A Boston tradition
Boston is home to the oldest Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in the United States.
Follow the route through its history in this gallery. Next
The first parade
The Charitable Irish Society held the first Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in 1724, said Boston Irish historian Meaghan Dwyer-Ryan.
The group consisted mainly of Protestant immigrants, and the gathering was designed to honor the Irish homeland and create an ethnic community in Boston. Next
Evacuation Day, 1776
A second parade (of sorts) could be said to have occurred in 1776, when British ships, troops, and sympathizers evacuated the city en masse during a violent storm.
Their retreat came after Continental troops moved 59 cannons from the newly captured Fort Ticonderoga to Boston earlier that month, under the leadership of Colonel Henry Knox (pictured). The cannons — including imitations made of blackened logs — were strategically placed on Dorchester Heights in South Boston overlooking Boston Harbor and the British Navy’s ships, said Philip Wuschke Jr., the organizer of the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade.
The British left Boston peacefully, sparing any casualties, a move that George Washington later called a “most remarkable Interposition by Providence,” according to the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade’s website.
And while the evacuation’s occurrence on Saint Patrick’s feast day was a coincidence, the Catholic saint played a role that day. Washington used “Saint Patrick” as a code word for soldiers to pass through the Continental lines, said Wuschke. Next
The first South Boston parade
Evacuation Day was declared a holiday in the City of Boston in 1901. In celebration, the city hosted a parade based in South Boston.
A monument to the historical event was completed in Dorchester Heights in 1902.
The state of Massachusetts recognized Evacuation Day as a holiday in Suffolk County in 1938.
Pictured: Major George F. H. Murray served as chief marshall for the parade in 1901. Next
A military legacy
The Saint Patrick’s Day Parade is both a celebration of Irish-American culture in Boston and the Evacuation Day victory, said Wuschke.
The City of Boston sponsored the event until 1947, when Mayor James Michael Curley gave authority to the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council. Next
JFK rides in the parade
Politicians and local celebrities have long participated in the annual Saint Patrick’s Day Parade.
Then-Senator John F. Kennedy rode with Jacqueline Kennedy in the parade in 1958. Next
The Kennedy dynasty
The Kennedys were frequent dignitaries at the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade.
Robert F. Kennedy marched in the parade the day after announcing his candidacy for president in March 1968. “The parade, undoubtably because of Kennedy’s appearance, drew the largest crowd in its history, estimated by police at 350,000,” reported The Boston Globe.
Ted and Joan Kennedy (pictured) were mobbed by fans as they walked through South Boston in 1970, reported the Globe. Next
Civil rights movement comes to South Boston
The N.A.A.C.P. entered a float in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in 1964.
“The purpose of our entry... and the message of the sign re the same — The basic similarity between the Irish fight for freedom and the freedom fight of the Negro for equality,” said N.A.A.C.P. Executive Secretary Thomas I. Atkins in the Globe on March 17, 1964.
But the float was met with racial slurs and thrown rocks, the actions of what the N.A.A.C.P. called a “lunatic fringe” in the Globe on March 19.
Ted Kennedy decried the stoning, saying, “Had I known what was happening I would have done what I could to prevent it,” in the Globe on March 27. Next
Harvard’s Irish Society marches
In the mid-1960s, delegations from Harvard University’s undergraduate and graduate programs began participating in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade.
The Harvard Crimson expressed surprise at the positive reception of these delegations in 1966.
“A lot of people used to feel that no real Boston Irishman would or could go to Harvard College,” said Joseph F. Flynn, who marshaled the undergraduate group in 1966. Next
Irish politics invade annual parade
Irish nationalists unofficially marched in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1972, Irish Republican Aid Committee members protested violence in Northern Ireland by carrying a coffin draped with the Irish tricolored flag. The Boston chapter of the Irish Northern Aid Commission marched with black armbands and a sign rading “England Get Out of Ireland”
“This is the sort of procession that should be taking place today, said Jim Dunn, a member of the Irish Republican Aid Committee, to the Globe on March 20, 1972. “We don’t think bands should be playing and people cheering while people are dying in Belfast and Derry.” Next
Activists protest busing along route
The antibusing sentiment of South Boston during the mid-1970s was present at the annual Saint Patrick’s Day Parade.
Boston Mayor Kevin H. White was met with “Go back to Roxbury, go back to Roxbury!” jeers during the 1974 parade, reported the Globe. Snowballs were thrown in White’s direction in 1975, according to a Globe report.
The Globe reported that spectators met antibusing floats with cheers in 1975.
The racial overtones were so present in the parade that Colonel Forest Rittgers of Fort Devens barred his units from participating in 1976, reported the Globe. Rittgers said his troops were harassed by firecrackers, snowballs, and racial and ethnic slurs during the 1975 parade. Next
The 200th anniversary of Evacuation Day
The year 1976 marked the 200th anniversary of Evacuation Day and the 75th anniversary of the parade.
A reenaction of the 1776 evacuation was incorporated into the parade, with fireworks and period costumes.
Despite the anniversary celebration, the Globe reported that parade attendance was “half of its normal size” due to decreased funding and the atmosphere created by the antibusing campaign. Next
A monthlong celebration
President George H.W. Bush declared March Irish-American Heritage Month in 1991.
Since then, the sitting president has continued the tradition each year.
Hurley v. Irish American GLIB
The application of the Irish American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, or GLIB, to march in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in 1992, the first of its kind in the history of the parade, was met with a rejection by the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council.
GLIB members obtained a state order to allow their participation and marched peaceably that year.
After the organization’s 1993 application was also denied, GLIB filed a suit against the Allied War Veterans Council, alledging discrimination on the account of sexual orientation.
The state court found in favor of GLIB, and the ruling was upheld by the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Following that decision, the Allied War Veterans cancelled the 1994 parade.
A family-friendly event
In recent years, parade organizers have tried to make the event more kid-friendly, said Wuschke, incorporating “family zones,” or sober places to watch the parade.
The parade organizers have also worked to draw new bands and attractions to diversify the paradegoers’ experience.
“It’s been a great parade every year,” said Wuschke. “It takes a lot of work, but we’ve got a great group of parade officials who come back every year and volunteer.” Next
The parade today
About 500,000 people flood South Boston to watch the parade each year.
While the route attracts a sea of green clothing, decorations, and beer, Wuschke said organizers also seek to emphasize the day’s military significance.
“If you ask me, [the parade’s] a military celebration,” said Wuschke, who is a veteran. “If you go and ask anyone who’s a paradegoer, it’s about Saint Patrick’s Day. It’s about both.” Back to the beginning
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