St. Patrick's Day: A special in Pittsburgh region since 1869
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Pittsburgh's first recorded St. Patrick's Day parade began at noon on March 17, 1869.
As many as 1,000 marchers stepped off at Grant Street and Second Avenue, the Pittsburgh Gazette reported the next day. "All along the route of procession the sidewalks were crowded with spectators, a large proportion of whom were the wives, sisters and mothers of the patriots in the ranks," the newspaper said.
The parade route included major streets in Pittsburgh and Allegheny, now the city's North Side. "Dr. E. Connelly and his numerous aides" directed the march. They were mounted "on gayly caparisoned steeds and decked in green sashes and ribbons, emblematical of the shamrock."
That first parade had an international flavor. The Great Western Band, an ensemble led by Balthasar Weis and made up primarily of German-American musicians, led the marchers.
Starting a pattern that is followed today, the day honoring Ireland's patron saint began with a morning Mass. In 1869, that service was held at old St. Paul Cathedral, which stood at Fifth Avenue and Grant Street. Some participants in the day's activities returned to the cathedral for a talk on "St. Patrick, Ireland and the Irish" by Pittsburgh's Spanish-born bishop, Michael Domenec.
"In the evening a grand ball was given at Lafayette Hall, which was participated in by a large number of persons, of both sexes, and which passed off without a single occurrence to mar the enjoyment of the occasion," the Gazette reported. Lafayette Hall was on Wood Street at Fourth Avenue.
By 1874, the size of the parade had increased exponentially. The Daily Post on March 17 predicted good weather for an event expected to draw "not less than ten thousand sturdy sons of Ireland."
"The streets were terribly muddy but the sky showed such decided signs of clearing off beautifully, that the crowd increased every moment," The Evening Leader reported on the day of the parade. The 1874 event drew Irish-American participants from several counties around Pittsburgh. Instead of a single German band, multiple musical groups took part, as did anti-alcohol temperance societies and many local divisions of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish-Catholic fraternal organization. Phillip Kelly, for example, led 100 members from New Castle's AOH division, according to the newspaper. Marching along with the Lawrence County delegation were musicians from the New Castle Cornet Band.
The reporter for The Leader appeared disconcerted by "the troops of unsoaped urchins, half wild with excitement, [who] ran along utterly regardless as to whose corns they stirred up, or how much mud they smeared on the well-polished boots of bystanders."
In a separate story, The Leader had praise for the city's clergy. "One of the best works of the Pittsburgh Catholic priesthood ever effected was to make this festival, which used to be distinguished by such disorder and drunkenness, the sober and well disciplined affair it has become within a few years past."
At the Mass before the parade, Bishop Domenec had prefaced the sermon "with a short address, advising those who intended to take part in the procession to conduct themselves so as to reflect credit on themselves, their nationality, and their religion," The Post reported the next day.
Easter came very early 100 years ago, and St. Patrick's Day fell on the Monday of Holy Week in 1913. As a result, "there will be no great popular festivities, no street parade, no frolicking," The Pittsburgh Press reported on March 17. Nevertheless, the city still was given over to green that day, "and every man with even a fraction of a drop of Irish blood in his veins will spend his lunch money, if need be, to secure a shamrock."
The main public event planned to honor St. Patrick that year was a dinner at the Hotel Schenley that drew 500 guests. It was sponsored by the Pittsburgh "court" of another Irish fraternal organization, the Knights of Equity. The Hotel Schenley is now the William Pitt Student Union at the University of Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh city Councilman P.J. McArdle was the toastmaster for the dinner. He introduced the main speaker, humorist and poet T.A. Daly, the editor of the Philadelphia-based Catholic Standard & Times.
French wit stings and pierces, Daly told the crowd, according to a story that appeared March 18 in The Gazette Times. Irish humor, on the other hand, "is more often the glint of sunlight on the blade: It menaces but seldom kills."
He concluded with the story of an overly polite Frenchman who claimed, "If I were not a Frenchman, I would wish to be an Irishman."
His blunter Gaelic acquaintance admitted, "If I wasn't an Irishman, I'd wish I was one."
Weather has not always been as cooperative on St. Patrick's Day as it was in 1874.
A fierce storm forced cancellation of the parade in 1903.
In 1956, the city called off the parade because of 9 inches of snow. Undaunted, about 200 men marched down Fifth Avenue anyway, according to an online parade history compiled by Michael R. Murphy.
And on March 13, 1993, several hundred people took part in an abbreviated St. Patrick's Day Parade held during what turned out to be a two-day "super-storm." That blizzard dumped almost 25 inches of snow on Pittsburgh.
First Published March 14, 2013 12:00 am