St. Patrick’s Day drinking masks a history of troubles

Henry VIII of England and St. Patrick in stained glass

St. Patrick’s Day is a good time to reflect on the religious division that has driven the history of the Western Hemisphere.

The division between Catholic and Protestant has defined much of history. And it also explains why the Irish were treated as second-class citizens during much of their time in the United States.

Spain and the former Spanish empire in America, then as now, was principally Catholic. Henry VIII of England created the dividing line. So the British colonies in North America came from Protestant traditions and existed uneasily with the Catholics to the south.

The same tension existed in Ireland where the British conquerors created anti-Catholic laws that forbade education, land ownership and voting by Catholics. The so-called Irish Problem was a continuing political irritation to England. It still is.

Curiously the first St. Patrick Day celebrations in what is now the United States were in Boston and New York and the participants were mostly Irish Protestants. That was before the U.S. Revolutionary War.

A.M. Costa Rica has reported on the Batallón de San Patricio, a U.S. unit of Irish Catholics who switched allegiance to México during the Mexican-American War. They claimed prejudice and mistreatment due to their religion.

There were other troubles including the 1863 draft riots in new York City, popularized by Leonardo DiCaprio in “Gangs of New York.” Religion and discrimination were factors.

During the various turbulent times in Ireland, the parades in the United States reflected the local support for the Irish. ‘England, get out of Ireland,” was a frequent slogan. Some U.S. officials worried, sometimes with reason, that citizens and Irish immigrants would side with Germany during World War I and World War II because of their hatred of England. The British had the same problem but much bigger.

Somewhere along the way, St Patrick’s Day evolved into a time for amateur drinkers who would down a concoction of green dye and beer. Most drinkers do not reflect on the discrimination and social problems that made St. Patrick’s Day and its parades a time for protest.

Few remember that John Kennedy had to speak before Protestant clergymen during his presidential campaign to vow that he would not be beholden to the pope, if elected.

Now the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere is faced with another religious division that has sown terror, fear and mistrust. There may be some lessons from the Irish experiences.

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