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9/11 and 3/17: Closer Than You Think

by Edward T. O'Donnell on Mar 14, 2002

This weekend, as hundreds march to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, the most evident colors may very well be red, white and blue, not green. Parades from Boston to San Francisco will honor the heroes and victims of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.  Many will see this as an appropriate gesture because March 17 falls so soon after the six-month mark of 9/11, and the strong connection between municipal fire and police departments and Irish America.
 
A more profound reason why this linkage between Sept. 11 and March 17 makes sense is that beneath the annual scenes of Hibernian pride and pageantry on St. Patrick's Day there lies a larger and deeper message of American inclusion and tolerance.  Far from dividing Americans into warring camps, ethnic, cultural and religious celebrations such as those on March 17 indicate instead the strength and vitality of a multicultural society.
 
This message is evident in the St. Patrick's Day parade's origin and evolution. Although the first recorded St. Patrick's Day marches took place in colonial New York City, it was in the mid-19th century that the parade as we know it took form. Its appearance coincided with both the massive influx of Irish immigrants to the United States because of the Great Famine of the 1840s and the sharp rise in anti-Irish bigotry by those convinced the Irish would never make good Americans.
 
As a result, those early St. Patrick's Day parades expressed both the pride of the Irish in their heritage and their demand for acceptance as full and equal citizens. The parades make clear the Irish contribution to America's evolving ethos of tolerance and inclusion.
 
This pluralist implication of the St. Patrick's Day parades becomes more apparent as we look at the events held in cities and towns across the country on days other than March 17. Simply put, the original ethnic celebration in America and its dual message of pride and inclusion has spawned thousands of ethnic parades.  This year in New York City, the birthplace of the St. Patrick's Day parade, more than 40 such events will occur, from the Mexican Cinco de Mayo in the spring to the Italian Columbus Day in the fall. The largest will take place not on March 17, but on Sept. 2 — the annual West Indian Day Parade and Carnival.
 
Critics and pessimists among us have argued that this proliferation of ethnic parades, in contrast with the decline in the traditional parades for Veterans Day and Labor Day, indicates a fragmentation of American society. Yet we need only look at the catastrophic results of ethnic, racial and religious hatred around the world — in places such as Afghanistan, Kosovo, Rwanda, Israel and Northern Ireland — to appreciate the unprecedented degree to which Americans have found ways to weave ever more disparate groups into their national fabric. Surely we have a long way to go in pursuing this ideal, but it's important to recognize how far we have come.
 
So when this weekend's St. Patrick's Day parades pay tribute to those directly affected by the events of Sept. 11 with honor guards of New York City police officers and fire fighters, special moments of silence, and copious displays of red, white and blue, they will be more than mere gestures of solidarity.  Rather, they will highlight the central place the ethos of tolerance and inclusion has come to occupy in America's remarkable and ongoing, if imperfect, experiment in multicultural democracy.
 
It's hard to imagine a better way to both honor the victims and heroes of Sept. 11 and to reject the message of hatred and division delivered so violently that day by the terrorists.


Edward T. O'Donnell is an associate professor of history at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., and a writer for the History News Service.