As far as holidays go, St. Patrick’s Day isn’t a huge deal in Los Angeles. In New York and Boston, Irish (and honorary Irish) residents celebrate the day with a massive parade; in Chicago, the river flows green. But in Los Angeles, it’s a little harder to find green apart from the fronds of ever-present palm trees. And it all has to do with the history of St. Patrick’s Day.
Major east coast and midwest cities have large Irish-American communities — whole sections of town historically associated with European immigrants who came to the United States in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In contrast, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, about half of the population of Los Angeles identifies as Hispanic or Latinx. Non-Hispanic whites are in the minority, and there’s no centralized Irish-American presence in the city.
The Irish in California
That’s not to say there are no Irish-Americans in California, of course. Irish settlers began moving to the west coast in larger numbers in the 19th century, drawn by the lure of the Gold Rush like so many other American dreamers. Voters elected a number of Irish politicians in the state during the 1860s, years before they rose to power in more traditionally “Irish” cities like Boston and New York.
However, many Irish families in California opted to settle in San Francisco rather than Los Angeles, perhaps due to gold-prospecting interests. That legacy lives on — San Francisco still hosts one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day parades and celebrations in the world.
The rise of the film industry brought people of all backgrounds to Los Angeles looking to make their mark in cinema, including Irish-Americans. From esteemed directors like John Ford to glamorous stars like Maureen O’Hara, the Irish made their mark on the growing motion picture business over the decades. But while the numbers of Irish-Americans in California swelled — a 1990 census listed around two million Irish-identifying residents, making the state the most Irish in America — Los Angeles never really established its own set Irish cultural enclave. In fact, in 2017, Buffalo’s Business Journal named Los Angeles the least Irish city in America.
This may explain why there’s no major St. Patrick’s Day parade in Los Angeles today. A handful of Irish bars pour out green beer and whiskey shots and decorate with shamrocks, but many of them aren’t operated by Irish-Americans. Some spots, like Los Feliz’s storied Tam O’Shanter, even conflate Scottish and Irish heritage by throwing their own St. Patrick’s Day bashes. It all adds up to a day of relatively low-key celebrations that are definitely fun, but far from authentic. To be fair, that trait isn’t limited to Los Angeles; as bar manager Jordan Delp explained to LA Weekly in 2015, “America has really created the holiday of St. Patrick’s Day. In Ireland they don’t go to the extremes we do here. It’s definitely an Americanized holiday.”
St. Patrick’s Day: An American invention
The history of St. Patrick’s Day in America is somewhat short; the holiday as we know it is a modern invention. In Ireland, residents typically attend church services honoring the saint credited with bringing Christianity to the country. It’s a time for quiet reflection and prayer rather than revelry.
The contemporary carnival nature of St. Patrick’s Day can be attributed to Irish people who moved to the United States — they decided to use the day to celebrate many different aspects of their culture. The earliest St. Patrick’s Day festivities in America likely date back to the 18th century, and those celebrations only increased in scope in the 19th century, as Irish-Americans rose to prominence in major cities and began taking more open pride in their heritage.
Irish-Americans began adapting their customs to the United States — while people in Ireland dined on bacon and cabbage, for instance, Irish-Americans opted to cook cheaper corned beef with their cabbage instead.
Not all of the associations with the holiday were positive, either; vaudeville theaters and early Hollywood productions popularized stereotypical and often controversial figures like leprechauns and “drunken Irishmen” as Irish-Americans became a more vocal community.
St. Patrick’s Day remained somewhat niche in the majority of the United States until after World War II, when holidays in general received more widespread marketing. Soon, even major brands like McDonald’s got in on the action with Shamrock Shakes. As for shamrocks themselves, no one is quite sure how they became so popular in the United States — and most Americans mistakenly conflate the three-leaf shamrock with the four-leaf clover.
These newer traditions irritate some Irish people, but that hasn’t stopped their popularity. In fact, some American St. Patrick’s Day customs have made their way back to Ireland itself.
How to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Los Angeles
It’s clear that St. Patrick’s Day is a uniquely stateside holiday, but that hasn’t stopped scores of people from partying. So, what’s the best option if you do want to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Los Angeles?
If you’re feeling social, you can explore downtown with pub crawls that’ll take you through multiple venues, including nightclubs and bars. Prefer raising a pint in mellower surroundings? Irish watering holes like The Irish Times host days-long St. Patrick’s Day events featuring food and drink specials and live music. For Irish-inspired eats, stop by Griffins of Kinsale for salmon boxty (smoked salmon served on potato pancakes) or savory Guinness brats. Or, if you feel like leaving Los Angeles proper, take a day trip down to Hermosa Beach, where a massive St. Patrick’s Day parade draws in the crowds each year. This popular event celebrates Irish heritage with floats, bagpipers, vintage cars, and plenty of live entertainment.
And if you do choose to sip on a green beer or two, don’t feel bad about it. As professor of Irish studies Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin put it to ABC News, “The Irish don’t have a monopoly on their own culture. It’s there for everyone to share.”