The Wearing of the Rainbow

'Tis shocking but true — the St. Patrick's Day parade in America isn't really about being Irish. How can that be, what with millions turning out in scores of cities and towns across the country to enjoy the processions of Irish pipe bands, step dancers and county societies? The answer is that behind these scenes of Hibernian pride and pageantry there lies a larger and more profound message of American inclusion and tolerance.

This message is evident in the parade's origin and evolution. The first recorded marches took place in colonial New York City (by regiments of Irish soldiers in the British Army). But it was in the mid-19th century that the parade as we know it took form. This coincided with both the massive influx of Irish immigrants to America due to the Great Famine and the sharp rise in anti-Irish bigotry by those convinced the Irish would never make good Americans.

As a result, these 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. They highlight the Irish contribution to America's evolving ethos of tolerance and inclusion.

A century and a half later, this same spirit motivates the groups of Irish lesbians and gays who in the 1990s began battling parade organizers in court and police in the street for the right to participate in the parade. Why do they bother, some ask — aren't there more pressing issues like AIDS research or hate crimes legislation?

The reason for their activism is clear: members of these groups see inclusion in the parade as a validation of their larger efforts to gain the full measure of respect and rights they believe they deserve. It's hardly going out on a limb to predict that they'll soon win that right. After all, similar groups are now allowed to march in parades in Ireland.

To see the truly pluralist implications of the St. Patrick's Day parade, one has only to look at the event calendars 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. The largest will take place not on March 17, but on September 4 — 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 traditional parades for Veterans Day and Labor Day, indicates a fragmentation of American society. Yet one only need look at the catastrophic results of ethnic, racial and religious hatred around the world — in places such as Kosovo, Rwanda, Israel, and of course, Northern Ireland — to appreciate the unprecedented degree to which Americans have found ways to weave ever more disparate groups into the national fabric. Surely we have a long way to go in pursuing this ideal, but it's important to recognize how far we've come.

It's in this sense that the St. Patrick's Day parade transcends the Irish experience in America. From the very beginning it has embodied the spirit of tolerance and inclusion that has helped propel forward the nation's remarkable and ongoing, if imperfect, experiment in multicultural democracy. Now that's something worth celebrating.

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.