Inside the Holidays: St. Patrick’s Day 

Written by Meghan E. Gattignolo 

You don’t have to be Irish to know about and enjoy St. Patrick’s Day. You don’t have to be religious either. Like a few holidays we have previously discussed in this blog, St. Patrick’s Day is a Catholic saint’s feast day. So, why do so many Americans party gratuitously on March 17? 

St. Patrick
St. Benin’s Church, Kilbennan, County Galway, Ireland
Photo by Andreas F. Borchert via Wikimedia Commons

St. Patrick’s Day has become more than just a saint’s feast day. St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, became a cornerstone of Irish identity for immigrants in the 19th century. The infamous potato blight that hit all of Europe in 1847 was particularly disastrous for the Irish, many of whom depended on the potato as their main source of food. About a million people starved to death in Ireland, and another million immigrated to the United States. That number grew to over 4 million by 1930. This dam-busting flood of immigration was actually the second big wave of Irish immigration. Due to rough socio-economic conditions that existed in Ireland for centuries, the Irish had been coming to America since colonial times.  

As a direct result of this exodus from Ireland, a large number of Americans can claim some Irish ancestry. According to, Americans who claim Irish ancestry number over 31.5 million as of 2020, making it second only to German.  

In the late 19th century, the Irish were heavily discriminated against. Especially in dense cities in the Northeast, it was hard to find work. Groups of Irish immigrants banded together and bonded over the shared sadness of their lost country, and St. Patrick’s Day became a day to celebrate Irish-ness openly. 

St. Patrick’s Day in America
Designed by Hogan; drawn by Lucian Gray
Thomas Kelly, lithographer, ca. 1871
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

While many Americans have much Irish heritage to celebrate, so do many Tennesseans. While the U.S. states with the most Irish ancestry are also the states with the highest populations, Tennessee is indeed bubbling with Irish heritage, represented in every Tennessee county. According to data gathered between 2016-2020, 9.7% of Montgomery County’s population alone identifies as having some amount of Irish ancestry, incidentally the same percentage as the entire U.S. population. 19,928 residents in Montgomery County alone are Irish, or identify as Irish. 

Near the top of the list for the most-Irish county in Tennessee is Houston County, where Erin is the city seat. A whopping 14% of the population is Irish. The high concentration of Irish ancestry is a direct result of the Irish immigrant railroad workers who used the site of Erin as a workers’ camp in the mid-19th century. Erin is just a quick 30-minute drive southwest from Downtown Clarksville. Every year, the city hosts an Irish Day parade and celebration, and is considered one of the biggest Irish festivals in the country. 

Erin, Tennessee Irish Day Parade and Arts & Crafts Festival
Photo by James Gray Studios, in affiliation with the Houston County Arts Council

Tennessee can claim Irish heritage in other ways, too. Nashville was founded by John Donelson and James Robertson, whose parents were both Irish. Nashville’s biggest export even has Irish roots – country music evolved from the fiddle music enjoyed by the people who settled in the Appalachian Mountains, which itself came from traditional Irish folk songs. 

Besides parades and pub crawls, how else can you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year? There are many ways to enjoy the day. I love to blast Irish pub songs at home, serve my kids a green breakfast and maybe do a themed craft. Celebrate Ireland’s rich literary heritage by reading a book by an Irish author or about Ireland. Hold a limerick contest with your friends and family to see who can come up with the funniest lines. Of course, cooking good Irish food is a must. I like authentic recipes, like my favorite potato soup and lamb stew.  

Oh, and don’t forget to wear green! Sláinte! 

Meghan E. Gattignolo is a freelance writer and longtime Clarksville, TN resident. She loves to obsess about historical subjects and annoy her family daily with unsolicited random facts. Meghan holds a B.A. in History from Austin Peay State University and lives in town with her husband and two daughters. 

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