While Boston surely would stake its claim, Chicago is arguably the nation’s most Irish city. What, with more than 200,000 citizens of Irish descent (the most of any ethnic group) and 12 Irish mayors having governed for more than 80 combined years — close to half of the city’s 182 years in existence — it’s tough to find roots that run greener.
Chicago never is more Irish than during St. Patrick’s Day — especially this year, with the holiday falling on a weekend. Today, the official St. Patrick’s Day Parade and dyeing of the Chicago River are being held downtown, followed by the South Side Irish Parade on Sunday. Here’s some blarney about both events, and the city’s rich Irish heritage.
The Green Mile
At 9 a.m. this morning, Chicago kicked off its most iconic St. Patrick’s Day tradition with the dyeing of the river. Last year, the stretch of the river turned green was extended one block farther west, from Columbus Drive to State Street. Previously the dyeing had stopped at Wabash Avenue.
Quite interestingly, the famous tradition came about by pure accident when, in 1961, local labor leader Stephen M. Bailey was watching a plumber trace a lead in the Chicago River using orange dye. When the dye was dropped in the water, Bailey saw it instantly turn green. And as a proud Irishman, he was struck with a bright idea in which the city could celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
In the first year of coloring the river, 100 pounds of dye were placed in the water, which turned out to be a bit of an overkill — it kept the river green for an entire week. These days, the Journeymen Plumbers Local Union 130 uses about 40 pounds of a secret-recipe, vegetable-based dye that is billed as safe for the environment. Rather than keeping the river an emerald hue for days, it does so for only about six to 10 hours.
Topping off the weekend
For those who have recovered from Saturday’s festivities — or simply never stop — the South Side Irish Parade kicks off at noon on Sunday at 103 Street and Western Avenue in the Beverly neighborhood and then heads south to 115 Street.
The tradition began in 1979 as a humble neighborhood parade that included just 17 children, an American flag and a single float — a baby buggy covered with a box decorated with shamrocks and the 26 county flags of Ireland — now attracts as many as 200,000 viewers. For years, it was infamous for its drunken rowdiness, but the South Side Parade now has a zero tolerance policy for open containers of alcohol along the route.
For more information about the parade, visit southsideirishparade.org.
If you don’t make it up to Chicago for any revelry this weekend, but want to experience a taste of Irish culture at a later date, there’s no more authentic place to do so than in the Irving Park neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest side.
Located at 4626 N. Knox Ave., the Irish American Heritage Center features a museum, school, archives, art gallery, library and theater group. But most interestingly, it also includes The Fifth Province — a traditional Irish pub tucked away in the South Wing, completely hidden from plain view outside the building.
The pub was built by the founders of the Heritage Center — stone masons, carpenters, woodworkers, tile masters and pipefitters — and feels like a tradesmen’s hangout that you’d find in Galway. It also features the live music, food and beer to match.
Note that the bar is open only from 6 to 10 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Visit irish-american.org for more information.
DAVE WISCHNOWSKY can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/wischlist, on Twitter at twitter.com/wischlist or his blog, wischlist.com.