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Celebrating St Patrick’s Day in 1901

These days St Patrick’s Day, observed on 17 March, is a lively celebration of Irish culture. It usually features parades and festivals, beer and all things green. The event started as a religious holiday commemorating the life of St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. According to the Brittannica, ‘it was emigrants, particularly to the United States, who transformed St Patrick’s Day into a largely secular holiday of revelry and celebration of things Irish’, as far back as the eighteenth century.

In Sydney of the early 1900s, St Patrick’s Day was characterised by large public displays and celebrations. By the first decade of the twentieth century, Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran had managed to bring St Patrick’s Day mostly under ecclesiastical direction. Catholic causes needed the money – amongst other reasons, because Moran had inherited a massive, half-completed cathedral from his predecessors. What the episcopate wanted the Irish community to remember was not, however, necessarily what the secular community would choose to.

In Memory and Foresight in the Celtic World (edited by Lorna Barrow and Jonathan Wooding), one chapter, by Richard Reid, lovingly chronicles the celebration of St Patrick’s Day in 1901:

In 1901, the year of Federation, St Patrick’s Day fell on a Sunday. Having taken over the organisation of the day in the mid-1890s [Cardinal Patrick Francis] Moran could now do as he wished with it and on this occasion he staged his own significant disinterment and paraded not just two but four coffins through the main thoroughfares of central Sydney from St Benedict’s on Broadway to St Mary’s Cathedral. The large procession was led by key Catholic organisations such as the Australian Holy Catholic Guild, the Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit Society and a large contingent of religious.

Musical mood was created by the Royal Artillery Brass Band and the band of the Irish Rifles, while the Cardinal rode in front of the four coffins. One estimate put the crowd at 250,000 which, if anywhere near accurate, was a greater number than the estimated 100,000 who witnessed the Dwyer procession. The Freeman’s Journal’s explanation for this was that many non-Catholics turned out to pay tribute to those in the coffins, men considered in the public mind to be as much pioneer citizens of Sydney as what they had also been in life, leading Catholic priests and prelates.

In the coffins were the remains of Englishman Archbishop Bede Polding, Sydney’s first Catholic Archbishop appointed in 1835, and three Irishmen: Archpriest John Joseph Therry, one of the first two official Catholic priests appointed to the Colony of NSW in 1819; Father Daniel Power, who arrived in 1826 and died in 1830; and the Venerable Archdeacon John McEncroe, perhaps the most prominent Irish priest in the colony from his arrival in 1832 until his death in 1868. Irish rebellion generated two coffins for the semi-pageant of 1898; for this manifestation of the ‘Imperium in Imperio’ of the Hiberno-Roman church in Australia Moran produced four, and a bigger crowd. The Freeman’s Journal reporter on the spot gives a good sense of the spectacle: 

"Soon after the procession arrived, the front doors of the cathedral were thrown open and in a short time every seat was occupied. Thousands of people fought to gain an entrance. The strains of the bands could be heard in the distance, whilst overhead the cathedral bells rang out their peals changed only to the mournful wailing of the ‘Funeral march’ by the band of the Permanent Artillery. The members took their respective places in the cathedral allotted to them. The clergy on arriving walked through the lines, and took their places on the sanctuary, which was tastefully draped in white and black. His Eminence was the last to arrive, and having vested, accompanied by the clergy, and the students of St. Patrick’s College, Manly, proceeded to the main door in College Street, and received the remains, which were borne upon the shoulders of the bearers, and deposited upon four pedestals in front of the altar rails, where the acolytes placed six lighted candles. The Dies Irae and Benedictus were then chanted by the students."

His Eminence, having upstaged “rebel Ireland”, had found another suitable occasion to illustrate his preferred interpretation of their Irish heritage to his by now largely Australian-born Catholic flock.’

Cover of Memory and Foresight showing tombstones with crosses against blue sky.

Richard Reid also writes about the ‘St Mary’s Cathedral Fair’ of 1904. This was an ambitious brainchild of Moran that showcased imagery of the early Irish church (Moran was a noted scholar of the period). At its centre was a full-scale replica, cast from the original, of the great High Cross at Monasterboice in County Louth. Reid’s study includes a cultural biography of this object ­– now lost, although, one imagines, surely difficult to mislay. Anne-Maree Whitaker, in another contribution, tells the stories of some local veterans of the Irish Easter Rising of 1916 and of the annual celebration held every Easter since 1929 at Waverley Cemetery, in front of the monument (created in 1898) to commemorate the earlier Irish rising of 1798. As the saints of the ‘golden age’ of the Irish church were what Cardinal Moran most wanted the Irish community to remember, it is not surprising that in 1898 he had been equivocal about this rival shrine, one commemorating a more militant Irish nationalism. By 1966, however, the addition of a Mass to the Waverley celebrations had to some extent reconciled these visions.

There are twelve chapters in Memory and Foresight in the Celtic World, which includes contributions by long-established and early career scholars. They showcase detailed research, as well as engaging case studies of cultural memory among Irish, Welsh and Scottish people.