St. Patrick’s Day 1904: Change A-Brewing

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Many of us celebrated locally this past weekend by attending the 31st Annual Grand Parade. It is the only St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the United States to take place in two states – Illinois and Iowa. We know that many other establishments held their own successful St. Patrick’s Day events, too.

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we looked into the ways Davenporters celebrated in the past. We learned that in the nineteenth century, many celebrated by attending church and lectures on the life of St. Patrick. In all, it seemed to be a day of learning and reflection.

By the early twentieth century, however, there was a change in direction: St. Patrick’s day dances and parties began to be planned by local societies and fraternities.

Not everyone was happy with this shift. In March of 1904, the struggle between traditional and newer ideas about how to observe the holiday was becoming heated. It also had a bit of Irish versus German in it. Tension between the two cultures had existed since the 1850’s, when Irish immigrants began to populate a German-dominated Davenport.

The first sign of trouble appeared on March 8, 1904 when the Davenport Democrat ran an article on page 6 discussing a sermon that the Very Rev. James Davis from Sacred Heart Cathedral (422 E. 10th Street, Davenport) gave the previous Sunday. (It is to be noted that Sacred Heart was built in an area of Davenport dubbed “Cork Hill” for the many neighbors who had come from County Cork, Ireland).

The priest had been approached by young members of his congregation who had taken offense to posters promoting a dance called the“Happy Hooligan” Masquerade Dance and the “Irish Character Ball.” Dr. C. T. Lindley and the Claus Groth Society (an organization of Germans and German-Americans) were the lead organizers of the event.  They planned to feature several drill teams from local societies and fraternities, and patrons were encouraged to dress in costume as Irishmen from history.

The youth asked if breaking windows to destroy the posters was the way to solve the problem. The Very Rev. James Davis asked them not to do so. The following Sunday he told his congregation that to attend St. Patrick’s Day dances was not in keeping with the reflective spirit of the day, and he advised all loyal Irishmen to avoid them.

Dr. Lindley immediately wrote a letter to the paper that appeared beneath the article mentioned above. He said that the dance committee did not intend to offend anyone, and that the Irish caricatures had existed for centuries in good humor. Dr. Lindley concluded that as the world was growing, St. Patrick was now a universal figure, not just an Irish one.

The next day, March 9th, The Daily Times reported that a meeting had taken place between the members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (an Irish and Irish-American organization) and the Claus Groth dance committee members. Hibernian members asked that all Irish caricature be removed from the ball and that the day be held in respectful honor of St. Patrick. (Pg. 6) A consensus was not reached; another meeting was scheduled.

The next meeting took place that evening and was described by the Davenport Democrat as being “quite lively”. (Pg. 5) The Hibernian members once again stated they did not want caricatures of the Irish at the ball, and hoped that and the memory of St. Patrick would be held in reverence. The Claus Groth members stated they were not making fun of the Irish, but were instead celebrating the many famous Irishmen who had lived over the years.

The Hibernian committee was also upset about the cards and posters put out for the event. While it felt the image mocked St. Patrick, the Claus Groth committee felt it honored him. Dr. Lindley, who attended the meeting, stated that several of the drill teams that were scheduled for the event were Irish teams.

A vote was taken by the Claus Groth committee to remove the words “Irish Character Ball” and “St. Patrick’s Night” from all promotions for the event. The vote did not pass.

This did not end the discussion. The Daily Times reported on March 11th that Woodmen of the World had withdrawn their drill team from the event. (Pg. 4) The Davenport Democrat reported a similar story, but added more details about the meeting the Woodmen of the World had held the night before. It appears to have been very spirited, and in the end, the Woodmen sided with the Hibernians.

The Davenport Democrat reported on March 13th that it was not Dr. Lindley who was giving the ball, but the Claus Groth committee (maintaining its original position). (Pg. 5) That same day, the Democrat announced that the Ancient Order of Hibernians would be observing St. Patrick’s Day with their own program. The lead speaker would be Father Murphy from St. Ambrose College, speaking on “One of the Secrets of the Influence of the Irish Race on History.” Other items on the program included vocal and instrumental arrangements. (Pg. 8)

On Sunday, March 13th, the Very Rev. Davis asked his congregation to not attend the Claus Groth ball. This was a change from the previous week when he asked that no one attend any dance. He gave two reasons to not go. The first was the feeling that money was being made off of the feelings of Catholics. The second was that merriment and dancing was taking place during the season of Lent when one should be reflecting on the work of saints. (Pg. 4)

Soon after, The Daily Times reported that the Alberta Camp of the Royal Neighbors and the Loras Council of the Knights of Columbus were withdrawing from the drill team segment of the event and issuing statements that they were not encouraging members to attend. (March 16, 1904. Pg. 5)

By St. Patrick’s Day, emotions were running high. Both events took place that evening and were covered by the newspapers. The event at the Hibernian hall was noted for its patriotic feeling as it observed St. Patrick’s Day in the traditional manner: with speeches and music.

As for the Claus Groth ball, the reports were that no costumes were worn at all. The hall was decorated with flags of the nations, along with shamrocks and green bunting. There was also great celebration for the five drill teams who participated in the evening. (Pg. 2)

By the early 1920’s, it appears that holding dances and parties had become the way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Fewer and fewer organizations stayed with the traditional observances and speeches. We wonder how many of those celebrating in the 1920’s remembered those early days of the twentieth century and the conflicts that took place over what would later seem commonplace.

(posted by Amy D.)

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