It is amazing how Western Avenue transforms for the South Side Irish Parade. Normally it is a busy, wide main street like so many others in the city. But when it closes for the parade it takes on a close-knit community feel. The street is lined with large crowds. Many of the people know each other and those participating in the parade. You can tell by the way they greet each other.
As St. Patrick’s Day approaches those interested in attending should watch the official South Side Irish Parade web site. It will tell you the date of the event. There are also many other details, such as the starting time and route. Many local media outlets will also have coverage. But going to the source is probably best.
Getting to the parade is not the easiest thing if you do not live in the area. If you decide to drive finding a space might be challenging. Residential parking only is allowed surrounding the parade route. The train is probably a better option, especially if you plan to drink. Metra’s Rock Island route stops at 103rd Street, 107th Street and 111th Street. But you will have to walk about a mile from the first, and a half mile from the second and third, to get to the parade route. Cabs can be hailed with the Curb app. But given crowds there could be a lot of competition.
If you are coming from Downtown you can take the CTA Orange Line. There are plenty of taxis at Midway Airport station to take you to the parade. Getting off at the Western stop means a fare that is about $5 cheaper. But, as the neighborhood is pretty desolate, you will probably have to order a cab with the Curb app and wait. In either case returning home at night on the Orange Line could be lonely. There might not be many people around in the station or on the train.
The parade has a long history. The original version ran on 79th Street but moved downtown in 1960. In 1979 two South Side friends, George Hendry and Pat Coakley, felt like the event was worth recreating. They had fond memories of the original and wanted to make something for future generations. The first year’s production was humble: a few marchers and floats on neighborhood side streets. Over the years it has grown considerably. In 2019 it ran on Western from 103rd to 115th and lasted about two hours.
After the 2009 edition parade organizers decided to take a step back. Huge crowds descended on Beverly for the parade and there were issues with public drunkenness. According to NBC News fifty-four people were arrested that year. The feeling was that the event had transformed from a community affair into a giant drunken party that was extremely difficult to manage.
Two years later the parade resumed and today you would never know there had been such a problem. Drinking is definitely present. But a lot of it takes place in the bars along the route. People drink and eat inside while watching out the window.
There are many options to choose from if that is what you want. Cork & Kerry, Dingers, Open Outcry Brewing and others offer fun surroundings for the parade. Expect them to be packed with crowds on parade day which last well after the event is over.
Among the crowds you might find unique things going on. After the parade customers in Fox’s Beverly Pizza enjoyed a performance by the Shannon Rovers Irish Pipe Band. They marched through the aisles of the restaurant as people enjoyed dinner.
Officially there is a zero tolerance policy for public drinking. But that is not the case. There are many, many people with travel mugs outside on the parade route and it is not hard to imagine they might not be filled with coffee. Some even have slogans on them like, “it might be wine.” There are also people drinking from plastic cups and even a few with open beers.
None of this gets out of hand, however, and the significant police presence does not seem to pay it any mind. You get the feeling that lessons were learned during the two year suspension and people are now on better behavior.
The content of the parade is lively. You will find more than one pipe band. There are corporate entries, like Fox 32 TV, Com Ed and Paddy’s Irish Whiskey. There are traditional marching bands from several high schools. The Chicago Police and Fire Departments march. Community business is represented. Several labor unions participate, which are most likely large local employers. There is a parade queen and a grand marshal. This year mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot participated.
Once the last float passes Western rapidly transforms back into a street again. The barricades come down, several street cleaning trucks move through and the crowds retreat to bars and private homes. That great community feel that makes the parade so much fun disappears for another year.
George Hendry and Pat Coakley were right. Forty years after they resurrected the South Side Irish Parade, and despite some troubles along the way, the event has endured. If you have not made the effort to attend at least once it is worth your time. Just mind your partying manners, otherwise it could disappear again.
Click here for a gallery of Practical Chicago South Side Irish Parade photos.
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