1901: How the St Patrick's Day parade in Cork city came about

With this year's St Patrick's Day parades cancelled, join Antóin O'Callaghan on a march back in time to reveal the history of the Cork city event
1901: How the St Patrick's Day parade in Cork city came about

PRIDE OF PLACE: The Farriers’ Society taking part in a St Patrick’s Day parade through Cork city in the early 20th century. A farrier was a smith who shoed horses

AT a meeting of the Nationalist Cork Young Ireland Society (CYIS) on February 17, 1901, a resolution was passed inviting “kindred societies and the Cork United Trades to a public meeting for the purpose of making arrangements to celebrate St Patrick’s Day in the city”.

The Lord Mayor indicated his support and all the city bands also expressed their willingness to co-operate with the plan.

Celebrating the feast day of Ireland’s patron saint wasn’t new. As far back as the temperance movements, processions were held on March 17; in 1898, the boys of the Greenmount Band paraded the main streets.

But the 1901 event was all-encompassing — celebrating St Patrick’s Day “in a manner befitting the great festival”. It was the first pan-nationalist endeavour that saw many groups in public procession together, with the underlying aim to help make Ireland a nation once again. It turned out to be a great success.

“Not since the halcyon days of Parnell,” wrote the Cork Examiner the next day, “has a demonstration of such vast dimensions been witnessed in our city.”

It was also noteworthy that a letter was read from the Roman Catholic Bishop of Cork, Dr Thomas O’Callaghan, expressing his approval of the celebration.

Over the next two years, the procession became a calendar highlight in the city’s culture. But, by 1904, there was tension between the Nationalists and the Trades.

Chairman of the Trades Council, George Coates, informed delegates that a recent article in the Evening Echo stated that the previous year’s event was carried out by the national societies but no mention was made of the Trades’ Society. Consequently, the Council had decided the Trade and Labour Movement would not play second fiddle to any other movement. On the continent, Labour Day was held, but in Cork they all believed that honouring St Patrick was their Labour Day.

A compromise meant the procession went ahead, but the year after, neither the Trades nor the Nationalists were willing to engage with each other. It fell to the National Foresters to organise it. There were fewer participants and no public meeting or speeches on this occasion.

In 1906, the CYIS invited like-minded organisations and the Trade and Labour bodies to join them at the unveiling of the National Monument on St Patrick’s Day.

More than 70 groups gathered at Parnell Place at noon that Saturday and almost 7,000 people were reported as participating in the procession to the Monument. Guests of honour were Nationalist writer Fr Patrick Kavanagh and veteran Fenians Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa of West Cork and Charles Guilfoyle Doran of Cobh.

The year 1911 was significant in the annals of St Patrick’s Day parades in the city, as it was the first time proceedings were recorded in visual format in the press.

Four photos in the Cork Examiner showed pupils of the Christian Brothers, the Cork Young Men’s Society contingent, the students of the North Monastery and finally the Butter Exchange Band.

Both the Irish and National Volunteers were active participants in the processions. In 1916, the National Volunteers made a highly significant symbolic statement. Under the command of Lt C.P. Murphy, four boys kept a space roped off as they made their way through the streets. They carried cards with the words ‘This space is reserved for the 400 of our comrades now fighting for Ireland in the trenches’.

All changed the following year. The first organising meeting was held on February 5 at the presbytery of SS Peter and Paul’s Church, under the chairmanship of Very Rev Patrick Canon O’Leary, Parish Priest.

A letter was read from Bishop of Cork Dr Daniel Cohalan expressing his approval that “the confraternities should organise the St Patrick’s Day procession”. Canon O’Leary told the meeting people who were not members of confraternities should walk with the confraternity of the parish in which they lived.

For three years, the St Patrick’s Day procession in Cork took the same form as that of 1917, not just a purely religious occasion, but a purely Roman Catholic one.

In 1918, “the procession was of gigantic dimensions — a great spectacle. It was a splendid demonstration of Catholic fervour”. After the singing of Dóchas Linn Naoimh Pádraig; Hymn To St Patrick; Hymn To St Finbarr and Faith Of Our Fathers, the Bishop blessed the crowd, which then dispersed.

The 1922 procession was the last to take place for many years. With civil war in the country and Cork one of the main centres of conflict, it would not be held again for almost three decades. Public worship by the Roman Catholic faithful would resume much sooner than that, however.

From 1901, the re-establishment of a procession through the streets each St Patrick’s Day created a calendar event that facilitated public expression of individual and group identity and ambition.

Extracted from Processions And Parades In Cork City, 1898-1932, by Antóin O’Callaghan. Published by History Cork. Contact historycork@gmail.com

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