J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

St. Patrick's Day in Boston, 1769

In Suffolk County, the 17th of March is Evacuation Day, commemorating the departure of the British army from Boston in 1776. By coincidence, the same date has long been St. Patrick’s Day. So the provincial society that viewed most Irish with suspicion and contempt has ended up producing a legal holiday when people celebrate Irish culture. Ain’t America wonderful?

I looked through my files for any references to St. Patrick’s Day from the Revolutionary period, and found one—of a sort. It appeared in the “Journal of the Times,” a series of newspaper essays sent out by Boston’s Whigs to printers in other American towns after the army first arrived in late 1768. Those articles reported on conflicts between the British military and the locals, always favoring the latter.

The “Journal” dispatch for 20 Mar 1769 said:

Saturday last [i.e., 18 March] being the anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act, the same was noticed as has been usual. The British flag was displayed on Liberty Tree, and at noon a number of gentlemen met in the hall under the same [see above], and the greatest order and decorum observed by the company.

The confinement of the soldiery to their barracks upon Saturday, together with a wicked report, which was spread among them by our enemies, that the Sons of Liberty had intended, to expose the effigy of St. Patrick, upon the Tree of Liberty, on said day, so provoked our military, that numbers of the three companies, quartering at Murray’s sugar-house [rented out by magistrate James Murray, but actually owned by his sister Elizabeth Smith], determined to sally forth that night, and cut down the Tree of Liberty;

accordingly, just before 11 o’clock the signal was given by firing a gun, as was intended, over the guard house, when by carelessness they fired a brace of balls [i.e., two musket balls] through the same, but happily hurt no one; immediately thereupon every man was out with his arms complete; and also axes and saws, to demolish the Tree of Liberty;

one soldier in his freak, fired a ball from one room to another, and shot the tail of a sergeant’s shirt off, but did no other damage: The officers were immediately alarmed, and by their intreaties and promise of pardon; the soldiery returned to their barracks, and remained quiet through the night.
How much of this happened exactly this way? Though the “Journal” insists that the rumor about the effigy of St. Patrick was spread by provocateurs, Bostonians did parade with anti-Catholic effigies on Pope Night, and they did complain about how many of the soldiers were Irish Catholics.

As for the uproar in the guard house, I wouldn’t be surprised if the soldiers did get rowdy because of the holiday, their confinement, and the hostility of the town. But it would be characteristic of the Whigs to blame all the disturbance on a conspiracy aimed at their symbol of liberty.

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