St. Patrick’s Day in San Rafael – 1878
By Robert L. Harrison
The Irish have contributed significantly to the development of Marin since the first Europeans settled in the county. In the first half of the 19th century, three natives of Ireland were granted large land holdings that totaled nearly 64,000 acres or about one- fifth of the county. In 1834, the Mexican Governor of California awarded the first land grant to Dublin-born John Reed. Reed acquired the nearly 8,000-acre Rancho Corte Madera del Presidio, an area that covered most of today’s Corte Madera, Mill Valley and the Tiburon Peninsula.
In 1836 another Irishman, James Berry, was granted the Rancho Punta de los Reyes, some 35,000 acres in west Marin. Rancho San Pedro, Santa Margarita y Las Gallinas was granted in 1844 to Irish native Timothy Murphy. This Rancho, over 21,000 acres, comprised most of present-day San Rafael including today’s Marinwood, Lucas Valley, Terra Linda, Santa Venetia and the San Pedro Peninsula.
By the late 1870s, about 11,000 people, one-quarter of Marin’s population, were of Irish heritage. Their prominence prompted some to label the county “Little Ireland”. Though the Irish settled throughout the county, they were particularly attracted to Point Reyes in west Marin and San Rafael in the east.
The celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in San Rafael in 1878 was described in the March 21st edition of the Marin Journal: “Second Annual Celebration in San Rafael -- A Gorgeous Pageant – A Brilliant Poem – Thrilling Oration – A Grand Success.” Given the number of Irish in the county, it’s somewhat surprising the event was only in its second year.
The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) sponsored the St. Patrick’s Day celebration. The plans for the day were detailed in Journal advertisements. The 1878 Grand Marshal was Martin Van B. Miller, second son of James Miller. The elder Miller was a native of Ireland and, in 1845, one of Marin’s earliest residents. He also owned 8,000 acres in different parts of the county. The Grand Marshal’s uniform was described as a sash of green silk with gold trimmings, a gold badge, a black hat with white and green plumes and a gilt baton. Uniform descriptions for the other parade officers were equally specific.
The Journal anticipated the procession: “…at the appointed hour, the various divisions swung into line, and the whole cavalcade moved with almost military precision… The officers of the day were particularly noticeable for their rich and elegant regalia, as well as martial bearing…the axmen and color bearers of the Fire Company were followed by the Tamalpais Brass Band, whose rendition of many stirring and beautiful airs…was the theme of universal commendation… Then followed the San Rafael Hose and Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 in their gay uniform….the triumphal car containing the Goddess of Liberty and maids representing the States of the Union…the Irish car with the Maid of Erin…the Ancient Order of Hibernians…a car with orphans from St. Vincent’s Asylum, followed by a long line of citizens in carriages, saddle and on foot.”
Following the march up and down Fourth Street, paraders and celebrants would move to the Laurel Grove picnic ground (near today’s Picnic and Woodland Avenues) for the Literary Exercises including music by the band, a poem, recitation, oration and the song – “God Save Ireland”. At the Laurel Grove pavilion, Bernard T. Miller, the third son of James Miller, read a poem that ended “And we’ll pray Oh just God of battle, smile on us as we sweep tyrants proud from our own lovely shore, May all the false-hearted and vile traitors shun us when we crown thee, fair Erin, with freedom once more.” According to the Journal, the poem and the oration that followed were “...frequently interrupted by applause…and at its close the enthusiasm was unbounded.”
The AOH President of the Day announced that music and dancing would then commence and continue until nightfall. As reported in the Journal: “So closed one of the most memorable parade days ever seen in this county.”