El Primer Desfile de San Patricio

While visiting Cuba in 2007, I was surprised to discover one of the main streets of Havana bore my last name (well sort of, thanks to some changes made to mine at Ellis Island). Calle O’Reilly was named after Alejandro O’Reilly, an Irishman who served as a general in the Spanish army in 18th-century Cuba, and later served as governor of Spanish-occupied Louisiana. He was a forerunner to the abolitionist movement.

O’Reilly was one of many Irish that settled in Cuba during the 18th and 19th centuries as soldiers or railroad workers. This gave rise to several prominent historical figures of Irish-Cuban decent, and a symbiotic history between Cuba and Ireland. Today, many Cubans with Irish last names still reside in Havana.

Though St. Patrick’s Day is the Irish national holiday honoring the patron saint of Ireland, the tradition of the St. Patrick’s Day parade is entirely American. Irish serving in the British army, stationed in Boston Massachusetts organized the first parade in 1737. It started as nothing more than singing and drunken revelry and perhaps a longing for families and friends left behind on distant shores. 200 years later the tradition was adopted in Ireland. Today, the parades exist in 15 nations spread out over six continents.

In recent years, the St. Patrick’s Day parade in America has become a symbol to many of exclusion and religious piety, drifting far away from its beginnings.
The Havana San Patricio parade is reclamation of its origins as a cultural exchange impromptu celebration and the romanticized vision of a distant land separated by the sea.

It is also a social experiment during a time when the in the United States and Cuban government policies regarding public assembly are becoming almost indistinguishable.

“An idea without danger is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” -Oscar Wilde

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