America’s First St. Patrick’s Day

In the 18th century, Ireland chaffed under Great Britain’s rule, specifically Poyning’s Law, the Declaratory Act, and the various anti-Catholic laws imposed and enforced by the state controlled Anglican Church. Poyning’s Law, passed in 1498, denied the Irish the ability to call a parliament unless it was approved by the King of England and his Privy Council. The Declaratory Act, better understood by its official name the Dependency of Ireland on Great Britain Act of 1719, declared that the British House of Lords was the final appellate court for all Irish court cases and that the British Parliament could pass legislation for the Kingdom of Ireland. Finally, through Parliament and the King, the Anglican Church enforced the Penal Laws which were a collection of restrictions and discriminatory laws, such as the Popery Act of 1698, against Roman Catholics. Since Ireland was predominately Roman Catholic, most Irishmen could not hold office, be a lawyer, own firearms or enlist, buy land, vote, intermarry with Protestants, adopt children, convert to Catholicism, buy a horse worth over 5 pounds, and Irish priests were forced to register (1698) in order to preach. Six years later in 1704, Irish priests were outlawed and bounties placed on their heads for their arrest. The register made their arrests quite convenient and lucrative for Protestant bounty hunters.

In 1778, Catholic France allied with the nascent United States of America in her fight against Great Britain. The British feared an invasion of Ireland as French support for dissident minorities on the British Isles, particularly Catholic minorities, was a time honored tradition. The British formed Irish Volunteer companies from Anglican Irishmen to fight any potential French invasion and uprising. However, as more British regiments were sent to the Caribbean and North America, the Irish Volunteers began to take Catholics upon an oath of loyalty. By 1778, the threat of French invasion was minimal, but the Irish Volunteers didn’t disband. With the emerging middle class consciousness caused by the Industrial Revolution, the Irish Volunteer companies morphed into political organizations more concerned with popular local causes, and there was no more popular local cause in Ireland than Irish Catholic emancipation. In 1778, the companies gave an Irish voice to those who advocated for the repeal of the harsh Penal Laws, deemed passé and obsolescent in the Age of Enlightenment. Later that year, the Papists Acts of 1778 mitigated much of the official discrimination against Catholics, but the backlash was severe. By late 1779, Irish Catholics were forced to defend themselves against Anglican riots and violence. The Irish Parliament, called in defiance of Britain, deliberated on how to break the British and Anglican hold on Ireland.

That same winter at Morristown, New Jersey, the Continental Army was enduring “the coldest winter in North America in 400 years”. New York Bay froze solid. General George Washington referred to the winter of 1779/80 as “the hard winter” and worse than the one at Valley Forge two years before. By March, one third of the 12,000 strong Continental Army had deserted, and one third more were not fit for duty. Furthermore, the logistics’ system of the Continental Congress had collapsed upon itself and the states were told to supply their own soldiers at Morristown. Morale was rock bottom.

Washington needed to improve morale, prevent a mutiny, give his men some respite to the ceaseless drilling and camp labor, and hopefully prevent more desertions. Irish and Scots-Irish immigrants made up a significant percentage of the Continental Army, about two fifths, with the ratio of officers being larger. Encouraged by his wife Martha who spent most of the winter with her husband, Washington planned something special for his men. On 16 March 1780, Washington a member of Philadelphia’s Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, issued a general order recognizing the Irish quest for freedom from British rule. More practically, Washington gave the Continental Army the next day off to show solidarity with the Irish fight for independence. The next day was the seventeenth of March, St Patrick’s Day.

“Head Quarters Morris Town March 16th, 1780

General Order

The general congratulates the army on the very interesting proceedings of the parliament of Ireland and the inhabitants of that country which have been lately communicated; not only as they appear calculated to remove those heavy and tyrannical oppressions on their trade but to restore to a brave and generous people their ancient rights and freedom and by their operations to promote the cause of America.

Desirous of impressing upon the minds of the army, transactions so important in their nature, the general directs that all fatigue and working parties cease for tomorrow the seventeenth, a day held in particular regard by the people of the nation. At the same time that he orders this, he persuades himself that the celebration of the day will not be attended with the least rioting or disorder, the officers to be at their quarters in camp and the troops of the state line to keep within their own encampment.”

In the Pennsylvania Division, the division commander, Major General Baron Von Steuben, and his two brigade commanders, Brigadier Generals Anthony Wayne and Mordecai Gist, each bought a “hogshead” of rum (63 gallon cask) for their men to celebrate.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day

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