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March 7, 2012

When Saint Patrick’s Day was British

a loyalist bull celebrating St. Patrick's DaySt Patrick’s day “a day always precious in the estimation of the Irishman, was celebrated yesterday at the Free Mason’s Tavern.” Reported the Morning Chronicle.

So the famous playright Sheridan, the Mayor of London, and a few other notables celebrated St. Patrick’s, so what? Well, unlike in previous years, British newspapers in 1812 saw trouble brewing in these celebrations.

As with other national days in the UK, such as the Welsh St. David’s or the Scottish St. Andrew’s, the revellers drank to the health of the organisers and to the royal family. Well, toasts were proposed anyway.

But when the Marquis of Lansdown proposed a toast to the Prince Regent, the future George IV who was running the country for George III during his father’s “illness”, in addition to the usual polite applause were “loud reiterated hisses.”

The Irish at the tavern weren’t completely Republican yet, the Prince Regent’s mum and dad got “rapturous applause”, as did “the navy and the army”, which got five minutes of continuous applause.

On that day, Wellington, commanding British and Portuguese troops, commenced firing in what would become the siege of Bajadoz in Spain.  In addition to the Generalissimo Wellington, many other “sons of Erin” were fighting under the banner of the British.

The Irish were proud of the Duke of Wellington, and that their island was a “bulwark inspired by the immortal Nelson”, even if they wouldn’t hear about his latest adventures until much later.

So why did they hiss the Prince Regent? The journalist for the Morning Chronicle mentioned something about bad food and wine, but others slyly commented that the food there was “surprising good.”

And the entertainment wasn’t that bad either. Apparently, there was “a spectacle, the most interesting which imagination can conceive.”

The Spectacle

While the Morning Chronicle didn’t describe the spectacle in London, the Caledonian Mercury described the kind of thing you might expect for a British St. Patrick’s Day.

Long before the parades with everything painted green, St. Patrick’s Day was an occasion for a masquerade, a time to dress up, a “caricature of real life, a sort of stage, and like the theatre, affording similar means of censuring the vices, and lashing out at the follies of our age.”

In Irish commuties throughout the British Isles, these costumes were marched in procession, sometimes pouring out into the street for passers by the see, much like a parade. (There was no mention of any particular color preference in the costumes involved.)

In Edinburgh, these costumes included:

  • a mock doctor,
  • a French marquis,
  • a blue stocking lady,
  • two poets:  one mad, the other starving,
  • an old lady and a gentleman from the old school, and their daughter from the country,
  • Lady Penelope Primrose, an old maid,
  • a spy from the Inquisition
  • Gipsies
  • and many others.

Early 19th century multiculturalism

While there were similarities in the traditions of the Irish masquerade and those of other parts of Britain, it appears that one of the distinguished guests of the party, Lord Moira, saw it as evidence of what we might now call “multiculturalism.”

Moira had strong praise for multiculturalism, which he saw as a British trait.  Moira said that national holidays like St. Patrick’s

“nourished the nobler feelings of patriotic virtue, and there was an indefinable something which bound us to our native soil, which no cold blooded reasoning could explain or arrive at.

They, indeed, who would assimilate all the different features which constituted the British empire into one mass, would reduce then people of each kingdom to the guise of a worm shilling, in which all the mintage, all that gave a stamp and currency, all that distinguished between sterling bullion and base coin, was smothered away.”

Lord Moira was a regular speaker at the celebrations in the Freemason’s Tavern.  Most of his speeches were unremarkable. When he spoke in 1800″the nature of the institution being purely benevolent, no political discussion was introduced,”  according to Jackson’s Oxford Journal.

Indeed, as the Morning Chronicle confirmed the 1801, the main purpose of the event was to raise money for poor children and give them opportunities. Those children who benefited paraded in front of the revellers, where the donators looked on like proud godparents.

However, Moira had mentioned a little politics in 1801. “A veil,” he said, “should be thrown over the past, and all political animosities being laid aside, a spirit of enlightened patriotism should animate every bosom.” In conclusion, Moira optomistically predicted “the future tranquility and happiness of the United kingdom,” which now included England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

paddies with the regent - from an old woodcut

The Paddies with the Regent

Music was the order of the day.  About 400 people showed up a year. It was a festive occasion, normally enjoyed by all those present.

In 1802, Moira praised the army, who was driving Napoleon’s forces from Egypt. In 1803, he had announced that the Prince had given 100 gineaus to the society, while “our ancient foe is at our gates.”

“French protection is another word for oppression chains” he declared, stating that Europe was a in crisis which was bad for Protestants and Catholics alike.

And so, throughout the years, the mood at the Freemason’s Hall was festive, patriotic, and charitable.  The revellers never forgot why they were there, to raise money to give fair opportunities to poor children, as their Welsh and Scottish counterparts had done on their national days.  And they cheered the generosity of their honoured guests and royal patrons, (even if politically they didn’t always see eye to eye.)

But during the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations of 1812, there was hissing whenever the Prince Regent’s name was mentioned. His donation to the society didn’t seem to shrink, so what was the problem?

Sheridan supports the Prince

When a toast was raised to Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the playwright, one of the most generous and well known patrons, Sheridan applauded for three minutes. The crowd enthusiastically shouted “Mr. Sheridan’s health! Mr. Sheridan’s Health!”

The up-till-then popular Sheridan seemed reluctant to speak.  He applauded Ireland, with pride, and the playwright “hoped that his country might never have cause to be ashamed of” the man who stood before them. Sheridan spoke of all the great things and small things people had done in their devotion to Ireland, and it seemed like it would be an unremarkable speech.

Then, recalling the hisses that his generous friend the Prince Regent received earlier, Sheridan spoke in defense of the Prince as one of Ireland’s “friends.”

– The Crowd interrupted Mr. Sheridan with negative sounds.

Sheridan waited for the room to go quiet enough to continue.

When it finally did, Sheridan said that he “knew the Price Regent well.”

– The crowd hissed at this.

– Sheridan knew the Prince’s principles.

– More Hisses.

– The crowd would, “at least,” he hoped, “give me credit for believing that I knew them, when I say I do.”

Perhaps the crowd grew tired of hissing, for this was met with some applause.

– Sheridan was “sorry to have merited” the crowd’s “disapprobation.” he said, to general applause.

– “Speak out and change the subject!” voices in the audience cried.

But Sheridan didn’t change the subject. He said that he “could only assume, then, that the Prince Regent remained true to these principles.”

“The clamours became so loud and general” complained the journalist covering the story, that he could not hear any more of Sheridan’s speech.

This wasn’t a happy St. Patrick’s Day, and the Morning Chronicle noted “A cheerless something which we cannot pretend to either describe or account for.”

Why the change of heart?

Was it the unpopular act of union? If so, why did it take over a decade for it to ruin the proceedings?

Some say this Act of Union, which created the United Kingdom and cut away the Irish parliament, destroyed Ireland.

Though Ireland was regularly receiving subsidies from the mother country, it had little say in its own government. The other parts of Britain were growing resentful at the money that was going to Ireland.

Added insults included the fact that Irish catholics were not allowed to go to University, could not serve in the Union Parliament, and had even been prohibited from holding public prayer meetings.

Meanwhile, the Prince Regent was getting government subsidies for his outlanding lifestyle. He, and many of his supporters, opposed even talking about the “Irish question” in Parliament.

By showing his support for the unpopular Prince Regent on that occasion, it is possible that Sheridan ruined not only his career, but his future reputation.

The audience clapped when he sat down, allegedly respectful of his past work, and other toasts were drunk (and apparently other speakers were heard.) However, the mood never quite cheered.

(notes:  This account has been primarily taken from historic British Newspapers, especially the Morning Chronicle.  The play by Sheridan called “St. Patrick’s Day” was written long before these events and has nothing to do with the actions described here.)

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