You don’t know this unless you’re from Boston, but March 17th is Evacuation Day, a commemoration of the day in 1776 when General Howe removed his troops from Boston to Nova Scotia. Thus dis George Washington gain his first victory–a bloodless one–of the Revolution, but no shame for Howe. Sometimes a position simply has to be evacuated. The day is now a Suffolk County holiday, but everybody knows the connection to St. Patrick’s Day is not accidental.
The association of the two holidays may be long-standing–a legend oft-repeated in South Boston holds that, anticipating the Evacuation, General Washington made Brigadier John Sullivan, an Irishman, “officer of the day” and set the password as “Saint Patrick.” Probably there’s no truth to the story, but I remember hearing it– you can read more in South Boston, My Home Town (p. 56) by historian Thomas O’Connor, a former colleague of mine at Boston College.
Such conflation found more insidious expression in Boston of the 70s, as I recall. One summer, as a teenager, I was visiting Fort Independence, the “castle” of Castle Island, and listening to the tour guide, a Southie native about my father’s age. “This fort was built back when were fighting the British,” he said, “just like we are still fighting them now in Northern Ireland.” What?!, I thought, but he went on without missing a beat.
Truthfully, this was not an uncommon sentiment in Boston of the Bicentennial era, and something like it stood behind the formal introduction of Evacuation Day in the 1941 by the Massachusetts legislature. Throughout the early part of the twentieth century, there was tension over “hyphenated Americans,” whose allegiance to their families’ countries of origin was the source of pubic criticism. By the 1940s, the Irish were so firmly in control of political matters in Massachusetts that they were able to make the state formally recognize their national holiday, even if under an assumed name. In short, Evacuation Day was declared a holiday because Irish-Americans were in a position to force the issue.
When I think of St. Patrick’s Day, it is always as a political holiday. While I have friends from Ireland who go to church on the saint’s day, I have never known an Irish-American to do so. It is a time of civic celebration, and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in South Boston was always an enormous events for local pols–I can still see them waving to the crowds from their enormous American convertibles, their supporters handing out buttons and bumper-stickers in their train. Attendance was mandatory for office-holders and -seekers, simply put. That was the political reality.
Political realities change, however. Today’s newsfeed is filled with the story of Boston’s new mayor, Marty Walsh, himself the son of Irish immigrants, skipping the Southie parade because organizers refuse to allow LGBT vets to march. As he stated,
The St. Patrick’s Day parade was born out of the celebration of Evacuation Day, a day set aside to recognize and honor our military and those brave Americans who have banded together for the sake of freedom. And so much of our Irish history has been shaped by the fight against oppression.
I’m disappointed that this year, I will be unable to participate in the parade. As mayor of the city of Boston, I have to do my best to ensure that all Bostonians are free to participate fully in the civic life of our city. Unfortunately, this year, the parties were not able to come to an understanding that would have made that possible.
The Mayors, and Guinness (as well as Sam Adams, and others) are acting on principle, of course, but they have also worked out the political calculus. Seventy years ago, one could no longer make nasty cracks about hyphenated Americans; today, the prejudice against homosexuals is in its death throes. The tide has turned, nor will it be stopped. If the parade is to continue to have any significance in the future, its organizers will have to change their minds about gay rights. Sometimes, a position simply has to be evacuated.
I am in Florida as I write this and here, as in Tennessee where I live, St. Patrick has no political connotations whatsoever. Insofar as the holiday bears any relation to Ireland, it vaguely has something to do with leprechauns and shamrocks. Myself, I spent the afternoon body-surfing with my sons. We jumped and played in the water, but I was thinking of the final lines of Yeats’ “Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea.” The old Irish hero takes his stand against the waves, but to no avail.
Stared on the horses of the sea, and heard
The cars of battle and his own name cried;
And fought with the invulnerable tide.