1. St. Patrick's Day as a cultural holiday is an American invention -- the first St. Patrick's Day parade took place in the United States on March 17, 1762. Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through -- where else? New York City.
2. The NYC parade became the "granddaddy" of what it is today in 1848 when several New York Irish Aid societies decided to unite their smaller parades to become one. Today the parade is the world's oldest civilian parade and the largest in the United States.
3. In the mid-19th century, the Irish who lived in America were Protestant and most were middle class and respected. After the Irish Potato Famine (starting in 1845), close to a million Irish people, many of them poor and uneducated Catholics, emigrated to the United States. It was at this time that the disdain for the Irish began, and signs like "No Irish Need Apply" began to proliferate.
4. As the 20th century got underway, the Irish began to realize there was strength in numbers and that politicians needed to care how the Irish felt about various matters. Over time, political hopefuls began appearing at the annual parade festivities. President Truman attended in 1948, and this meant a great deal to the Irish who had for so long felt the pain of racial prejudice.
5. Today there are 36.5 million U.S. residents with Irish roots -- this is almost nine times the population of Ireland itself. (U.S. Census Bureau)
6. And finally, why do we wear green if we want to show allegiance to Ireland? Some say the wearing of the green relates to the Celtic practice of wearing green during the vernal equinox. Others say the tradition was begun by school children. Certainly, we can all agree that green is the perfect color for the day. Ireland itself is often called the "Emerald Isle" because of the lushness of its greenery. Green is the color of the shamrock, and it does remind people of the coming of springtime, promising the hope that we will pull out of the gray of winter.
It is unfortunate that the day in Manhattan is often marred by underage -- or over-21 for that matter -- revelers. For next year I've already begun a list of Irish Americans who "have done their people proud" and who deserve a parade that isn't used as an excuse for over-drinking.
March is Women's History Month, and I am continuing to highlight outstanding women in my "30 Under 30" feature on my website. Check the site daily, or sign up to receive the "woman of the day" by e-mail: www.americacomesalive.com. Tomorrow I'll be featuring Irish American Nellie Bly; today we tip our hat to Marian Wright Edelman.