As the snow melts and spring creeps in there’s no better place to be than Chicago for St. Patrick’s Day. The Irish began immigrating to Chicago around the 1830′s, in search of new work, and following the Great Famine, Irish population numbers surged. In fact, most of the Illinois and Michigan Canal work was done by these Irish immigrants. They also helped to build lumber wharves, railroads, stockyards, and steel mills – contributing to Chicago’s shift from frontier town to urban metropolis.
As Chicago became even more ethnically and racially diverse, the Irish continued to be well represented at the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese as well as in the police force, fire department and public school system. The Chicago Irish are perhaps best known for their political skills in winning elections and creating a multi-ethnic democratic machine. Never a majority among immigrants in the city, the Irish enjoyed a distinct advantage thanks to their knowledge of the English language and the British system of government. Chicago’s twelve Irish mayors have governed for more than 80 years.
Nowadays not too much has changed. Chicago always was an Irish City and due to their pride about it Chicago always will be. There’s even a great movement campaigning to make Chicago the US Headquarters for St. Patrick’s Day and better yet there’s still time left to vote! If you have ever been to Chicago in the middle of March then you will know what I’m talking about. St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago isn’t just a holiday it’s a national treasure. Filled with rich traditions and insight the city of Chicago sure knows how to honor the Irish heritage.The Parishes and schools not only supported the growth of Chicago, they contributed to the social and geographic mobility of the Irish and those roots are what help to make the Irish traditions in Chicago remain firmly rooted.
As soon as February fades and March walks in you can begin to feel the energy. There’s something magical about it. It can’t be described; you just have to experience it for yourself. Chicago is home to two St. Patrick’s Day Parades. One is on the south side in a very Irish neighborhood called Beverly, which began in 1979 by two best friends, George Hendry and Pat Coakley. It started out as a gathering of a couple of Irish Families and it has blossomed into a one of the greatest Irish American events in the country.
Last Sunday, a few hundred thousand people gathered there as the parade honored first responders and fallen heroes. Thousands of people marched while even more watched from the sides of Western Avenue. People travel from all over the country and for those that are from the neighborhood; it’s the day we look forward to all year. It’s the day that the neighborhood shines. Being originally from the neighborhood I can tell you that there’s just nothing else like it.
The South Side Parade sets everyone up for the Downtown Parade which happens the following weekend. Bag Pipes, Leprechauns, Irish Knits, Trinity Dancers, Pints of Guiney, Irish eyes, smiles and Politicians. The iron men, the union guys, the people who help make Chicago glow. The glowing green of the Chicago River, the hundreds of thousands of people who gather to celebrate and honor the Irish, the generations of Irish Families who have been in Chicago since the first brick was laid. All of that comes together and is showcased throughout the month of March here in Chicago.
I have the privilege and the honor of being a photographer on behalf of both parade committees. My cameras and I spend our time capturing the moments of these great Chicago traditions and customs. The Irish know or thing or two about struggle and defeat – losing over a million people to the potato famine and another 1.5 million to emigration. They also know a thing or two about victory. The Irish rise above and learn from their defeat.
Being Irish in Chicago is about respecting the journey that we call life. It’s about coming together as one to proceed on together. Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you wherever you may be. As I sit here preparing myself and my cameras for tomorrow’s Downtown Parade one thing is for sure – Chicago will continue to shine with envy. Grab your caps and put on your freckles…Chicago turns green in the morning.
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