Celebrating St. Patrick
in the United States
By Dave Lewis, Contributor
March / April 2019
Some of the biggest and best parades celebrating Ireland’s patron saint actually take place in America. New York may have the largest parade in the country, but it’s followed closely by Savannah, Georgia. And while the Boston parade has a long history, the Holyoke, Massachusetts parade rivals it for its sheer color and gaiety. Here’s a sampling of parades across the U.S.
The Irish of Boston have been celebrating St. Patrick’s Day since the 1730s. Not only does the parade celebrate Saint Patrick, it also commemorates Evacuation Day, the day the British left Boston during the American Revolutionary War, so it’s fitting that John Beatty, executive director of the Massachusetts Military Task Force, will serve as the parade’s chief marshal on March 17 in South Boston. Up to a million spectators are expected.
For the past 50 years, the Windy City has been famous for dyeing the Chicago River green on Saint Patrick’s Day, and it’s not the only attraction. Chicago has three St. Patrick’s Day parades and a multitude of festivities that attract some 8,000,000 revelers. The South Side Parade, to take place on March 17, is the largest and will be led by Grand Marshal Terence “Terry” J. Hancock, the president of Teamsters Joint Council No. 25. Parades will also take place downtown on Columbus Drive, on March 16 and on the Northwest side on March 17, in the Norwood Park neighborhood.
In 1842, Rev. Peter McLaughlin decided to celebrate St. Patrick with a mass, parade, and banquet. 177 years later, the Irish community of Cleveland, is still celebrating. This year, William “Bill” Homan has been selected as the grand marshal. Bill is a founding member of the Irish American Club. A unique part of the Cleveland celebrations is the honoring of the city’s “Irish Mother of the Year.” This year that honor goes to Eileen Kilroy. The parade will begin at the intersection of Superior Avenue and East 18th Street and will end at the intersection of Rockwell and Ontario Street on March 17.
Now in its 61st year, Detroit’s parade follows along Michigan Avenue through the area known as Corktown, the city’s oldest neighborhood, named for County Cork immigrants who settled there in the 1840s. This year’s parade, on March 10, will be led by Grand Marshals Paul and Agnes Gowdy, lifelong contributors to the Detroit Irish community. Families can view the parade from heated grandstands, listen to live entertainment, get their faces painted, enjoy an Irish dance lesson, and much more. The Corktown Races, a 5-km. race, is also a feature of the day. It attracts over 8,000 participants and raises funds for the St. Patrick Senior Center.
Over the years since its debut in 1952, this Massachusetts parade has featured such notables as President John F. Kennedy, actress Maureen O’Hara, and Irish America’s co-founder Patricia Harty! This year’s grand marshal is Roger J. Reidy, a longtime stalwart of the community. Dr. Christopher Fox, director of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, will receive the Ambassador Award, and Lauren Hanna Dulude will serve as the Grand Colleen. Lauren, who completed 400 hours interning at Boston Children’s Hospital, dances with the Trend N Motion Dance Crew in the Boston area.
New York City’s parade, dating back to March 17, 1762, is the largest St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the world with around 150,000 participants and close to two million viewers. These numbers could be even higher this year, as the New York parade will also host marchers from Washington, D.C., where the parade was cancelled due to lack of funds. Brian O’Dwyer, an active participant in the Northern Ireland peace process and the son of late civil rights leader Paul O’Dwyer, will lead the parade up Fifth Avenue on March 16.
The Philadelphia parade, which dates back to 1771, attracts some 20,000 marchers, 200 Irish dance schools, numerous high school bands, GAA clubs, and other groups. Sean McMenamin will lead the parade on March 10. An immigrant from Mayo, Sean has been active in the community since the 1960s. His late wife Joanna, of Sligo, who, like her husband, was very active in the community, had particular pride in expanding the Irish Center’s library. The theme of this year’s parade is “Saint Patrick, Unite Us!”
Pittsburgh’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, founded in 1869, features over 23,000 marchers and draws a crowd of 350,000. Mike Gallagher, a local musician who has entertained with his 12-string acoustic guitar at Pittsburgh’s many Irish pubs, parades, and festivals, has been selected as the parade’s grand marshal. Mike will be accompanied by the winner of the Miss Smiling Irish Eyes competition (unnamed at press time). The theme of this year’s parade is: “A United Ireland.”
This year the 168th St. Patrick’s Day Parade, by far the west coast’s largest Irish event, will take place in San Francisco on March 16. The theme for this year’s parade is “Women Breaking Barriers,” and who better to lead it than Mayor London N. Breed, the 45th and first African-American female mayor in the history of San Francisco. Some 200,000 spectators are expected to attend.
Milwaukee’s St. Patrick’s Day parade was first held on March 17, 1843. It is said to have been influenced by the Temperance movement at the time. In its current form, the parade is in its 53rd year and is organized by the Shamrock Club of Wisconsin, which nominated its longtime coordinator Kim Nowak as parade marshal. Nowak was nominated along with the Irish Rose, Dawn Fleming, and the Shamrock Club’s Irish Man of the Year Mike Malloy. Every year, the Friends of St. Patrick’s Milwaukee chapter and the AOH partner with the Hunger Task Force to collect non- perishable food items at the St. Patrick’s Day parade in downtown Milwaukee. Parade spectators are encouraged to bring food items to the parade. Volunteers collect the donations in grocery carts throughout the parade route.
The St. Louis parade will be led by Joseph B. McGlynn, Jr., who founded the parade back in 1970. Irish senator Aidan Davitt will be the guest of honor. The honorary parade marshal is Kevin Short, CEO of Clayton Capital Partners. St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and over 130 floats, bands, marching units, large helium-filled balloons, 5,000 marchers, and 350,000 attendees are expected on March 16.
Now in its 195th year, the Savannah parade is the second largest in the U.S. and one of the most colorful. On March 16, marchers, floats, and pipers will be led down Abercorn Street by Grand Marshal Gerald P. “Jerry” Counihan, who has roots in Kerry and Tipperary. Jerry had a 21-year career with the IBEW and is credited with providing jobs for many young men and women in Georgia. Since his retirement in 2009, he has been active in humanitarian projects in Haiti and Puerto Rico.
In 2018, Dr. J. Michael Francis, a historian at the University of South Florida, discovered that in 1600, the people of St. Augustine, along with two Irishmen, (one a merchant and the other a priest) celebrated the feast day of Saint Patrick by marching in the streets of the city and firing cannons from the fort the Spanish soldiers occupied there. This year, the parade will be led by current and former presidents of Flagler College Dr. William Proctor, Dr. William Abare, Jr. and Dr. Joseph Joyner in honor of the college’s 50th anniversary and its contributions to the community. ♦