This post is the first in a three-part series about holidays held in the Village, a collaboration between GVSHP and the students in NYU’s Fall 2014 Intro to Public History course. In conjunction with the public program held on Wednesday, December 17th, each group was also tasked with sharing their discoveries with us on Off the Grid.
The following post was written by Caitlin Biggers and Troy Smith.
Throughout the 19th century, Greenwich Village and its surrounding neighborhoods saw a series of peculiar forms of conflict resolution: holiday parade riots. Specifically, Irish immigrants clashed with opposing political forces at parades. While parades may seem a strange venue for physical confrontations, Irish parades have long been used to define who is an insider and who is an outsider, both socially and politically. Given this idea, it’s easier to understand three deadly riots in 1853, 1870 and 1871.
On July 4, 1853, several hundred Irish Catholics under the auspices of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians paraded through the streets of Manhattan, intending to join the official July 4th parade on Broadway. At Abingdon Square, however, a stagecoach driver drove into their ranks, causing a general melee, involving the marchers, nearby onlookers, fireman, and police. The 38 people who were arrested were all Irish. The newspapers, as was typical at the time, blamed typical Irish rowdiness for the violence and chastised the Irish for marring this patriotic day. The Irish countered that they just wanted to march peacefully, and that the stagecoach driver had yelled anti-Irish, anti-Catholic slurs at the marchers. The Irish were marching to assert their identity as both Irish and American, and that their right to parade had been infringed upon.
The right to parade is an underlying theme in Irish culture, dating back to the late 17th century in Ireland. Ireland was dominated by an Irish Protestant minority who would parade through Catholic areas as displays of strength and authority. Irish Catholics adopted this parading tradition for their own ends, marching on holidays of their own, like St. Patrick’s Day, asserting their own strength and identity.
Americans also had a strong parading tradition in the 19th century, using parades to display patriotism. They also celebrated holidays, like the Fourth of July, Washington’s Birthday, Evacuation Day, and other events such as anniversaries of battles (for example, Lexington & Concord and the Battle of New Orleans).
The Irish Catholics who emigrated in increasing numbers in the mid-19th century, then, found in parading a tradition they could embrace as both Irish and American.
Much of mainstream America was not ready to embrace the Irish Catholic immigrants as Americans, however. Increasing immigration heightened tensions between the newcomers and so-called native-born Americans. In 1845, Manhattan’s population was 371,000. Ten years later, fueled by Great Famine immigration, it was 630,000. One in four New Yorkers was born in Ireland, and half the population was foreign born. Protestant Americans rejected the Irish Catholics both because they were not Anglo and because they practiced a “foreign” religion, deeming Catholicism incompatible with American republican ideals.
The Irish, by asserting their right to march on July 4, the most American of holidays, were challenging the idea that being an American meant being Protestant and Anglo-Saxon.
Their rising numbers, and their unity as a bloc, got the attention of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party machine, which around this time began actively courting the Irish. Soon the Irish became indelibly linked with Tammany. In 1853 William M. Tweed was an alderman, state senator, and ward boss for Tammany. His influence over the Irish helped propel him to prominence within the organization, and by the mid-1860s, he was known as Boss Tweed.
As the Irish Catholics became more powerful in city politics, tensions dating back to 17th century Ireland reignited.
Stateside, the Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal organization, celebrated the battle that sparked these tensions. Specifically, they celebrated the Protestant victory at the Battle of Boyne on July 12, 1690 with a parade and picnic. In 1870, this parade of Protestant superiority provoked Irish Catholic immigrants to riot. As the Orangemen headed north up Broadway, a Catholic mob followed their parade and attacked as the revelers picnicked at Elm Park, leaving 8 people dead. Very few police were present, leaving the public to indict the Catholic-backed Tammany Hall for allowing the Irish to go unchecked.
The next year, 1871, Tammany was under a great deal of pressure to prevent a riot. They knew they would lose public favor if they proved unable to control the Catholic majority. After a failed attempt to ban the Orange parade from taking place, 5,000 national guardsmen were brought in to protect the marchers. Again a riot ensued, this time leaving 60 Catholics dead as the Protestants continued south to Cooper Union, a Protestant friendly area at the time.
In choosing to march, knowing the Catholics would cause at least some public engagement, the Orangemen sought to highlight Tammany weakness and further position the Irish Catholics as violent and un-American.
In 2015 the NYC St. Patrick’s Day Parade, another politically contentious Irish event, will allow openly gay groups to march under their own banner for the first time. Over two decades of bitter acrimony over the right to march and the right to control who marches is coming to end.
For well over 150 years, the Irish in America have used parades to define both their distinct identity as Irish and American. The parades have also inevitably been tied up in politics as Irish traditions and mainstream American values collide.