To understand the significance of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations is to tell an American story, rather than an Irish one – or, really, an Irish-American story.
Saint Patrick is a saint in name only. Never officially canonized by the Catholic Church, he was proclaimed a saint by the Irish people for his missionary work, eventually becoming the patron saint of Ireland. Patrick began his mission to the largely pagan Ireland in 432, and by his death in 461, the island was almost entirely Christian.
For the Irish at home, St. Patrick’s Day was a modest religious feast day made an official Christian feast day in the early 17th century by the Vatican.
The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was actually held in New York City in 1762 by Irish immigrants. The parade grew in importance across the 19th century with the arrival of large numbers of Irish immigrants. Celebrations took place on the streets of major Irish cities such as Boston, New York, and Chicago.
Characterized as drunken, violent, criminalized, and diseased, the parades were a way for Irish-Americans to display their civic pride and the strength of their identity – to show their numbers, their unity, and to say, “we aren’t going anywhere.”
People began celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Knoxville in the 1850s. By 1869, there was a city-sanctioned parade beginning near Market Square, going down Walnut (then Crooked Street), and proceeding through downtown, East Knoxville, and North Knoxville. It was a celebration with Fenians marching in green jackets and red caps followed by a brass band and a color guard carrying banners with the motto “God Save Ireland.”
The parades eventually died off, but, in the 1980s, John and Pat McLaughlin brought the St. Patrick’s Day Parade back to Knoxville. It ran from 1981 to 1986 following John’s death.
Over the years, the celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day have spread nationwide, allowing all Americans to be Irish for a day. Recognizing the need for this type of celebration and wanting to acknowledge the role Irish immigrants and their families played in Knoxville’s history, Chandle Turbyville, Josh Turbyville, and Christy Watkins are bringing the St. Patrick’s Day parade back to Knoxville.
Several of Knoxville’s early founders were Irish immigrants or of Scots-Irish descent, and large numbers of Irish began arriving after the Great Famine of the 1840s. They built forts, railroads, churches, and saloons. They were mayors, aldermen, firemen, and police. Knoxville owes a lot to its Irish heritage. It’s time we celebrate that again. Erin go Brah!