How Chicago Got Its Green Back

In this most Irish of cities where the wearin’ of the green, the drinkin’ of the Guinness, and the St. Paddy’s Day merriment carries on from dawn’s early light—to dawn’s early light—it is a curiosity of our wonderfully Gaelic history that downtown Chicago skipped the parade and its attending revelries from 1901 until 1956. From the horse-and-buggy era to Buddy Holly, the State Street merchants of that era shared the blame for nixing the glorious celebration of Ireland’s patron saint, who, according to ancient legend drove the snakes from the auld sod.

Aye, ’tis true. The St. Patrick’s Day parade, as much a city icon as Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, the Chicago Bears, and the Water Tower, enjoyed a long and celebratory run beginning in 1843 when seven hundred seventy-five marchers and the colorfully festooned para-military Montgomery Guards strutted down rough unpaved Clark Street to St. Mary’s Catholic Church, where a Mass was held before the day’s important business commenced—the day-long singing, drinking, and story-telling inside the Saloon Building at Clark and Randolph, Chicago’s first City Hall no less.

In 1836, Captain J.B.F. Russell’s three-story-tall wood frame Saloon Building celebrated its grand opening, but, curiously, it did not have so much as a bar. In those days, the word “saloon” was a derivative of the French word “salon,” signifying a meeting place or hall. Unquenchable beer-soaked Chicagoans, it is said, gave a whole new meaning to the word. Irish blarney or cold hard historical fact? This is a story about St. Patrick’s Day, so we must accept it as fact.

As immigration crested in the 1850s and 1860s and membership in the Irish fraternal societies and religious organizations multiplied, parade day grew more lavish; a feast for the eyes as big as the annual Christmas spectacle. “Irishmen, with shamrocks in their coat lapels and democracy in their hearts paraded the streets to the tune of ‘Garryowen’ and ‘Wearing of the Green.’”

Chicago’s proud Irish citizenry “chanted ‘America!’ to the tune ‘God Save Ireland,’” observed one reporter in 1896. “The sky, the street corners, the women’s bonnets—everything reflected Irish green with American trimmings and there wasn’t a child of the auld sod who could tell which was Ireland and which was the United States. St. Patrick was only a symbol, an excuse for national celebration.” The parade was just the warm-up to a city-wide celebration featuring dance parties in the town markets that continued until three or four in the morning. Couples pranced merrily to the lively tunes laid down by fiddlers, flutists, and pipers from all sides of town.

Officially, St. Patrick converted the Irish homeland from paganism to Christianity in the fifth century, and the day of celebration actually marked his death—not his birth. To current and former generations of Chicagoans outside of the church, the legend of the patron saint is lost or immaterial amid the parade pageantry. The important thing is the display of Irish pride before the eyes of the world. Despite its enormous popularity—Chicago mayors often declared a public holiday, and employers gave the workers the day off out of respect to the wishes of City Hall—in 1897, the fraternal societies unexpectedly called the whole thing off because they had “exhausted their treasuries in benevolent work” during a rough winter, a time when so many were rendered homeless and starving were on the public dole.

The big parade resumed in 1898 and continued on for three more years; however, with much regret, the time-honored custom ended following a stupendous 1901 gala the lads remembered for years to come. Grand Marshal Bob Monahan astride his prancing horse led the procession out of Haymarket Square at Randolph and Des Plaines streets on the Near West Side. The marchers circled the Loop, headed east down Jackson Boulevard to Michigan, west to Wells Street, and the reviewing stand outside the County Building where Mayor Carter Harrison, the political potentates, and Archbishop Feehan tipped their hats. The throngs of spectators saved their loudest applause for the heroes of the Irish-American Ambulance Service, recently returned from the second Boer War in South Africa.

Amid the patriotism and good cheer, there were larger concerns that had to be taken into account. The blustery March weather imperiled the health of the old-timers. The Catholic Archdiocese increasingly worried about the number of reported deaths stemming from pneumonia and related diseases of the lung dissuaded the Irish fellowship societies from renewing the permits for another year. The Tribune, commenting on the disappearance of tradition in 1911, offered another reason. “The old-timers, the men who marched behind the band are fast passing away. The American born or ‘country born,’ as he is called by those from across the Atlantic, would prefer to ride in an automobile than step out to the strains of an inspiring air. That is one reason why the St. Patrick’s Day Parade was abandoned in Chicago.”

Without a parade to call their own, the Irish societies hosted holiday feasts, choral performances, and theatrical productions in the big downtown hotels and out in the neighborhoods with traditional religious observance at old St. Patrick’s Church at Randolph and Des Plaines. Minus the raucous street celebration of former years, it was never quite the same. The Irish Fellowship Club sponsored the biggest soirée in town, the annual St. Patrick’s Day dinner. Louis Sullivan’s majestic Auditorium Theater and Hotel provided an opulent backdrop. The dinner annually drew one thousand tony, cash-paying patrons of high social ranking. In 1907, Vice President Charles Fairbanks arrived by train bringing tidings of good cheer from President Theodore Roosevelt.

Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, now deeply entrenched in Chicago culture and tradition, had a fifty-plus-year hiatus from 1901-1956. (Photo by Jamie McCaffrey)

Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, now deeply entrenched in Chicago culture and tradition, had a fifty-plus-year hiatus from 1901-1956. (Photo by Jamie McCaffrey)

Chicago’s proud South Side Irish revived the parade tradition in 1951 with their own pageant of green, white, and gold (the colors of the Irish flag) along 79th Street in the Gresham community—then seventy-five percent Irish in its ethnic composition. The parade took center stage in the 1950s, along with a heavily promoted West Side parade down Madison Street. If not for the Daley clan of Bridgeport to set things right again, memories of the famous downtown affairs of yesteryear might have faded into Chicago’s forgotten history.

Richard J. Daley, the city’s first mayor to be born in the twentieth century, began his long and colorful twenty-one-year reign in April 1955. City Hall discussions between political factotums and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Association to revive the downtown gala had stalled after five years, amid a chorus of complaint and opposition from the State Street merchants, who feared jam-packed sidewalks and a significant loss of business with the bagpipers, floats, and politicos, their arms linked in fraternalism, passing in review. It took a new mayor to end the logjam and jump-start the celebration.
Daley was most persuasive, according to Daniel P. Lydon, executive director of the Plumbing Council who eagerly accepted appointment as parade coordinator,a position he held down for many years to come. Without delay, “Hizzoner” the mayor moved forward with dispatch and organized a planning committee of prominent Chicagoans. Daley, of course, would serve as honorary chairman and lead the march, shillelagh in hand, scheduled for March 17, 1956. His toughest hurdle turned out not to be the grumbling heads of the State Street department stores, but the West Side and South Side Irish parade organizers who stood in opposition to merging with the downtown group. The West Side contingent finally agreed to cast their lot with the mayor, but the South Siders from 79th Street held firm. When the dust settled there would be two parades on two separate days. South Side pride demanded it.

The night before the big parade, Mother Nature dumped four unwanted inches of snow on Chicago. In a frenzy, Dan Lydon called Daley early the next morning wondering if it would be wise to postpone. “It’s a grand day, thanks be to God!” the mayor beamed. Unbeknownst to Lydon, Daley had already activated the snow removal fleet from the Department of Streets and Sanitation, and they were already on the job. The march kicked off promptly at ten a.m. And what a sight for Irish eyes it was. Rear Admiral Daniel V. Gallery, hero of the high seas during World War II who had captured the U-505 submarine placed on permanent display at the Museum of Science and Industry, served as grand marshal.
An estimated two hundred fifty thousand people gathered under brilliant sunshine as the parade kicked off at Wacker Drive and State Street and proceeded south past the Chicago Theatre where the musical “Carousel” played.

A police motor squad of one hundred five vehicles escorted the smiling Mayor Daley, followed by a car full of Daley family members; “all of the little mayors” were there quipped Elgar Brown of the Chicago American, not knowing how prophetic his words would be. The Irish Legion of Honor—a delegation of Chicago’s most important officials and bigwigs—followed, and all along the way Irish pride was on display as thousands of spectators sang traditional folk songs of the homeland in unison greeted twenty-five military and civic marching bands and a cascade of lavish floats.

Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day features a parade past our cherished, green-dyed river, a tradition stumbled upon by a utility worker. (Photo by Scott M. Liebenson)

Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day features a parade past our cherished, green-dyed river, a tradition stumbled upon by a utility worker. (Photo by Scott M. Liebenson)

The parade stopped at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, celebrating its one hundredth anniversary in 1956. The ancient Romanesque structure, founded by Irish immigrants, survived the Chicago Fire. His Eminence Samuel Cardinal Stritch celebrated Solemn Pontifical Mass before an overflow crowd. A traditional corned beef and cabbage dinner followed. The pastor, Father Thomas P. Byrne, remarked that it had been a long time since old St. Pat’s had been filled to overflow. The community had been uprooted years earlier, and warehouse buildings encircled much of the church grounds in the years before urban gentrification took root, allowing the parish to revive.

Later that evening, the Irish Fellowship Club held its annual banquet at the Sherman House at Clark Street and Randolph (now the site of the State’s James R. Thompson Center). Luminaries from public life, including former governor and presidential aspirant Adlai E. Stevenson; Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen; Mayor Daley, recently elected as the club’s 56th president; former Mayor Martin Kennelly, whom the Democratic regulars had dumped in favor of Daley a year earlier; Cardinal Stritch; and, oh yes, the keynote speaker of the evening, Senator John F. Kennedy, of Massachusetts.

Mayor Daley’s sharp political intuition told him that the handsome, young politician would delight and dazzle Irish Chicago. In Kennedy, the mayor recognized an up-and-comer in the national political arena, and with it, the chance to install an Irish Catholic in the White House. What better time than the present to introduce a rising star of the Democratic Party to Chicago?

JFK, his charm and wit on display, reminded his audience that, “All of us of Irish descent are bound together by the ties that come from a common experience which many only exist in memories and in legend, but which is real enough to those who possess it. And thus if we live in Cork or Boston, Chicago or Sydney, we are all members of a great family which is linked together by the strongest of chains—a common past.”

On that wintry St. Paddy’s Day, Mayor Daley could take rightful credit for uniting Chicago’s Gaelic past with the present while helping to sow the seeds of the future for the next President of the United States. Tradition re-born.
As to the greening of the Chicago River, well, that would have to come later. The signature St. Patrick’s Day moment known throughout the land, started innocently enough in 1962 after a plumber testing the city’s water waste system injected a green dye into the water to trace the discharge point. In a moment of genius, Stephen Bailey, business manager of the Chicago Journeyman Plumber’s Local 130, Dan Lydon, and Chicago Port Director John Manley hit upon the idea of turning the river into a lovely shade of green. After trial and error, a forty-pound mixture completed the Windy City’s picture-perfect bow to St. Patrick.

It worked so well that on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day in March 1965, Bailey made a generous offer to dye the Wrigley Building green, but Philip K. Wrigley, in a huff, said absolutely not.

“I don’t think P.K. likes the Irish,” Bailey sighed.

About the author

Richard Lindberg is a Chicago historian and the author of seventeen published books about the Windy City including “Chicago Yesterday and Today” and the award-winning, “The Gambler King of Clark Street: Michael C. McDonald and the Rise of Chicago’s Democratic Machine.”

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