Commercializing St. Patrick

As communication technology and international air travel boomed in the 1950s, world-wide marketing became a major industry, and among the “products” that became household names were St. Patrick, St. Patrick’s Day, and the various symbols of Irish heritage, most prominently, the shamrock.

St. Patrick’s Day parades were no longer attended by a few thousand spectators and read about in the next day’s newspaper. Rather, they were now viewed live by millions of people at home on their televisions. And when the manufacturers of consumer products saw this, their marketing departments saw not parades of a few hundred marchers, but

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rather a canvas for advertising. In the late 1950s, Rheingold Beer, hardly an historic Irish product, received untold free publicity as millions of New Yorkers watching their St. Paddy’s Day parade saw Dublin’s St. Laurence O’Toole Pipe Band march across their television screens, complements of Rheingold’s who brought them across the Atlantic for the sole purpose of participating in the parade, and advertising the brewery. This was, reportedly, the first ever instance of a band from Ireland being imported for New York’s parade, but certainly not the last.

Sponsors lined up to advertise their products on broadcasts of parades from far-off cities and from Ireland, as well as specially produced programs about the country of Ireland, its history and present-day persona, and on live broadcasts of addresses from the Taoiseach* honoring the holiday as the President of the United States does on American holidays such as the Fourth of July and Memorial Day.

The production and marketing of wide varieties of otherwise common consumer products, but manufactured in the color green, became a focal point of St. Patrick’s day commercialization. From green tablecloths and dinnerware and drinkware, to green stockings and sox and ties and vests and hats, to green noodles and bagels, and of course, to maybe the single
most commercial symbol of the dark side of the holiday, green beer, few product lines were missed in the annual race to cash in on the holiday’s immense and growing popularity.

In the early days of this commercialization process, the rapid expansion if air travel around the globe led to the spread of one of Ireland’s most precious symbols to far-off lands clearly not native to the item. And that item is… the shamrock. The shamrock was long a sacred symbol of Irish religiousness dating back to St. Patrick himself, who was said to
have used the shamrock to illustrate the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Since the 18th century, the shamrock has been identified as THE symbol of Ireland. Originally native to Ireland, the true shamrock differs from the plants commonly now sold throughout the US and much of the world, passed off as “shamrocks”. Back in the early 1950s, even those were generally unavailable in the US and the true shamrock was considered an exotic, unique plant, not to be confused with common but similar clover plants.

Never to let pass a significant marketing opportunity, the “mad men” advertising men of the early 1950s took advantage of the exotic shamrock to promote the first direct Pan American Airlines commercial flight between Ireland’s Shannon Airport, the country’s third busiest airport, and New York City. Just prior to St. Patrick’s day 1952, Pan Am widely advertised their having flown 100,000 fresh shamrock plants across the pond, handing them out to St. Patrick’s day parade marchers.

But, such blatant commercialization was not without criticism. In particular, organizers of the annual New York St. Patrick’s day parade, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), who ran the parade for 150 years until the mid-1990s, sough to emphasize a conservative Catholic interpretation of the Irish holiday, and attempted to prevent the sullying of the parade with crash commercialism. For years, the AOH rejected parade sponsorship offers and at one time even banned street vendors from the parade route.

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For years, the AOH was run by president James J. Comerford, and Harry M. Hynes, who used the title “Chairman, Committee on Arrangements Saint Patrick’s Day Parade and Celebration Committee”, and in the late 1950s under the auspices of the committee, Comerford and Hynes published a document entitled the “Rules and Regulations For The Conduct Of The Parade,” a tome strictly to be followed, and which in part codified their disdain for commercialism. In fact, it was Hynes who once famously stated that St. Patrick’s Day was NOT “Mardi Gras”!

*The head of the Irish government, akin to a Prime Minister

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