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The incredible story of America’s first St. Patrick’s Day celebration

A statue of St. Patrick at a church named after him in Northwest Washington. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)
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The story of America’s first known Saint Patrick’s Day celebration begins and ends not in an Irish-American enclave of Boston or New York but in the crumbling colonial splendor of Seville, Spain.

It was there, inside the reading room at the grand Archivo General de Indias in December, that J. Michael Francis stumbled upon something that made even him — Florida’s answer to Indiana Jones — laugh out loud.

Buried among thousands of scorched pages of Spanish colonial records from the late 16th and early 17th centuries — receipts for armaments and ship supplies and construction materials and even chalices for churches in the New World — was a list of gun powder expenditures in what was then Spain’s northernmost colony in the Americas: St. Augustine, Florida.

Francis, a history professor at the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg, had spent two weeks poring over the documents. It was his second-to-last day, and he was eager to get home for Christmas. As he read about canons fired in 1600 in honor of the city’s patron, San Augustin, his eyes almost skipped over the mention of another saint, out of place in Colonial America.

San Patricio, a.k.a. Saint Patrick.

“At first, it didn’t register because it was so unexpected,” Francis said in an interview. “Then I thought, wait a second, they had a St. Patrick’s Day celebration in St. Augustine in 1600?”

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There was another entry from a year later, on March 17, 1601, describing not just a celebration for Saint Patrick but a parade — the first known Saint Patrick’s Day parade in what would eventually become the United States.

“They processed through the streets of St. Augustine, and the canon fired from the fort,” Francis said, adding that the marchers likely would have carried an image of the saint and celebrated with food, drink and music. The document also named Saint Patrick “the protector” of the city’s maize fields.

“So here you have this Irish saint who becomes the patron protector of a New World crop, corn, in a Spanish garrison settlement,” Francis said. “It’s one of those things you encounter that doesn’t change the universe, but it was … really quite striking.”

The remarkable discovery also raised an intriguing question: How did Saint Patrick come to be celebrated in the colony 250 years before the Great Famine drove a million people out of Ireland, many of them to America?

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The answer was also found in the fragile documents.

He was known as Padre Ricardo Artur. But his real name was Richard Arthur, and long before he was the priest in St. Augustine, he’d been an Irish soldier.

Likely born in Limerick, Arthur had joined military campaigns in Malta, Italy and Flanders, probably to escape the oppressive conditions facing Catholics in Ireland at the time, Francis said. Arthur eventually became a priest, serving as the chaplain for San Juan, Puerto Rico, before coming to St. Augustine in 1597.

“It fits beautifully into this kind of Irish narrative that there are Irish people everywhere, and it’s true,” Francis said, laughing. “He’s one of them. You know? He’s all over the place, and he likely spent most of his life outside Ireland.”

While Arthur was likely responsible for St. Augustine celebrating Saint Patrick, he wasn’t alone. There was at least one more Irishman in the city at the time, according to Francis. His name was Darby Glavin, but the Spanish often couldn’t pronounce his name, so they called him “David Glavid” or, even simpler, “Davi Glavi.”

Glavin’s globe-trotting was even more impressive than the priest’s, Francis found. The Irishman was working as a merchant marine in Europe when he was captured by the British and sent to colonize Roanoke. After a year and a half in the ill-fated Virginia colony, he returned to England only to be sent back to Roanoke. This time, he escaped during a stop in Puerto Rico.

“In his testimony recorded more than a decade later,” Francis wrote on his blog, “[Glavin] claimed that he immediately informed Puerto Rico’s Spanish governor of an English plot to attack the island.”

Glavin moved to St. Augustine around the same time as Arthur, splitting his days between soldiering and selling fine silk, according to Francis.

This little-known story of the first recorded Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in what would become the United States is a testament not only to the adventurousness of the Irish, Francis said, but also the diversity found in colonial America.

“I like to imagine these two, lone Irishmen celebrating this venerable Irish saint around a bunch of other Spaniards, Portuguese, Native Americans and people of African descent,” he said. “This whole community celebrating San Patricio.”

His findings have upended the longstanding belief that Boston had the country’s oldest documented celebration of Saint Patrick, in 1737, and that New York City had the first parade, in 1762.

Unlike New York City, however, St. Augustine’s San Patricio parades did not continue. They appear to have died along with Father Arthur, before being revived only recently, Francis said.

For the professor, the importance of his find isn’t which city has green-beer bragging rights. He spoke to The Post while in Washington for the launch of La Florida, an interactive digital archive of the Americas that tells the stories of forgotten figures from colonial Florida like Arthur and Glavin.

“We want to get people excited again about how incredible this country’s history is,” he said, “long before the American Revolution and other more well-known episodes in U.S. history.”

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