Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Grand St Patrick's Day Parade in Lowell - 1904

Edison Film, 1904
Each year after the opening Mass for Irish Cultural Week a few hardy souls brave the usually, frigid, often snowy, frequently windy weather that March throws at us and parade down Suffolk Street to Merrimac Street to City Hall.  The procession is made up of members of the AOH and LAOH, members of St. Patrick’s Parish, representatives from the Lowell Police and Fire Departments, and some folks who wish to preserve the Irish tradition.  At City Hall, speeches are made, anthems are sung, and the Irish and American flags are raised.  As the years pass it seems the numbers have decreased.  What many don’t realize is that they are carrying on what their ancestors began over 175 years ago in Lowell.  After their arrival in 1822, it did not take long before the Irish began celebrating their patron’s feast day. 

As the numbers increased so did the festivities, even causing problems in the mills with Irish taking unpaid leave to celebrate with Mass, entertainments, and toasts reaching far into the night.  The day was almost considered a holy day of obligation with every Catholic church having special liturgies.  Of course Saint Patrick’s, being the mother Church, would be filled with parishioners and those who returned to the family roots.  Mentioned is made in accounts through the 19th century of parades being formed and later more formal processions with bands and social groups being formed.  The mother of all these parades was held in 1904.  Days before the newspapers built excitement with posting of the routes and the many organizations that were to take part.  Court was even closed early so all could be part of the day.  Individual citizens and groups took it upon themselves to decorate street signs, store fronts, and homes with bunting and cloth flowers.
Edison Film, 1904

We’re uniquely fortunate that there is actually moving film of the parade itself.  (The Library of Congress has preserved the film at American Memory http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mKzcjKDgxHY )  Thomas Alva Edison had begun sending crews around to record American events.  The clip is only 3 minutes long, but says so much.  The parade began by St. Michael’s Church down by the mills, hooking onto Suffolk to Broadway to City hall, to Merrimack, to Central, to Sacred Heart Church.  There were over 1500 marchers.  The city’s fire alarm sounded once to let the citizens who thronged the streets know the marchers were on their way.  The City police forces led the way many of them on horseback with the horses festooned with green carnations.  It was also noted the numbers of bouquets that were carried by many of the marchers, the city had not seen so many flowers before.  The officials of the parade rode in carriages.  Three full divisions followed the marshals.  Division after division of Hibernians from Nashua, Lawrence, Haverhill, and Chelmsford made up the first division.  Bands and fife and drum corps played patriotic and Irish airs.    “The Harp That Once Thru Tara’s halls” was a favorite of the crowd.  Drum majors threw their batons in the air stirring the crowd.  Military and veteran groups marched in formation dressed in full uniforms and carrying rifles.  Mr. McEvoy’s jaunting cart, direct from Ireland, was a must see.  The oldest Irish organization in the city, the Irish Benevolent Society, marched proudly as they had since the first parades in the 1840s. 

Edison Film, 1904
Saint Patrick’s Church’s fire in January of that year necessitated a move to Sacred Heart Church where everyone gathered for Mass following the parade.  (Die-hard parishioners still gathered in the basement of the church to carry on the tradition that began since the first Irish arrived.)  Following Mass, marchers and spectators alike filled every hall and tavern in the city to sing their songs and recite the deeds of their ancestors.  They promised themselves that the tradition would continue year after year.

When I read the account from 1904, I thought of how Lowell celebrates the Saint’s day today and how our culture will continue.  I recalled this year’s flag raising and the hearty souls who showed up.  I imagine what it was like 100 years ago and ask myself what our ancestors would say of us.