For a few hours tomorrow, the Chicago River will honor the Irish and Saint Patrick by turning green once again. After a brief pause due to the last few years, millions of people will be overwhelming the city streets in green once more in honor of Saint Patrick. The city will celebrate Irish pride to its fullest, and nothing will stop them.
… But it is a bit of a peculiar tradition. Dying the entire Chicago River green for a few hours for an Irish saint. Why would Chicagoans do that? Where did that come from, and who is responsible?
One of the first questions can be a little obvious, but it is still worth asking. Why green? Everyone knows that the color green is connected to the Emerald Island but in more ways than one. During the 1600s and 1700s, green was a political symbol of Irish pride while the British occupied Ireland. It became a symbol for the fight for Irish independence and people wore it to spite the British occupiers. Green as a color for Ireland is now the standard.
The First Irish Parades!
The first Irish parades were in New York in the US, but eventually, Irish Parades spread to other parts of the country, including Chicago. Irish parades began in the city during the mid-19th century and a singular unified Irish parade was celebrated for a time until around the turn of the century when it stopped. While Chicago Irish neighborhoods still celebrated the holiday after the end of the Second World War, it was not until the 1950s that Chicago recontinued a singular parade.
The Revival of the Irish Parades!
The Chicago Saint Patrick’s Day Parade as we know it today began with Chicago’s most well-known mayor, Richard J. Daley. When originally running for mayor, an aspect of his campaign was to create a united Chicago-Irish parade where all of the different neighborhoods walk together. It worked; during his first year in office, Mayor Daley majored to turn the parade into a city-wide event and effectively united all parts of Chicago together.
Birth of the Green River
About half a decade later, another tradition came about that added a striking feature to the Chicago Saint Patrick’s Day Parade; the iconic green river.
A business agent for the plumber union The Plumbers Local 130, Stephen Bailey, noticed that a plumber’s white coveralls were dyed a perfect shade of green. When asked what happened, the plumber responded that they use a special green dye to detect leaks and pollution in the Chicago River. That gave Bailey the idea to dye the river green and suggested it to Mayor Daley.
Daley agreed, and in 1961, the Chicago River was dyed green. For a moment, it looked like things were not going to go well. The river looked like it would be dyed orange, the color used to support the British occupiers. However, it soon began a beautiful Irish green and stayed that way for one week.
In our current times, the Chicago Saint Patrick’s Day is one of the biggest parades in the country with millions of people showing up every year. The Green River is an iconic feature of the parade now. It has become a who’s-who in Chicago politics with anyone who is anyone vying for the front and is a city-wide event where people come together to drink and celebrate. Do you need to be Irish? Probably not.
Irish or not, sometimes you just need a pint of Guinness and an excuse to party.
Written by Claudia Piwowarczyk.
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