Saint Patrick’s Day honors St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, who was born in England and lived during the 5th century. Early in life, he was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and ended up living in Ireland. He is credited with converting the Irish to Christianity, as illustrated in the legendary tale that says he drove the snakes (a metaphor for pagans and druids) from Ireland. He established many churches and was honored with a feast day in his name.
Over time, Saint Patrick’s Day shifted from a religious holiday to a secular celebration of Irish culture and history. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in Boston in 1737. By the time the Revolutionary War started, there was also a parade in New York City and the holiday had become a meaningful celebration to Irish-Americans. Subsequently, during a cold winter encampment in 1780 in Morristown, New Jersey, General George Washington, then commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, noticed his men were having a bout of particularly low morale. The soldiers were low on food, had very shabby shelters, and the winter was harsh.
Washington, a man of many curiosities, became interested in the political goings-on in Ireland, which was also ruled by the British. He could see that Ireland, like the colonies at that time, was struggling to find common ground with the Crown in England. He found the Irish struggle relatable, and also useful. Perhaps, if England could be distracted enough by unrest in Ireland, they would falter in the war against the colonies.
Recognizing the need for a boost, and the opportunity to resonate with specific groups, Washington issued an order on March 16, 1780. Today, it is known as the St. Patrick’s Day General Order. It reads in full:
Head Quarters Morris Town March 16th, 1780
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.
The celebration in the camp was the only day the men had off throughout the winter of 1780. According to Washington, the army was in a perilous state well into May. However, the day of rest and celebration certainly helped the troops soldier on. It seems that March 17th was meant to become a day of happenings for George Washington and his army, because 4 years previous to the Morristown order, Washington and his men watched the British retreat from Boston during the opening act of the Revolution.
So, this year as you don your shamrocks and green top hats, think of: Hercules Mulligan, a spy for the continentals born in Derry, Ireland; Henry Knox, artillery master extraordinaire and a Boston-native with Irish parents; General Richard Montgomery who before “he caught a bullet in the neck in Quebec” for the cause and had a father in the Irish Parliament; and all the other Irishmen who helped create a free and independent nation here before their own nation could gain that same freedom.
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