After the Irish Famine in the 1840s spurred over 1 million Irish immigrants to the United States, St. Patrick’s Day parades became an important facet of Irish American life. The parades grew in scale during the 19th century, combining Irish pride and American patriotism. Such community cohesion was particularly important in the face of nativism and anti-Irish hostility, which was often violent and degrading.
As more Jews, Italians and Eastern Europeans arrived at the turn of the century, policymakers began to write racial and ethnic discrimination into the immigration laws to ensure white dominance. By the 1920s, when Congress imposed a highly restrictive quota system, the Irish had gone from being marginalized to being one of the most favored groups because they could lay a claim to “whiteness.” That meant they, like other Northern and Western Europeans, continued to enjoy privileged status when it came to visas.