In the Fifth century, the British-born missionary known as St. Patrick began converting the Irish to Christianity.
In the 18th century, St. Patrick got his first parade—held not in Ireland but on the streets of lower Manhattan.
[St. Patrick's Day in Union Square, 1874]
Depending on the source, it was either 1762 or 1766. The small celebratory march took place near City Hall on March 17, the feast day of St. Patrick. The parade was composed of Irish soldiers serving in the British Army in a pre-Revolutionary War city.
[Marchers in the St. Patrick's Day Parade on Fifth Avenue in 1909, then below in 1913]
The marchers wore green (banned in Ireland at the time) and played bagpipes, just like today. “The tradition of a militia-sponsored event was continued until 1812, when Irish-American fraternal and benevolent societies assumed organizational responsibility, although soldiers continued to lead the march,” wrote The New York Times.
As Irish immigrants poured into the city in the 1840s and 1850s following the potato famine, the parade swelled to massive proportions.
Through the 19th century, it followed a circuitous route from Second Avenue and 23rd Street down to City Hall, up Seventh Avenue, and back again to the East Side before ending a Cooper Union.
[the parade in 1949 at St. Patrick's Cathedral]
“Mayor Abraham Oakey Hall (1868-1872) attended the festivities dressed in emerald-green coat and shirt, and facetiously insisted that his initials were short for “Ancient Order of Hibernians,” the Times wrote.
The Irish may have been unloved as an ethnic group, but vote-hungry politicians realized they couldn’t ignore the popular parade and began making appearances.
[In 1956, these Irish wolfhounds were the mascots of New York's celebrated 69th Army Regiment, aka the "Fighting Irish"]
“In 1887, newly-elected mayor Abram Hewitt broke tradition by refusing to review the parade or fly the shamrock flag at City Hall, lecturing the city that ‘America should be governed by Americans.’ He was not reelected,” reported the Times.
By the middle of the 20th century, the parade featured close to 200,000 marchers and millions of spectators. Despite its reputation for rowdiness and controversy over who can march and who cannot, politicians continue to show up, Mayor de Blasio not withstanding.