Deborah Rotman | March 22, 2017
Each year on March 17 people across the United States celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and their Irishness or faux Irishness, as the case may be. It may come as a surprise, however, that at Notre Dame, the home of the Fighting Irish, the University’s founder, Father Edward Sorin, CSC, actually banned observance of the holiday.
Although St. Patrick’s Day is a traditional feast day in Ireland, the holiday as we know it is a uniquely Irish-American phenomenon. In the 19th century, however, March 17 raised some interesting tensions for Irish immigrants. Native-born U.S. residents were already suspicious of Irish Catholics, who were viewed as having allegiance to a foreign power — the pope. Celebrations of Irishness were viewed as further evidence that the Irish were not American and were a potential threat. It was to combat this perception that Father Sorin, who famously sponsored Fourth of July celebrations for the South Bend community to prove American loyalty, forbade the observance of St. Patrick’s Day.
Of course, Irish immigrants have been coming to America since long before there even was a United States. An estimated one-quarter to one-half million people emigrated from Ireland between 1700 and 1820, many of whom were Presbyterians from the Ulster Province of Northern Ireland. Immigration continued to increase in the 19th century, particularly during the famine and post-famine periods. In the decades before the Civil War, an estimated additional 2 million Irish, mainly Catholics from the provinces of Munster and Connacht, came to the United States.
According to the 2008 census, more than 36 million U.S. residents claim Irish ancestry today. Although individuals and families within particular waves of migration held some commonalities, Irish immigration to America has always been remarkably diverse, including varied religious traditions (such as Anglican, Baptist and Quaker), social classes from all along the economic spectrum, and different occupational backgrounds, both skilled and unskilled.