Every summer, Irish families flock to Florida in search of fun and sun. The climate of Florida couldn’t be more different than Ireland’s, and the array of amusement parks, beaches and other attractions makes it one of the most beloved vacation destinations for Irish families.
We rarely think of Florida as a destination for Irish immigrants. Boston and New York are well-known for their Irish-American communities. Many Irish people settled in Butte, Montana after working to build America’s railway lines. But today’s tourists aren’t the first Irish people drawn to Florida.
The first North American celebration of Ireland’s patron saint was not, as once thought, in Boston or New York. That historical honor goes to St. Augustine on Florida’s Atlantic coast. St. Augustine, a suburb of Jacksonville, is the longest continuously inhabited European settlement in the continental United States of America. Spanish colonists founded the town in 1565.
Father Richard Arthur arrived in St. Augustine in 1593 from a parish in Puerto Rico. The first Irish priest in what is now Florida also went by the name Padre Ricardo Artur. Father Thomas Hassett appears to have arrived very shortly afterwards. He was an advocate for education and founded the first free school in what is now the USA. Father Arthur led an interesting life; before becoming a priest, he traveled to Malta, Italy and Belgium as a solider in the British army, a strange but popular way for Catholics to escape religious persecution in Ireland.
Irish Influence in the Sunshine State
With the two Irish priests at the town’s helm, locals celebrated the first St. Patrick’s Day festivities in North America in 1600. The following year, the town hosted the continent’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade. These events were long forgotten for many generations until a University of South Florida history professor by the name of J. Michael Francis discovered some intriguing documents. He was in Spain, reviewing historic documents in archives in Seville, when he became intrigued by notes about the purchase of gunpowder and occasions the cannons were fired. He wasn’t surprised that cannons were fired on St. Augustine’s feast day, but he wasn’t expecting to see such celebrations for San Patricio… aka St. Patrick.
Florida never had a large wave of Irish immigration, but the two priests were not the one Irish people to make the Sunshine State home. Control of the area went back and forth between Spain and Britain, and in 1783 a census of ‘aliens’ remaining in territory Britain was ceding to Spain including many Irish surnames. Floridians with the surnames O’Neil, Mohr, Patrick, Doharty, MacCormic, Murphey, MacDermott, Leary, Murray, Kelly, Kerr, Flanagan or Sullivan might be the descendants could be the descendants of the Irish who were in Florida that long ago.
While Florida might not have massive numbers of Irish-Americans, their influence is important. In 2019, Reader’s Digest named St. Augustine one of the top 16 places to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in the USA. And as soon as international travel returns to normal, Florida will surely experience an massive wave of Irish tourists arriving starved for the state’s sun and fun.