On July 2, a procession of New Yorkers gathered at the Irish Hunger Memorial in downtown Manhattan and marched to nearby Bowling Green, hard by the Battery Park waterfront, in the shadows of the stately old Custom House at the southern tip of Manhattan.
The march was part of an Independence Day celebration, and the theme was the Irish contribution to New York City, in light of the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rebellion, which put Ireland on the path to freedom.
In other words, Britain’s exit -- “Brexit,” if you will -- from Ireland.
That term has been in the news endlessly of late, what with British voters deciding to leave the European Union. The only thing anyone seems to know about the long-term effects of Brexit is that no one is quite sure about the long-term effects of Brexit.
What we do know is that the march to Bowling Green on July 2 marked another Brexit, of sorts. And it was another one the Irish celebrated passionately.
Back in November, The New York Times published an article outlining local activists and their efforts to remember the by-gone holiday known as Evacuation Day in New York. (This is not to be confused with Boston’s Evacuation Day, which marks March 17, 1776, so that’s another very Irish story for another column.)
“Evacuation Day was New York’s biggest holiday in the 19th century,” the Times noted.
The paper then added, however, that “the anniversary of the British evacuation of New York in 1783 has been so forgotten that City Council lawyers are resisting efforts to name a street after the historical event the holiday commemorates.”
Good old American patriotism was not the only thing that fueled raucous Evacuation Day celebrations. As Irish immigration to New York City increased, the anti-British sentiment of Evacuation Day was a perfect way for the newcomers to prove that they fit into this new land.
The holiday (“celebrated exuberantly by Irish Americans in the 19th century,” according to the Times) technically marks the exit of British troops as well as the return of General George Washington to New York City, where Union Jack flags were still flying.
“As legend has it, John Van Arsdale, an American former prisoner of war, finally managed to climb a flagpole mischievously greased by the British and replace the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes,” the Times noted. “A departing British warship passing through the Narrows fired a spiteful parting shot -- purportedly the last round of the Revolutionary War.”
Evacuation Day celebrations, often compared to today’s July 4th, with copious amounts of food, drink and fireworks, began to wane as the United States’ relationship with Britain began to evolve. By the time of World War I, America was a strong ally of the British, much to the chagrin of many Irish Americans.
The late November date of New York’s Evacuation Day celebrations also began to compete with the even more patriotic, yet solemn traditions of Thanksgiving.
And so, Evacuation Day celebrations in New York became a thing that only parents, and then grandparents, remembered with any specific details.
But there is a happy ending to this story. After the Times published its initial story in November, the New York City Council revisited the issue of commemorating Evacuation Day by renaming a stretch of the Bowling Green area.
It took an only-in-New-York, melting pot effort, led by Arthur Piccolo of the Lower Manhattan Historical Society as well as Councilwoman Margaret Chin.
Why is it so important to remember New York’s own Brexit, some 233 years later?
“Few Americans know that Brooklyn was the site of the biggest battle of the American Revolution — that the prison ships in New York harbor were the scene of the war’s greatest tragedy,” famed New York historian Kenneth T. Jackson told the Times, “and that the war ended when the redcoats evacuated from Manhattan, and George Washington rode triumphantly down Broadway.”
If you didn’t think about that this July 4, try to remember next year.