March 12, 2011
Text and photos by Ted Regencia
CHICAGO — In a day full of pageantry and traditions, Chicago’s influential Irish-American community honored on Saturday, March 12, its heritage and Catholic roots with the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in downtown.
Mayor Richard M. Daley, who is retiring in May after 22 years in office, led the festivities alongside his wife, Maggie, who was seen greeting the crowd from a convertible car in the traditional Irish color. Walking with them was U.S. Senator and Majority Whip Richard Durbin.
A sea of green dominated Chicago’s Columbus Drive, with parade participants and spectators, young and old, decked in various costumes, from funky to fashionable and bizarre. They greeted the mayor and first lady with cheers thanking them for their service to the city, and Daley acknowledged by raising a traditional Irish cane called shillelagh.
“It is very emotional, when you think 22 years as mayor attending all the various parades and celebrations of the city,” said Daley, as quoted by the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune.
Shortly before the parade, Durbin, a fellow Irish-American, praised Daley for transforming Chicago, and for promoting cross-cultural understanding among the ethnic communities here.
“This mayor is really celebrating the diversity of the city,” Durbin added. “Because of that, we are stronger, we are more united, and I think it’s a better city.”
“There was a time when the Irish, when came to Chicago were not welcome. They were not treated well. They had some of the hardest jobs,” he explained.
Irish immigrants came to Chicago in the 1830s, fleeing Ireland after the Great Famine of 1845-1849, according to the Northern Illinois University library. Partly because of their Catholic religion and poor background, they were discriminated against by the majority Protestants in America.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said even as a child, she has been attending the parade, which used to be held around the Chicago Loop before it was moved to Grant Park.
“We always have a nice crowd and a good time, even though the weather is never perfect,” Madigan said.
It was newly-elected Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s first time to attend the downtown parade. “While I am not Irish, I was born on St. Patrick’s Day, so I always have a special place in my heart for the holiday,” she said.
This is the 55th year that the parade has been held in downtown, after the current mayor’s father, Mayor Richard J. Daley moved it from the city’s South Side in 1956, said the Parade Marshall Chairman Patrick Driscoll. Driscoll’s grandparents moved here from Ireland.
A separate event officially called South Side Irish St. Patrick’s Day Parade was also held near Western Avenue and 103rd Street until 2009.
Driscoll said since it is Mayor Daley’s last parade as mayor, “We’re trying to do a really nice parade.”
Sarah Gorecki said being the the 2011 St. Patrick’s Day Parade Queen “is quite an honor” with the presence of the Daleys as grand marshalls.
“Chicago is global, and it truly is,” Gorecki said. “Irish-American heritage is so important here. This is one of the biggest St. Patrick’s Day parades, I think actually, in the United States. Hopefully that tradition will keep going.”
One of those traditions is the dyeing the Chicago River green, which began in 1962, according to greenchicagoriver.com.
According to the website, it was started by the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local Union #110, upon the suggestion of its Business Manager Steve Bailey. Bailey, who was also the chairman of the St. Patrick’s Parade from 1958 to 1966, wanted to pay tribute to his Irish heritage.
On the first year of the tradition, 100 pounds of dye were used, the website said, and “the river stayed green for a week.” Eventually, they settled for 25 pounds to make it last for one day. Starting in 1966, the dye formula was also changed to vegetable-based, following criticisms that it is detrimental to the marine life.
All throughout the United States, Chicago is the only city that colors its river green in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. Chicago’s Journeymen Plumbers also remain responsible in dyeing the river.
In 2009, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, who are from Chicago, also started a White House tradition by coloring the presidential residence’s fountains green.
Here in Chicago, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade is always held a Saturday. If Saint Patrick’s Day does not fall on a Saturday, the Parade is held the Saturday before. This year the feast of St. Patrick is March 17.