Highlights of the Irish in Philadelphia

People of Irish descent form the largest ethnic group in the city of Philadelphia and its surrounding counties. The Irish had a major impact on the city even prior to its inception. William Penn, founder of Philadelphia and the Province of Pennsylvania, had notable ties to Ireland. Penn converted to Quakerism as a result of a sermon preached in Cork.

The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in Philadelphia was in 1771.Prior to the first parade, the Irish were already celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Philadelphia. Before the America republic was founded, Irishmen came together in 1771 to pay honor to Ireland’s patron as founding members of the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick for the relief of Emigrants from Ireland. George Washington, who has encouraged the many Irish soldiers under his command during the American Revolution to fete St. Patrick’s Day, was an honorary member of this society. The designation of March 17 as a day of special observance was a very early Philadelphia custom. Philadelphia’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade is the second oldest in the United States.

Many Irish fought in the Battle of White Marsh during the Philadelphia campaign in the Revolutionary War. Perhaps no Irishman would have a bigger impact during the Revolutionary War than John Barry. He came to be widely credited as “The Father of the American Navy” and was appointed a captain in the Continental Navy on December 7, 1775.

Philadelphia’s Irish population have left their mark in a number of ways. Traditionally, the Philadelphia Police Department and Philadelphia Fire Department have always had a large Irish American influence. Many neighborhoods, such as Kensingtonand Fishtown of Northeast Philadelphia, and Two Street of South Philadelphia, and Delaware County are still heavily Irish. Philadelphia has a high percentage of Irish Americans, making up 14.2% of the population. Due to the change of the city’s demographics, most of Philadelphia’s Irish population are now in the suburbs. Many surrounding towns have large Irish populations, such as Crum Lynne, Pennsylvania (39.2% Irish), Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania (37.9% Irish), and Gloucester City, New Jersey (38.8% Irish). Havertown, Pennsylvania (21.7% Irish) is often known as the “33rd county,” a reference to the 32 counties of Ireland.

Several Irish associations were formed in the 19th Century. The first mutual aid groups to support individual counties were those for County Donegal and County Mayo, and others were subsequently formed. The Total Abstinence Brotherhood was founded to promote Catholic-based morality and an abstinence from alcohol. The Clan na Gael and the Fenian Brotherhood were formed to support Ireland-based nationalist groups.Some groups had Philadelphia-based chapters with their own meeting halls. They included the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, The Irish Catholic Benevolent Union, and the Irish League.

The most prominent Irish Philadelphian of all, Grace Kelly, would turn in an acting career to become Princess of Monaco. Prominent local politicians past and present, such as James Logan, would have an impact as well. The Irish were also responsible for establishing many Catholic institutions, such as St. Joseph’s UniversityLa Salle University, and  Villanova University.

Despite the Irish having a huge influence to the city and area, it wouldn’t be until 1962 that Philadelphia would have its first Irish Catholic mayor. James Tate was Mayor Of Philadelphia from 1962 to 1972. Perhaps the most well known Irish mayor the city ever had was Bill Green, III. In 2015, Philadelphia elected another Irish American Jim Kenney as the 99th mayor of the city. Several current local politicians of Irish descent include Congressman Pat MeehanMike Stack, III, who is currently the 33rd Lieutenant Governor of PennsylvaniaPatrick Murphy, formerly the Secretary of the Army, Congressman Brendan Boyle and his brother PA Representative Kevin Boyle, and City Representative Sheila Hess.

In our 18th year in Philadelphia, we are thrilled to continue to serve our members and promote business and educational relationships between the Island of Ireland and the Greater Philadelphia region. We proudly partner with the Irish Consulate in NY, Irish Embassy in Washington, DC, Tourism Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, Údarás na Gaeltachta, as well as Philadelphia-based Irish organizations including the Irish Immigration Center, Brehon Law Society, Irish Network Philadelphia, Commodore Barry Irish Center, Irish Memorial, Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day Observance Association, Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, Mayo Association and Donegal Association.

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photo credit: Sheila Hess


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