As I followed the shuffling crowd toward the green river, I attempted to avoid getting trampled amid the low-toned shouts from drunken teenagers and leering 40-something couples. I stopped in a clothing shop, to be greeted by a police officer singing “Danny Boy” with a surprisingly smooth vibrato voice. “Ah, welcome! We are all Irish today,” he said.
As a native Chicago suburbanite who identifies as a Chicagoan on days like March 17, I say there’s nothing quite like St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago.
What began as a unique celebration of a religious and cultural holiday has evolved into a center for commercialization and day drinking for the “Chirish,” a term for the Chicago Irish. Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration grew to include the unique facet of dyeing the Chicago River, an attraction that draws more viewers than the parade.
The Place to Be on March 17
While many cities across the United States flaunt large crowds and strong Irish heritage, according to Insider Magazine, Chicago is the number one city for March 17 celebrations. “Chicago earned the top spot for its plethora of traditions, including dying the Chicago River green.” The Chicago downtown St. Patrick’s Day parade, held the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day, officially dates back to 1956. Its popularity, however, began long before the city-recognized Irish celebration.
Chicago’s Irish put on a few of their own parades since their mass arrival in the 1840s, but the official downtown parade began when the politically ambitious mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, orchestrated the first city-wide St. Patrick’s Day celebration at the beginning of his first term.
In the earlier years, parades tended to be modest neighborhood affairs, and participants usually marched to nearby churches. As immigration continued to increase throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, these displays became more chaotic and often resulted in dueling parades on the same day. Daley combined the Southtown and west side parade into one large downtown gathering.
As the Great Famine drove Irish immigrants to the United States throughout the 1840s, the Irish grew to make up nearly one-fifth of Chicago’s population by 1850. The group dominated the political arena, claiming the Daley legacy, or the mayoral reign of Richard J. and Richard M. Daley from 1955-1976 and 1989-2011.
The Irish succeeded in the voting polls largely because of the group’s lack of enemies. An old saying proved this point: “A Lithuanian won’t vote for a Pole, and a Pole won’t vote for a Lithuanian. A German won’t vote for either of them. But all three will vote for a turkey — an Irishman.”
A Lucky Discovery
The Irish now comprise more than 200,000 of Chicago’s residents, beating out the Germans for the title of largest European ancestry group by a small margin, according to a 2007 U.S. Census American Community Survey. Because Chicago is a unique place, this strong Irish group could do nothing less than establish their unique tradition. Every year, thousands swarm the bridges for a chance to catch a glimpse of the magic green water.
At the same time he created the parade, Daley was determined to clean the Chicago River. Filled with sewage, the river was reviled as an eyesore. He ordered the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local to dump in a special dye that could reveal exactly where waste was discarded.
Six years later, a business manager of the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local Union, Stephen Bailey, noticed one of his plumbers’ white overalls was stained with what he thought to be a strikingly Irish green color after a day of pouring the dye in the river. The color came from the fluorescent dye used to detect leaks and pollution in the Chicago river that — when combined with water — creates a brilliant, emerald green. Thus, a tradition was officially born in 1961.
Bailey, a close friend of Daley’s, thought about adding it to the river, wildly increasing the spectacle, and this idea wasn’t even the most ambitious. According to the Chicago Tribune, Daley had originally wanted to dye the entirety of Lake Michigan green, or a whopping 1,180 cubic miles of water.
On Mar. 17, 1962, the city poured 100 pounds of the dye into the river, producing a week-long green sight for the city. For a few years, the Journeymen experimented with using different amounts of dye until they perfected the recipe at 40 pounds, keeping the river green for an appropriate four-to-five-hour period.
Although the dye was intended to spot pollution, the solution was an oil-based fluorescein that was later discovered to be chemically damaging the water. After staunch environmental lobbying, the recipe was changed in 1966 to an orange, powdered, vegetable-based dye. The recipe is strictly confidential, known only to the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers who founded the recipe. Even today, more than 60 years after the formula’s creation, it remains a closely guarded secret.
Bailey didn’t know at the time his contribution would help develop the most remarkable St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the country. Although other cities attempted to mimic the tradition, none have yet to achieve the correct color, which the Journeymen Plumbers credit with special help from leprechauns.
In 1961, the same year Bailey was struck with the idea, the city of Savannah, Ga. tried unsuccessfully to dye its river green on the Irish holiday. Quickly moving tides prevented the celebratory achievement, according to USA Today.
The plumbers spend approximately 45 minutes making sure that doesn’t happen in the Windy City. The process begins at 9 a.m. on the morning of the parade when four members of the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers head out on two motorboats. On the larger vessel, three members use flour sifters to spread the dye into the river, while the smaller boat shadows behind to disperse the dye.
The innately Chicago tradition not only makes the St. Patrick’s Day celebration a worthwhile event but also brings global fame, setting it apart from other city celebrations. Chicago native and former first lady Michelle Obama began dyeing the White House fountain green in honor of her hometown celebration, a distinct tradition President Trump continued.
The Joys of the Chirish
Of course, the White House isn’t the only area following in Chicago’s footsteps. The idea of a St. Patrick’s Day parade finally made it to Dublin when the city began holding its own St. Patrick’s Day festival in the mid-1990s. But make no mistake, Chicago has been leading the holiday’s celebratory trends since the start.
“And I thought Dublin was bad!” Jackson O’Brien, a 6’2” Irish student from Columbia University, shouted, wandering around in awe at the level of debauchery at a roadside field ripe with underage drinking and adolescent pot-smoking.
Although many claim Irish ethnicity only one day a year, O’Brien heralds from the place the holiday originated, a fact he boasts year-round. “Well, we had St. Patrick. He was a Catholic saint who drove all the snakes out of Ireland, so today is a day to remember him,” he said. “I have no idea how it got to drinking. I have no idea how it got to that point. But that’s how we celebrate in Ireland, that’s how we celebrate everything.”
Not only is St. Patrick’s Day a celebration of Irish culture and religious sanctity, but it’s been proven that — in Chicago at least — it’s prime sales for the shot glass industry. Like New Orleans Mardi Gras, the spirit of the city boasts record high attendance numbers in bars and clubs. Overrun with drink specials and the other green gimmicks, for 24 hours, the city transforms into one big party, and many take advantage of the economic opportunity.
“Things really pick up on St. Patty’s,” Jonathon Hurtado, a retail worker at “My Chicago!” said while adjusting his four-leaf clover sunglasses, just one piece of merchandise he was pushing. Shops near the river stock up on nearly every-shade-of-green everything: jerseys, cowboy hats, feather boas, those glasses with the nose attached, shamrock-clad tumblers, and of course the foam finger.
What did America give us for the season of Saint Patrick? Green beer and the infamous McDonald’s Shamrock shake (both St. Patrick’s Day essentials).
When passing the block-long line outside of the beloved “Miller’s Pub,” one man ran to catch his spot in line. After explaining his minor Irish roots and experience in the city, he summed up his aim for the weekend getaway in simple terms. “I just need to find the bar and drink with my friends,” he said. “I probably won’t make it to actually see the parade.”
Despite not seeing the parade with his eyes, he said he still felt the vibrant city culture that materializes during the exciting weekend. You can be certain, however, no matter how they identify the other 364 days of the year, on Mar. 17, everyone within the city limits of Chicago considers himself Chirish.