St. Patrick's Day has been celebrated in Montreal as far back as 1759, after the Conquest, by Irish soldiers of the Montreal Garrison. In 1817, the beginning of the Irish community here, the observance of St. Patrick's day was marked by special dinners and the celebration of religious services.
The actual celebration of a St. Patrick's parade commenced on March 17, 1824. Michael O'Sullivan, lawyer and member of the Parliament of Lower Canada, was the main organizer of this public display. In 1836 he was appointed Chief Justice of Lower Canada but unfortunately he died in 1839.
The St. Patrick's Society of Montreal was founded by prominent Montrealers of Irish heritage on March 17th, 1834. They became the organizers of this parade until 1892.
The parades of that era were a manifestation of of the Irish success in the community and parades were held in Old Montreal on the day proper. Church services would precede the parade and a banquet was held after the parade with numerous toasts in celebration.
In 1847, St. Patrick's Church (Basilica) was completed and officially opened on March 17th. On that date, the parade started at 7am from the Old Recollet Church off Notre Dame and Ste. Hélène Streets, and proceeded on Notre Dame to the Notre Dame Cathedral. It then turned onto St. James Street to Commissioners (McGill St.) north past Commissioners Square (Victoria Square) and up the hill into St. Patrick's Church for the service and blessing. After the service, the parade regrouped and marched back to the St. Patrick's Society headquarters on Commissioners Square to take the salute. A successful parade was followed by a splendid banquet.
In the late 1860s, Father dowd of St. Patrick's appealed to the Irish people of Montreal to maintain the parade against a strong wave of opposition. Much of the opposition was related to the Fenian problems which resulted in the assassination of D'Arcy McGee on April 7th, 1868. It was conceded that as long as Father Dowd lived there would be a parade. Father Dowd died on December 19th, 1891 and it was suggested that the parade not be held the following March in respect of his memory. In respect of his memory, the parade was held as usual in 1892 and thereafter.
The Ancient Order of Hibernians organized the St. Patrick's parades commencing in 1893 until 1928. In 1918 the parade was suspended to avoid clashes with military conscription agents who were active in the city. The agents would not enter Griffintown, the Irish stronghold in the city of Montreal. Because of this, the Ste. Ann's Parish supported by the A.O.H. and the St. Ann's Young Men's Society held the parade through the streets of Griffintown in the spirit of continuity. In 1928, the United Irish Societies of Montreal was founded with the mandate to continue the organizing of the parades. The U.I.S. held their first parade in 1929. The U.I.S. is still organizing the St. Patrick's Parade today.
During the Depression years of the 1930s the St. Patrick's Parades of Montreal became marching units as floats were discontinued to defray expenses.
In 1942, Montreal's 300th anniversary, fifteen parish priests petitioned the United Irish Societies to cancel the parades for the duration of the war. Many parishes and their parishioners did not participate, but the parades went on with the inclusion of the Canadian military. John Loye, President of the U.I.S., refused to cancel the parades.
In 1949, on March 21st. John Loye, President of the U.I.S., cancelled the parade because of inclement weather. The military command, participating, stated that they had made a commitment and would march independently. Parish units began to organize to march irrespective of the decision. When it became inevitable the parade would carry on, the President, executive and honoured guests marched as well.
The choice of a Grand Marshal (formerly Marshal in Chief) goes back to the origins of the St. Patrick's parades in Montreal. In 1952 the position of Chief Reviewing Officer was created. The officer of the day who took the salute from the reviewing stand on Sherbrooke Street in front of the Ritz Carlton Hotel was William J. Bryant, past president of the Irish Protestant Benevolent Society replacing J.J. Russell, the president who was unable to attend.
In 1956 something new was added to the celebration of St. Patrick's parades with the choice of a Queen and princesses in the parade.
In 1963 the Green Line was first painted down the centre of Ste. Catherine Street noting the route of the St. Patrick's parade.
On March 13th 1993, the eve of the St. Patrick's parade, a major snow storm hit Montreal. The media speculated that the parade would be cancelled as approximately 1.5 feet of drifting snow had fallen. On parade day, the 14th, the storm stopped in the morning and the city plows pushed the snow to the sides of Ste. Catherine Street. The parade was held with no thought of cancellation.
In 2002, Mabel Ann Fitzgerald, a past president of the United Irish Societies was honoured as the Chief Reviewing Officer of the Parade, the first lady to hold this position. In 2005, the first lady to be appointed to the position of Grand Marshal was Margaret Healy. In 1943, Margaret's father Thomas P. Healy M.P. was the Grand Marshal.
In my research, thanks in great part to two outstanding historians, John Loye and John Kenny, I am convinced that Montreal's St. Patrick's parades have been held in continuity since 1824. May it continue in the memory of those who went before us to maintain a tradition of our Irish Heritage.