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Irish eyes on Chicago: What you might not know

Today’s Wisch List column from the Kankakee Daily Journal

Irish eyes on Chicago: What you might not know

The WISCH LIST

March 13, 2010

In August of 1993, I was in Colorado visiting family, and Harrison Ford was in Chicago avoiding capture.

On the big screen, that is.

That summer, the blockbuster flick, “The Fugitive” – starring Ford, Tommy Lee Jones and the Windy City – debuted in theaters. And while on vacation out west, my father, brother and I bought tickets for a matinee showing.

Seated one row behind us that afternoon was a couple on a date. And throughout the film the guy made repeated ham-handed – and factually challenged – attempts to impress the girl with his so-called expert knowledge of Chicago.

In one memorable scene in “The Fugitive,” Ford’s Dr. Richard Kimble eludes Jones’ Lt. Samuel Gerard by blending in with the crowd during the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade as it proceeds past an emerald green Chicago River.

“See how green the river is there?” the wannabe Chicagoan whispered to his date as the movie screen flickered, “That’s because it’s so polluted.”

Now, while the Chicago River has no doubt had its pollution problems, even at 17 years old, I knew this guy was full of it.

And that the river was full of dye.

The Chicago River once again turns green today in preparation for the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade (noon, WLS-Ch. 7 or WGN-Ch. 9). So to help you prep yourself, I thought I’d share with you a few tidbits about St. Patrick’s Day, the Irish and the city of Chicago that you might not already know.

Although, no doubt, the guy behind me in that theater would say he knew them all.

Orange you surprised?

The dye used to transform the Chicago River into the “Emerald Nile” isn’t actually green. It’s orange.

And its effect was discovered by accident.

In 1961, Stephen M. Bailey, a city labor leader and pal of Mayor Richard J. Daley, reportedly was watching a plumber trace a leak in the Chicago River using orange dye. Upon its placement in the water, Bailey saw the dye instantly turn green, giving the proud Irishman the bright idea to employ that trick to help the city celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

The Green Mile

In 1962, the flamboyant Bailey held a press conference announcing his plans to pour a Green River and during it declared that, “The Chicago River will dye the Illinois, which will dye the Mississippi, which will dye the Gulf of Mexico, which will send green dye up the gulf stream across the North Atlantic into the Irish Sea, a sea of green surrounding the land will appear as a greeting to all Irishmen of the Emerald Isle from the men of Erin in Chicagoland, USA.”

And then he probably raised his arms and parted Lake Michigan.

Going ‘Green,’ circa 1962

In that 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.

Today, the city uses 40 pounds of a secret-recipe, vegetable-based concoction that is billed as safe for environment. And, rather than keeping the river green for days, it does so for just a few hours.

The Green House

Last March, in keeping with the tradition of her hometown, First Lady Michelle O’Bama, er … Obama, had the water that flows through the White House fountains dyed green to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

Elect me, I’m Irish

Chicago has had 54 mayors, and 12 of them – including Richard M. Daley, the city’s current king – have been Irish. That’s just 22 percent, however, those mayors have also governed the Windy City for more than 80 combined years – or nearly half of Chicago’s 173 years of existence.

Chicago has also had several other legendary Irish politicians, whose nicknames are at least as memorable as their accomplishments. They include, “Honest John” Comiskey (father of former White Sox owner Charles Comiskey), Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, “Bathhouse” John Coughlin and “Foxy” Ed Cullerton.

The Irish Invasion

When Chicago was founded in the 1830s, the city had only a few hundred Irish residents. But, by 1860, it was the fourth largest Irish city in America behind only New York, Philadelphia and Boston.

In 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 34.5 million Americans claim Irish ancestry – a number almost nine times the population of Ireland itself (4.1 million).

And Chicago now boasts more citizens of Irish descent than any other ethnic group, with an estimated 201,836 as of 2007. Next in line is German (200,392), followed by Polish (179,868), Italian (96,599) and English (60,370).

Lord of the Ring

Traditional Irish dancer Michael Flatley – yes, the “Lord of the Dance” – is a native Chicagoan.

And, as it turns out, a former Golden Gloves boxer.

“My family lived in a tough, racially mixed Chicago neighborhood in the mid-1970s,” the South Sider and Brother Rice High School graduate told the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper in 2004. “My brother and I had to learn how to protect ourselves.”

So, that’s where he got the footwork.

Float like an Irishman, sting like a bee.