St. Patrick’s Day began as a remembrance of an honored bishop and later saint. Events were religious in nature including prayers, masses, and pilgrimages to places representing important events in Patrick’s life. In the time it became more celebratory and included markets and fairs. The Irish diaspora remembered the day as they moved to other lands. In the United States, they began publicly observing the day in the early 18th century.
The Irish presence in America increased dramatically in the 1840s as a result of Ireland’s potato famine of 1845-1849. Irish immigrants in America were often subject to discrimination in the workplace. American newspapers of the day portrayed the Irish as lazy drunkards. As a group, the Irish were further disparaged for their role in the draft riots during the Civil War. The St. Patrick’s Day parade began to serve as a means for the Irish to show their strength and political power in the United States and the number of marchers in the parades increased dramatically over the years. Currently, more than 100 cities hold St. Patrick’s Day parades.
Today, St Patrick’s Day is a celebration of Irish culture. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 56.7 million Americans claim Irish ancestry with another 5.4 million identifying themselves as Scotch-Irish. Together that makes close to 14% of the population.