New Hibernia Review 8.3 (2004) 18-30
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Toasters and Boasters:
John D. Crimmins's St. Patrick's Day (1902)
E. Moore Quinn
The North American celebration of St. Patrick's Day on or near March 17 has, during recent decades, been marked by an ever-growing accretion of slogans and symbols. In practically any gift shop, posters of rainbows and pots of gold announce the approach of the holiday, as do greeting cards whereon leprechauns declare "Top o' the mornin' to ye," and command, along with the familiar lapel button, "Kiss me I'm Irish." Yet all this is of recent origin. The earliest commemorations of the day in North America were of a very different order. Central to these early St. Patrick's Day observations were banquets and other formal events that featured multiple toasts. In colonial America and in the early republic, these events included tributes to "the glorious memory of King William"1 followed by the playing of "God Save the King."1 Moreover, the celebrants were as likely to hail commerce and local politics as they were to praise Saint Patrick; for instance, this toast was delivered at a 1766 New York gathering: "Success to the Sons of Liberty in America; may they never want Money, Interest, nor Courage to Maintain their Just Rights" (SPD26).
We learn these facts in St. Patrick's Day: Its Celebration in New York and Other American Places, 1737 - 1845, a privately published work by a New York contractor and amateur ethnologist who possessed an intense pride in his Irish heritage. John Daniel Crimmins (1844-1917) was one of New York City's most prominent citizens of Irish descent in the late nineteenth century. The son of immigrants—his father was also a contractor—Crimmins played a prominent role as a New York businessman; in addition to buildings, hospitals, and churches, Crimmins's firm constructed much of the city's elevated railway system and laid its earliest underground telegraph and telephone lines. At one point, Crimmins employed 12,000 workers. He was a leading donor to the building of St. Patrick's Cathedral, and maintained a lively membership in such Irish organizations [End Page 18] as the American Irish Historical Society and the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick.2
Although Crimmins's book is intended, at least in part, to provide evidence of the venerable and distinguished pedigree of the American Irish, Crimmins himself appears to understand that the 1840s marked a watershed in the group's history. He opened his collection with what he had found to be the earliest American celebration of St. Patrick's Day, the founding of Boston's Charitable Irish Society in 1737. He closed with 1845, the representative date for the onset of the Great Famine, remarking that thereafter "a new epoch" was about to unfold (SPD5). Crimmins's method was to collect records of St. Patrick's Day celebrations from Irish benevolent societies like the New York Druid's Lodge, the Sons of Erin in Washington, D.C., and the Hibernian Benevolent Society of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Culling items of interest, he reprinted lodge records and minutes of club meetings, detailing when, where, and in what manner the March 17 festivities took place. Many of his primary sources were newspapers, wherein were published not only the names of St. Patrick's Day celebrants but often their exact words, which were uttered over raised glasses to "toast" the occasion.
Crimmins includes thumbnail sketches of the lives of the more than 550 Irishmen who are cited in the work. In addition, he gathers together numerous encomia to the Irish from the American elite. In 1781 for example, Crimmins reports that at the receipt of the gold Medal of Excellence from Philadelphia's Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, George Washington is reported to have identified them as "so worthy a Fraternity" (SPD222). In 1833, Andrew Jackson, then president of the United States, visited Boston's Charitable Irish Society and declared, "It is with great pleasure that...