St. Patrick’s Day in the South

How did the early Irish immigrant share his ethnic identity? The earliest Irish immigrants came in the 1820’s and 1830’s. They were generally more prosperous than the famine immigrants. Many were refugees from the 1798 rebellion. From early on, the Irish in the Old South celebrated both their Irish identify and St. Patrick’s Day. In Charleston, the Irish formed the Charleston Hibernian Society. The members met every fourth Thursday for “sentiment, song and supper.” Reflecting an ecumenical approach, they rotated the presidency with a Protestant president one year and a Catholic president the next year. In 1833, the Society toasted both to the king’s health as well as and the death of the Irish patriot, Robert Emmet. By 1841, the Charleston Hibernian Society had built a magnificent “Hibernia Hall” on Meeting Street.

In 1831, the Louisville Irish met and toasted St. Patrick’s Day. The toasts of James Price, Clement Kennedy and others were published in the Louisville Courier.

In New Orleans and Savannah, the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebrations grew larger each year. The Catholics and Protestants joined in the same celebrations. In 1824, the Savannah Hibernian Society followed a requiem Mass with a parade to the City Hotel lead by Father Robert Browne and the pastors of the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches. At four p.m., the mayor of the city, along with the Spanish and British consuls awarded Charleston Bishop John England, an Irish native, with honorary membership. Then the crowd retired for dinner and watched the unveiling of a “transparency:” a female figure clothed in green with a wreath of shamrocks, intended to represent the “genius of Ireland.” Then came tunes and toasts honoring Ireland, Georgia and the United States.

The Natchez Hibernian Society had its annual celebration in a local hotel. The members enjoyed an evening of “song, sentiment, wit, and sociability.” Some less prosperous laborers collected near the market house on St. Patrick’s Day and enjoyed liquid refreshment. The became inebriated and fought any passerby. The local sheriff came and arrested two or three of the miscreants.

The more well-off Irish formed the Hibernian societies. These societies charged dues that tended to deter the laborers from joining. But, the middle class Irish set a different sort of example and encouraged the working class to avoid trouble.

Louisville Courier, March 21, 2831, p. 2

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 60-63.

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