nation. Philadelphia Irishmen suffered with Washington at Valley Forge, fought with him at the Battle of Germantown and fought again in 1812 and in the civil War to preserve the nation. In the hard work to build Philadelphia's great industries, the Irish bore a heavy burden of labor. They have lived in the city's neighborhoods along with the people of other backgrounds since the city's beginning, and they have helped to build the churches, schools, libraries and fine institutions that are the city's treasures. But, even more, the Irish have added a vigor and lively spirit to the life of the city. They celebrate St. Patrick's Day with prayer, parades and parties because they know that to celebrate your heritage in public is a rightful thing in democracy. They celebrate with a parade, because the parades are a community festival that people of all ages can enjoy.

Parades are made by parade committees, parade marshals, by bands... above all by bands ... by traffic policemen, city recreation and street department workers, by societies and fraternities and schools and marchers. Parades are one of our oldest urban institutions. They excite us and thrill us that we are able to step out of our workaday lives and celebrate. For all who have ever hummed "The Wearin' of the Green" or "God Save Ireland" or "McNamara's Band", the St. Patrick's Day Parade is a splendid event.

EARLY CELEBRATIONS In the very early morning of our country's history, the Irish were already celebrating St. Patrick's Day in Philadelphia. Before the America republic was founded Irishmen came together in 1771 to pay honor to Ireland's patron as founding members of the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick for the relief of Emigrants from Ireland. George Washington, who has encouraged the many Irish soldiers under his command during the Revolution to fete St. Patrick's Day, was an honorary member of this society. thus, the designation of March 17 as a day of special observance was a very early Philadelphia custom.

In 1806, on St. Patrick's Day an audience came together in the city to hear a reading by an Irish actress of the famous speech made by the Irish patriot Robert Emmett before his execution by the British Crown in Dublin in 1803. In addition to the annual dinner of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, the growing Irish community began planning events on March 17 to speak out about England's suppression of Irish liberty. In 1837, Joseph M. Doran delivered a vigorous patriotic oration at the Hall of the Franklin Institute:

"Irishmen, naturalized citizens of America! Driven by tyranny and oppression from your own beloved and much injured country, you have come here to enjoy the blessings of civil and religious liberty .. A new existence awaits you here, and through the green fields of Erin cover with their verdure the graves of your fathers ... yet, this is now your country, here is all that is dear to you: here are your families, your friends, here are your homes and property. Call forth then you powers and assist your fellow citizens in preserving those liberties which you are permitted to enjoy.. cherish, promote and protect the great interest of the country and show by your conduct that you are worthy of being naturalized citizens of a prosperous Republic."

Such addresses reminded the Irish in America of the continued need for liberation of the old country.

The Irish population increased swiftly in the 1840s as victims from the calamity of the Great Famine of 1845-46 sought refuge in America. In Philadelphia there were 70,000 Irish-born people by 1850. This Irish community, beset by poverty, discrimination and troubled exile from their homeland, sought to build a new life for itself, a life that included fun and recreation, as well as, the hard work that the times required of them. Organizations of all kinds grew up and one of the most popular was the marching military unit. For centuries the Irish had been living under foreign domination and had no free military units of their own in Ireland. For generations young Irishmen had served in European armies. In America the Irish had the opportunity to form military groups as free men. These marching units turned out in full regalia to salute the Feast of Patrick. An account in 1859 in the Philadelphia Public Ledger explained:

"St. Patrick's Day was celebrated by a parade of the 2nd Regiment of Infantry, 2nd Brigade, under the command of Col. P.W. Conroy. The line was formed on Franklin Street west of Franklin Square. The following companies participated: Montgomery Guards, Irish Volunteers, Hibernia Greens, Emmett Guards, Meagher Guards, Shields Guards. These companies generally went out in good force. The new Shields Guards, Capt. Peter Somers, made their first parade with the Regiment and had 44 muskets out. After marching through the principle streets the Regiments proceeded in a body to hear a lecture delivered by Robert Tyler, Esq. at the National Hall for the benefit of the poor of St. Patrick's Church."

Before the Civil war there were many people in the United States who doubted the loyalty of the Irish to the Republic, despite the fact that the group had helped establish it. After the services of the Irish Brigade in the Union Army and the great numbers of valiant Irishmen who served in the cause of the Union, only the worst bigots could doubt Irish-American loyalty. It was after the Civil War that parades of all kinds became a sort of national craze. Veterans of the conflict turned out and, in Philadelphia, General St. Clair Mulholland and other heroes of the war stepped smartly along on St. Patrick's Day each year. Temperance organizations became a big component of the March 17th Parades from 1870 through the turn of the century.

Of the 10,000 participants on St. Patrick's Day in 1875, the majority parading walked with the thirty-nine marching units of the Total Abstinence Brotherhood, an organization with strong religious backing and a missionary zeal for temperance crusading.

By 1886, the Philadelphia Public Ledger noted that the flags of Ireland and the United States were flown from public buildings on St. Patrick's Day. Since Ireland was not free at that time, the flag flown for that country then was the green banner with a harp of gold, the flag that had been carried by Irish Brigades in the service of France, Spain and the United states. The newspaper reported that in 1886 the annual March 17 parade was not held because local Irish leaders decided that conditions of repression, near famine and political struggles in the old country demanded that all energies should be devoted entirely to trying to relieve the suffering in Ireland. At the Academy of Music, however, the Right Reverend J.J. O'Farrell, Bishop of Trenton, gave an address on "Ireland's Faith and Nationality" while at Villa Nova the Ancient Order of Hibernians heard a lecture on the leadership of the Irish patriot, Charles Stewart Parnell.

The Parades of St. Patrick's Day had really become an American institutions by the beginning of the twentieth Century. They were a testimony to the contributions of the Irish to American life and the pride taken in those contributions. The Irish-American scene was particularly lively, with thousands of participants looking forward to the annual celebration.

The period after 1916 was one of intense activity for the city's Irish community. On Easter Monday 1916 in Dublin a revolutionary rising against British domination of Ireland was suppressed and its leaders executed. This led to a guerrilla war in Ireland. Irish Americans worked to help set up an independent Irish state. Huge demonstrations in support of this goal were held in many American cities.

In October 1920 a massive and solemn March of Mourning took place on Broad Street in honor of Terance MacSwiney, the young Irish Mayor of Cork who had died on a hunger strike of protest while imprisoned by English authorities. Such sacrifices did lead to the setting up of an independent Irish state for 26 of Ireland's 32 counties in 1921.

By 1927 St. Patrick's Day in Philadelphia was a widespread celebration. The Ancient Order of Hibernians held a Feis Ceoil, or musical competition. The Kerrymen's Patriotic and Beneficial Association rented a hall at Broad Street and Columbia Avenue for its play "The Wishing Well" along with a concert of Gaelic songs.

The Depression years of the 1930s were not good years for parading. The Irish working people of the city were preoccupied with hunger marches, not festive parades. As a result there was no real organized parades in the 1930s and 1940s. World War II generated many military parades.


Following the War, parading resumed under the auspices of the St. Patrick's Day Observance Association which was legally incorporated as a nonprofit organization on November 5, 1952. The Irish population of the city had been decreasing since the National Origins Act of 1929 which had curtailed immigration.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians initiated the first meeting of the Association and the group's chaplain, Rev. Thomas Riley presided. The Donegal Society, the Kerrymen's Society, the Gaelic Athletic Association and other fraternal groups were represented. In February 1952 the first parade was planned and a delegation from the association visited Archbishop John F. O'Hara and requested his cooperation. This was granted and the Archbishop's aid assured participation by the city's large Catholic School network. This religious orientation of the parade was notable. It set the character of the parade in a definitive way and dictated its spirit and focus for all future parades.

At that time the Association invited numerous political leaders, police and firefighters bands. Judge Vincent Carroll, Sheriff William Lennox and then City Councilman James H. Tate served as members of the Parade's Executive Committee. Other committee members included: Congressman Michael J. Donohoe, Magistrate John L. Coyle, Patrick McNelis, Patrick Cavanaugh and many others. Parade Director, James J. Kissane organized numerous groups directed venders, selected the parade route, band music, and more. After the parade in 1953 the Association reported that 65,000 people marched in the parade and 100,000 had lined the parade route. This was one of the most successful parades ever.

The financing of the parade consisted of contributions from parishes, Irish organizations and individuals. Flags and badges were sold to marching organizations. Local businesses formed marching groups. Honoraria were voted for parade marshals. One of the most popular marshals was Samuel Karsevar, a Jewish civic leader who was a local parade expert. Detailed Association minutes of the meetings include notes on how wide the green line would be painted down the middle of the parade route; insurance for the reviewing stands; should clownish costumes be approved; rest rooms; traffic control; etc. In 1957, the parade costs totaled about $3,000. By 1965 this total cost had risen to $7,000. Austin McGreal, a Mayo-born lawyer of great energy, suggested an annual fund raising luncheon and his proposal was approved. In 1968 a parade including forty bands was planned, but bad weather forced postponement and this cost the Association $1,800. This prompted parade organizers to maintain "emergency" funds in the treasury to cover the costs of cancellation in the event of inclement weather.

In 1959, the Galway Society protested its place toward the end of the parade, so a rotation system was adopted that moved groups successively toward the front of the march each year. The actual number of marchers of the Irish societies was declining by 1962 so they were grouped among the high school bands. Some of the participating groups were not even remotely Irish. The Ukrainian American String Band, for instance, participated in the parade for many decades. Peculiar problems such as obtaining a musical arrangement in marching time for a traditional hymn to St. Patrick, took discussion time. Sheriff William Lennox had visited the Savannah, Georgia St. Patrick's Day Parade and wished to emulate the singing of a hymn to St. Patrick by all marchers in unison. Others believed that each marching unit should have a chaplain and a spiritual advisor. By the end of 1954, Judge Carroll proposed that a set of parade rules be drawn up similar to those guiding the New Year's Day Mummers Parade. The annual Parade Orders governed city officials, colleges and high school bands, veteran’s organizations, fraternal groups, parish and Irish societies. In 1954, some seventy groups marched off at 2:00 PM each year from South Broad Street to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

In December 1954 the rules for the parade were approved by the Archbishop's office. Rule one stated that "Any group participating in the Parade must be of Catholic character." The rules stated that all floats in the parade had to be of Catholic character." The rules stated that all floats in the parade had to be of a religious nature. The religious orientation of the parade was to lead to problems about which groups could be appropriately included in the parade. Questions were raised concerning the propriety of permitting businesses to include the names of their establishments on banners; this was deemed to be advertising. The finances of the parade, always modest, were in peril of the weather each year. If the parade had to be postponed this caused major financial losses. The debate about requesting a city subsidy continued. In the 1970s the parade had achieved a broad base of public participation. The city Recreation Department made a contribution in 1978.


The disorders and tragic struggle in Northern Ireland had an effect on the parade in 1970. Some organizations sought to make political statements on their banners and through their floats. In 1970 Peace in Northern Ireland was chosen as the theme for the parade and marchers assembled after the parade at Independence Hall to hear Ivan Cooper a spokesman for the nationalist viewpoint in Ulster gave the address. There was considerable concern to keep the parade a march for peace in a time when ecumenical relations between religious groups were greatly improving interreligious relations.

The route of the parade was never the subject of serious question. All of the major parades in the city followed much the same line of march. Starting on South Broad Street the parade would move North on that wide thoroughfare and circle around City Hall to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. This line of march recollected some of the history of the city's Hibernian population. The point of departure in South Philadelphia was once the location of the city's largest Irish population in the little row house streets that housed the workers of the nineteenth century. At Broad and Washington Avenue there was once a major railroad terminal that many Irish laborers had built. It was from this rail station that many Irish Americans left to go South to the battlefields of the Civil War. In those days the houses lining Broad Street employed many young Irish women as maids, cooks and washerwomen. At Broad and Locust, the Academy of Music Charles Stewart Parnell, Eamon DeValera and other Irish leaders had each in their generation addressed cheering audiences on the necessity for independence for Ireland.

At Broad and Walnut street was the Hotel Fairmount, also known by The Bellevue Stratford. Here the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick met for many years. The parade circling around City Hall could reminded many of the long struggles of the Irish in the past and the pride of many Irish Americans later accomplishments in local politics as judges and elected officials. Then the parade moves to the great boulevard built by Sunny Jim McNichol, a noted builder of the early part of the Twentieth Century. Ending at the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul, this building is a monument to the Irish Catholics who helped to build it. The Cathedral was begun only a few years after the anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia in 1844.

Numerous civic and religious leaders influenced the parade after its formal organization in 1951. Among the most notable leaders are Monsignor Thomas J. Riley, a prominent educator, he viewed the parade as a public demonstration of religious values which was an important contribution to the community. Judge Vincent Carroll, Sheriff William Lennox, Mayor James H. Tate made significant contributions to the modern St. Patrick's Day Parade in Philadelphia. In addition, Judge Edward Blake and President Judge Edward Bradley joined other civic leaders in expanding the number of participants in the parade.

By 1980 Mayor William J. Green and William Brennan, president of the Federation of Irish Societies of the Delaware Valley helped to generate an Irish cultural revival throughout the area with concerts, lectures, dances and holiday trips to Ireland.

"Friendship, Unity and Christian Charity"

Country First  

          Heritage Always


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