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Rollicking and Riotous: Looking for Trouble on St. Patrick’s Day

Annie Tock Morrisette, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Maine

Ahh, St. Patrick’s Day. The day folks dust off their Irish ancestors, put on a bit of green, reach for a pint, and crank up Flogging Molly, the Clancy Brothers, or the Dubliners.  Even the English celebrate these days; apparently we can thank Guinness marketing and the irresistible attraction of free swag for that (see the BBC article here). In my family, we celebrated with green milk in our cereal and a scavenger hunt that usually ended in the bathtub, dryer, or some other appliance with a convenient receptacle, with baskets of candy and tabloids for my brother and me. It was crazy. Meanwhile, in other parts of the Irish diaspora, St. Patrick’s Day has become an outlet for drunken debauchery—especially for college students. In my hometown of Champaign, Illinois, St. Patrick’s Day usually falls during the University of Illinois spring break. Finding it unacceptable to miss an opportunity to party on campus, students invented “Unofficial” in the mid-1990s. It’s now become a “thing,” and students from all over converge on the town to wear green and get drunk together. Check out this article for a brief explanation, or just google “unofficial.”  And it’s not just American students who like to party on St. Patrick’s Day; Canadians took it to the extreme in London, Ontario, in 2012 as revelers clashed with police.

Although St. Patrick’s Day seems to have evolved into a modern secular iteration of a traditionally religious holiday, drunkenness and violence has been a problem on this date for hundreds of years.

In Ireland, and often in the diaspora as well, St. Patrick’s Day has long been associated with the Irish nationalist cause. Combining fractious politics with religious animosity, contentious history, and drinking unsurprisingly led (and still occasionally leads) to violence. The late 1840s were characterized by sectarian violence in both Ireland and Canada, partially as a result of the intensification of the Irish Repeal Movement, the hardship brought on by the Famine, and a decline in local economies in North America that saw increasing competition for jobs and the growth of a nativist movement.  Although more attention has been paid to July 12th, the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, as a particularly contentious date in Ireland and the diaspora, some historians have argued that St. Patrick’s Day ought to be given its due as the counterpoint to the Protestant Twelfth.[1] March 17th certainly saw its share of violence in 1848 and 1849 in County Down in the north of Ireland.

Figure 1: Market House, downtown Ballynahinch. © Copyright Kenneth Allen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Original here.

Figure 1: Market House, downtown Ballynahinch. © Copyright Kenneth Allen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Original here.

On Friday, March 17, 1848, a Repeal procession waving flags and playing traditional Irish tunes paraded down the street in the town of Ballynahinch. They were soon set upon by ten to twelve assailants, and in the affray a man named McGuffock was shot in the hand by Finnegan, one of the marchers. Finnegan was arrested and jailed, and overnight a company of Orangemen one thousand strong occupied the town to prevent the unhappy prisoner’s comrades from rescuing him. Interestingly, lawyers for both parties argued for the dismissal of charges on the grounds that such a resolution was in the best interests of keeping the peace. To call 30-40 witnesses would only dredge up animosities and fan the flames of sectarian violence. The lawyer for the men in procession asserted, “I take it for granted—I am certain—that those I represent would succeed in having a number of those who had injured them put in jail; but, however they might feel when laboring under excitement, I am sure they feel differently in calm blood, and that not one of them would experience the slightest gratification in seeing them sent to jail.”[2] Not only would a trial negatively affect community relations, but the resulting convictions would also likely remove farmers from their fields during a time of famine, something no Irishman wanted to see. One magistrate dismissed the court with the hope that the involved parties would immediately go home and not “take any drink.”

The next year, local magistrates saw their hopes for peace through mutual leniency dashed when a major riot broke out on Saturday, March 17, as Ribbonmen celebrated the “anniversary” of their patron saint. Two people were killed (one police officer and a woman who sold gingerbread) and two seriously injured during a melee between 2,500-3,000 marchers and police and Orangemen. The procession gathered participants from surrounding towns, including Ballynahinch, and wound its way, amid occasional volleys of stones, to the center of the small town of Crossgar.

Figure 2: Old postcard photo of Crossgar showing Catholic Church spire. Courtesy of Nancy Schaalje on rootsweb.

Figure 2: Old postcard photo of Crossgar showing Catholic Church spire. Courtesy of Nancy Schaalje on rootsweb.

When marchers turned to process up a well-known Orange street, they found police blocking their route. Protesters and marchers continued to exchange insults and missiles when shots were fired. After about twenty minutes, the affray ended with no arrests made. Later testimony claimed that the marching Ribbonmen caught the Orangemen unprepared, although the fact that the police were farsighted enough to organize a blockade of Orange territory and call in military support ahead of time suggests an Orangeman who did not anticipate trouble was naïve indeed. Further, according to the “respectable witnesses,” the Orangemen were completely unarmed whereas fully two-thirds of the Ribbonmen carried firearms. One might wonder what the unreported testimony of the less respectable witnesses recalled.[3]

Accounts of these two St. Patrick’s Day riots reveal similarities to reports of Twelfth riots. The belligerents are the same, although their roles are reversed. Marchers gather from the surrounding area to process along a set route, part of which goes through the opposition’s territory.

Figure 3: 1847 map of County Down. Ballynahinch is shown; Crossgar is about halfway between it and Killyleagh to the east. Castlewellan, about 20 miles south of Ballynahinch, was the site of a major Twelfth riot in 1849. Screen capture of Sharpe's Corresponding Maps. Ireland. London – Published by Chapman and Hall, 186 Strand, 1847. Enlarged Series. From the David Rumsey Map Collection. For the full image, click here.

Figure 3: 1847 map of County Down. Ballynahinch is shown; Crossgar is about halfway between it and Killyleagh to the east. Castlewellan, about 20 miles south of Ballynahinch, was the site of a major Twelfth riot in 1849. Screen capture of Sharpe’s Corresponding Maps. Ireland. London – Published by Chapman and Hall, 186 Strand, 1847. Enlarged Series. From the David Rumsey Map Collection. For the full image, click here.

They carry flags and play tunes. The trouble usually begins in earnest toward the end of the march and the weapons of choice are stones. The police and military are called in to try to keep the adversaries apart and end up playing a significant role in the violence when their peacekeeping mission fails. It is interesting that the Belfast Newsletter refers to St. Patrick’s Day as an “anniversary,” perhaps indicating that the day was seen by contemporaries as the counterpart to the Twelfth. These similarities suggest that a comparative study of the two marching days could be helpful in improving our understanding of the role historical memory plays in acts of collective violence.

To conclude, it is worth mentioning that this year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York was not without controversy directly related to its Irish roots. Irish-Americans have long been associated with the Irish nationalist cause, and Irish republicans frequently take part in the NYC parade. This year, members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) were invited to march, too. Irish-American objections were eventually overruled when Sinn Fein and the Irish government claimed that banning the PSNI would be a step back for the ongoing peace process (see the article here) . Six officers marched—apparently behind a banner that read “England Get out of Ireland” (full article here). The fallout from this event is just getting started.

Annie Tock Morrisette, “Rollicking and Riotous:  Looking for Trouble on St. Patrick’s Day,” Khronikos: the University of Maine graduate history student blog (blog), March 19, 2014, http://khronikos.com/2014/03/19/rollicking-and-riotous-looking-for-trouble-on-st-patricks-day/.


[1] Michael Cottrell, “St. Patrick’s Day Parades in Nineteenth-Century Toronto: A Study of Immigrant Adjustment and Elite Control, ” in Franca Iacovetta, Paula Draper, and Robert Ventresca, eds., A Nation of Immigrants: Women, Workers, and Communities in Canadian History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 35.

[2] Belfast Newsletter, March 31, 1848.

[3] Belfast Newsletter, March 20 and March 23, 1849.

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