The History of the South Side Irish St. Patrick’s Day Parade

By Alex Bean on March 9, 2017

TOURSDAILY

The South Side Irish St. Patrick’s Day Parade has been an annual tradition for nearly forty years. It’s an expression of the pride and history of the South Side Irish, one of Chicago’s oldest ethnic communities. In fact, the tradition of a South Side St. Patrick’s Day Parade is so strong and long-lasting that it has survived two attempts at relocation and cancellation.

south side st. Patrick's day parade Mayor Daley 1971
It may not be in a parade, but Mayor Daley was South Side Irish politico who was comfortable in the streets. Image via Wikimedia

The South Side Irish in Chicago

The Irish were the first major immigrant group to settle in Chicago. Laborers from Ireland emigrated to the area before the city was even founded in order to work on the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Their nascent ethnic enclave community near the canal was originally named “Hardscrabble.” It eventually grew into the Bridgeport neighborhood, which is oldest neighborhood outside of downtown. You can explore more of the history of Bridgeport and South Side Irish on our Big Shoulders Historic Bar and Food Bus Tour.

From Bridgeport, the Irish community expanded into several distinct enclaves across the South Side. Because of endemic prejudice against the Irish in the 19th Century, the community remained tight-knit and clannish. These qualities, along with long-standing ties to the Chicago Democratic Machine and the police and fire departments, turned the South Side Irish into a potent political force. Both Mayors Daley and long-standing Speaker of the Illinois House Mike Madigan are members of the South Side Irish community.

South Side Irish St. Patrick's Day Parade bagpipes
Bagpipers on the march. Image courtesy of the South Side Irish St. Patrick’s Day Parade

The South Side Irish St. Patrick’s Day Parade

According to an article on ChicagolyMag.com, there has been a St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Chicago since 1843. The parade centered around Old St. Patrick’s Church, in what is now the West Loop. Many of the parades and festivities would stay centered on the downtown area through the start of the 20th Century. In all likelihood, the South Side neighborhoods just didn’t have the infrastructure to handle huge public events like a parade.

The first South Side St. Patrick’s Day Parade was held in the Gresham neighborhood in 1951. By this time, the era of White Flight was underway and an ethnic celebration, like the St. Patrick’s Day parade, was likely seen as the sort of communal event that could hold a neighborhood together. This event, officially called the Southtown Parade, was a staple throughout the 1950’s. In 1960, Hizzoner Mayor Daley the First used his political clout to move the parade downtown and the South Side tradition temporarily ended.

The South Side Irish St. Patrick’s Day Parade was reborn on a very small scale in 1979. Two friends, George Hendry and Pat Coakley, recalled the Southtown Parades of their youths and decided to recreate it in Morgan Park. The initial parade featured only 17 marchers, all neighborhood children, but the idea quickly caught fire.

Outside a brief interregnum from 2009-12, the South Side Irish St. Patrick’s Day Parade has run down Western Avenue in Beverly and Morgan Park since 1981. Over 200,000 spectators view the parade despite a strict prohibition on alcohol. Many attendees bookend the parade with mass at St. Cajetan Church beforehand and a house party afterwards.

The 2017 run of the parade kicks off at noon on March 12th. Have some fun if you head down to it!

-Alex Bean, Chicago Detours Content Manager and Tour Guide