Chicago’s Irish roots run deep on the South Side

paradeFrom the Saturday, March 14, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


By Dave Wischnowsky

With the dyeing of the river, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade stomping its way north out of Grant Park and all the ensuing Irish-themed revelry, Chicago’s Loop and North Side will be painting the town green today.

But tomorrow? It’s the South Siders’ turn.

And on Sunday with the 2015 South Side Irish Parade, the southern half of the Windy City make the most of its big day (within reason) just like it has almost every year since 1979 (but, notably, not during all).

With perhaps the most colorful history of any parade in Chicago, the South Side Irish Parade has both a rollicking past and what’s become a more tempered, but no less popular, present.

The Parade

Scheduled to begin at noon, this year’s South Side parade will kick off in the Beverly neighborhood at 103rd Street and head south down Western Avenue to 115th Street.

Held prior to the parade at 11 a.m. is the Emerald Isle Mile, a one-mile, timed race starting at 112th and Western and heading north to 104th, with proceeds benefitting Special Olympics Chicago.

For more information about the parade route or the race, visit

The Past

The South Side Irish parade was the brainchild of two best friends, George Hendry and Pat Coakley, who both hailed from the same South Side neighborhood but didn’t meet until their early thirties when each of them moved to Chicago’s Morgan Park community with their young wives.

As the story goes, George and Pat were sitting around Hendrys’ kitchen table one day during the winter of 1979 enjoying a few beers and reminiscing about the original South Side Irish Parade (aka the Southtown Parade) of their youth. In 1960, that parade moved north to downtown and became the one that is taking place in Grant Park at noon today.

George and Pat decided that day that their own children and other South Side kids deserved to still have their own neighborhood parade. And so, on a rainy Saturday, March 17, 1979, George, Pat and their wives rounded up a group of local kids to march in the inaugural South Side Irish St. Pat’s Parade.

The humble procession included just 17 children, an American flag and one float – a baby buggy covered with a box that was decorated with shamrocks and the 26 county flags of Ireland, which was pushed up and down two South Side streets, earning the kids the nickname “The Wee Folks of Washtenaw and Talman.

Today, the parade has grown to include more than 100 groups, pipe and drum bands, Irish dancers, vintage fire trucks and Irish wolfhounds and expects to attract more than 150,000 spectators on Sunday.

The Problems

After the inaugural parade in 1979, the kids retreated to the Hendry’s basement for Kool-Aid and Twinkies. Over time, however, the South Side Parade became known for adults over-indulging other beverages, to the point in 54 alcohol-related arrests were reportedly made during the 2009 event.

Afterward, organizers pulled the plug on the parade for two years before resurrecting it in 2012 with a firm focus on families and a zero-tolerance alcohol policy.

The Politics

According to, a Chicago mayor hasn’t marched in the South Side Parade since Richard M. Daley last did so during the early 1990s. But on Sunday, according to organizers, the event will also be a political party with both Mayor Rahm Emanuel and challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia both scheduled to march, along with Gov. Bruce Rauner.

With Emanuel and Garcia in the midst of a heated election runoff, both will be clamoring for the luck of the Irish – or, at least, their votes.