The South Side Irish Parade crowd, celebrating an unusually sunny parade day in 2009, Metromix photo by Chuan D. Vo

You can’t live in Chicago and ignore St. Patrick’s Day! Our tradition of dyeing the Chicago River green, which began in 1962 during the days of the first Mayor Daley, along with the yearly St. Patrick’s Day Parade rivalry between the bigger, downtown Chicago St. Patrick’s Day Parade and the rowdier, South Side Irish Parade, always marked this holiday as a big week in Chicago. My one and only sighting of the first Mayor Daley in the flesh was to see him decked out in his Kelly green hat marching in the downtown parade when I attended one time as a child with my mother, however, throughout most of my life this South Sider chose to celebrate in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood at the South Side Irish Parade. I attended this parade innumerable times, first as a child with my mother and sister, then with my friends as a teenager, and eventually, with my young husband, as a wife and mother… Anton and Kate in tow.

Instead of being anonymous bystanders at the downtown parade, the South Side Parade provided the comfort of a familiar neighborhood and many familiar faces. There were always groups of friends and acquaintances we could count on finding at the same corners each year – some on the calmer, east side of Western Avenue and others on the west side, where all the packed bars spilled out into the street. We also looked for a couple familiar faces within the parade… a friend who played guitar with his Irish band there every year and another who marched with the Irish Fire Brigade. When they came into view, we would call out their names and wave, most likely not laying eyes on the likes of them again for another year! Very often, as the parade was tapering off to an end, we made our way to the west side of Western Avenue to enjoy a meal of corned beef and cabbage with my aunt and her family, who celebrated on parade day every year in their home on Artesian Avenue in West Beverly. Most years, brutal weather came to the parade as an uninvited guest, but we merely put up with it, resigned to the fact that this is a necessary evil for folks celebrating a March 17th holiday outdoors in Chicago. However, I do remember attending one particular year when we were joyfully surprised with sunshine and warm Spring breezes, which combined with the parade festivities to create a Mardi Gras atmosphere that lasted well into the night!

The last time I attended the South Side Irish Parade was in March of 2004, when I brought Declan and Eóin for the first time. This was Declan’s first St. Patrick’s Day in the States. I remember him expressing his surprise at seeing the vast number of lawn signs in the Beverly neighborhood declaring support for the Democratic Presidential candidate that year – a shock after spending so much time in the Republican land of Elmhurst. We felt at home wearing our John Kerry pins that day and had a nice time, but the weather was brutal as usual, and we never aroused the enthusiasm to make the trek again during subsequent St. Patrick’s Days. It became easier to keep our Patrick’s Day celebrations closer to home by attending instead, the 3rd largest parade in the Chicago area, the Elmhurst St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The politics isn’t ours, but the proximity is, and these days we are far more likely to run into familiar faces here in Elmhurst than on the South Side of Chicago. However, I always felt nostalgic for the South Side Parade and vowed each year to make it back again.

But sadly, we missed our last chance to attend last year. The South Side Irish Parade is now a thing of the past… this enthusiastic and sometimes rowdy parade celebrating both St. Patrick’s Day and South Side pride, which grew too big and too disruptive for a city neighborhood, is now replaced with the more manageable, and tame sounding, “South Side Irish Parade Family Fest”. My guess is that the only way we will end up attending the Family Fest, will be to watch my son dance there one year with his Irish Dancing school! But the days of “Mardi Gras on the South Side” are over… at least until some crafty South Side Irish-American can convince the city to try it again!