Skimming the entries for St. Patrick’s Day in a search of the finding aids and the Calendared collection, as well as some articles in Scholastic, it is apparent that St. Patrick’s Day in America was more than an ordinary saint’s feast day. St. Patrick’s Day celebrations could also be patriotic and political.
In 1846 the Society of the Friends of Ireland in New York sought “to improve the condition and degraded state of their countrymen both in America and in Ireland” [I-3-h, 1846 Mar. 2]. In 1847 they canceled their annual celebration in reverence to those in Ireland suffering from the great famine and diaspora [I-3-h, 1847 Mar. 2].
In 1892, J.M. McDonald stated in his Columbian oration, “To-day however we celebrate an anniversary that brings to Irishmen sorrow as well as joy; for we commemorate the name of the redeemer of a land that is not yet free. … surely, the recital of a struggle for human freedom will ever retain a peculiar charm to allure the American heart” [Scholastic, 03/19/1892, page 474]
Here at Notre Dame, it is said that Fr. Edward Sorin discouraged St. Patrick’s Day celebrations “in the interest of Americanism” [Notre Dame: 100 Years by Rev. Arthur J. Hope, CSC, page 140; however, no citation of source]. If this sentiment was true, Fr. Sorin was not very successful in squashing St. Patrick’s Day festivities as they became quite elaborate and popular in the second half of the 19th century.
The tradition of celebrating the University President’s feast day necessitated celebrations on St. Patrick’s Day for Revs. Patrick Dillon and Patrick Colovin, CSC [click here for the list of University Presidents]. An increase of students and faculty with Irish backgrounds, as well as the involvement of Notre Dame personnel including Rev. William Corby, CSC, in the Irish Brigade during the Civil War, probably also brought St. Patrick’s Day celebrations to prominence at Notre Dame.
Below is an 1883 letter from student Louis Pour to his parents, recounting the St. Patrick’s Day festivities at Notre Dame. Beneath the letter is the program of events hosted by the Columbian Literary and Orpheonic Societies from the same year.
Transcription: “Notre Dame, Ind., March 28, 1883. Dear Parents. I take the pleasure of writing to you those few lines to let you know that I am well at present and I hope those few lines will find you the same. The weather at present is not cold but it is snowing mostly ever day and melting nearly as fast as it falls. Dear Parents, I will tell you that we had reck [recreation] on St. Patrick day and the boys had a very lively time in the morning we went to church in which one of the fathers preached about 1 ½ hours on the life of St. Patrick and [page 2] The history of Ireland and when church was over the boys commenced playing the band in front of the college and in the afternoon Randolph and myself and four other boys went asked one of the Brothers to take us up in the steeple [of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart] to see the Bells which he did immediately so when we got up their three or four of the boys tapped to see how loud it would sound the bell weighs seventeen thousand pounds and, it takes four men to wring it and after he’d played two or three tones by chains. And still St. Patrick was not over yet in the evening they all assembled in the Rotunda of hear some of the boys speak in which George Clark delivered a very fine piece of poetry he is the best speaker of the students of Notre Dame and is a resident of Cairo, Illinois. This is all for the present, so when you receive this letter I suppose you will answer it with more latitude than the last, for I suppose that time are not so hard. Best regards,
In 1941, John Lynch wrote an article for Scholastic, lamenting the lack of activities at Notre Dame for St. Patrick’s Day in comparison with those in the 19th century:
Lynch eventually got his request for a day off — because of the potential raucous nature of current St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, it is probably no coincidence that in recent history March 17th has fallen over Notre Dame’s spring break.