The Tradition Marches On

Has the South Side Irish Parade Returned to Its Roots?

The parade that Sunday, March 15, 2009, began like so many other South Side Irish Parades. Parishioners went to church throughout the 19th Ward, where “pray, parade, party” had become an unofficial slogan for the annual celebration. Later that morning, busloads of people from nearby suburbs, colleges and other Chicago neighborhoods descended on the ward. An estimated 300,000 people visited the Beverly, Mt. Greenwood, and Morgan Park neighborhoods on that Sunday afternoon, one of the largest crowds in the history of the event.

For a ward that only has just over 51,000 people living in it, hosting the famous South Side Irish Parade and keeping crowds in line has always been a logistical challenge . By 2009, the parade had developed a certain reputation for rowdiness that earned some condemnation within the community. Nonetheless, the parade received international notoriety thanks to former President Obama, who bragged about the South Side event to then-Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen. However, the problems that dogged previous parades came to a head in 2009 —  by the day’s end, 54 people were arrested and a dozen police officers had been assaulted, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Weeks after that year’s parade, organizers announced their decision to cancel the 2010 parade. The 2011 parade would also be canceled. However, in 2012 South Side Irish Parade Committee Chairman Joe Connelly announced the parade’s illustrious return. For some, including South Side native Pat Cusack, the decision was met with tentative optimism. “A lot of thought was put into the decision,” Cusack said, “I think it was very supported because it was brought under control. The changes were positive and well received.”  

For DePaul junior, Marty O’Connell, growing up near the parade route meant it was more about having fun than it was about actually attending the parade. O’Connell grew up during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the parade was beginning to lose its focus.. His parents liked the parades but had concerns when it became “a lot wilder” and O’Connell and his siblings were younger. “Even I remember riding up and down the street and seeing drunk people just urinating on the grass, in the middle of the street,” O’Connell said.

Others, including Chicago Ald.Matthew O’Shea (D-19th) expressed concern that another parade could also revert back to pre-2009 days. O’Shea, who was voted into office in 2011, told the Beverly Review that the “South Side Irish Parade was a victim of its own success. It was something that was too big for our community, until I see a plan that makes that a safe event, I can’t foresee a South Side Irish parade coming back. The neighborhood has to be safe. Residents need to feel safe.”

O’Shea has personal experience with the parade, including volunteer work for the parade and marching in the parade during his youth. In an email, O’Shea said that he did not have any personal impact in the celebration’s return, nor did his predecessor, Virginia Rugai. In 2016, O’Shea promoted a pre-parade fundraiser on his Facebook page, later attending that same fundraiser at 115 Bourbon Street, a public venue in nearby Merrionette Park. O’Shea also commended parade organizers, saying they “have done an outstanding job maintaining the event as a family-friendly culture celebration.”

According to Bob Olszewski of the Beverly Review, reactions to the parade’s cancellation were largely dictated by whatever your opinions were before the cancellation. “Some people were happy, most people were shocked” when the parade was cancelled, Olszewski said..“That was the biggest day of the year for many of the local businesses.” The decision caused a ripple throughout the community. In an interview, Mike Winkler, general manager of County Fair, said the grocery store saw “seven to eight percent” drops in business during the hiatus years.

The Parade Starts at the 10300 block of S. Western Ave and ends at the 11500 block of S. Western Ave. (Graphic compiled by Cody Corrall, data by Ryan Witry)

In 2013, Ald. O’Shea introduced legislation increasing fines for drinking alcohol, urinating, and defecating along the parade route. According to Chicago ordinances written partially in response to the parade’s traditional unruliness, violators now face fines from $500 to $1000 or up to six months in jail for drinking in public within 800 feet of any parade route. Urinating or defecating in public carries the same fine including 5-10 days in jail Connelly says these policies, along with a message to bars and colleges outside the neighborhood to stay away, have helped bring the parade back to its community-based roots. Connelly added that the community is pleased to have the parade back, especially “in the matter that it has been brought back…. I think the neighborhood would give us high marks.”

Winkler said that because crowds are smaller now, fewer people are throwing large parties. As a result, sales are down somewhat from their pre-cancellation height in 2009s. Winkler said that before the parade was cancelled, customers would purchase “60, 70, 80 pounds of corned beef at a time.”

Local business owners seem especially excited for the parade’s future growth. John Brand, owner of Open Outcry Brewing Company, said he expected “healthy crowds” for the parade weekend in 2018.
The parade that Sunday, March 11, 2018 started like so many South Side Irish parades.  Parishioners went to church throughout the 19th Ward, where “pray, parade, party” had become an unofficial slogan for the annual celebration. However, the busloads of people stayed away from the Beverly neighborhood as only 150,000 people attended the 2018 parade. With smaller crowds, the rowdiness that afflicted the parades before cancellation has subsided. In the seven years since the Parade returned, no arrests have been made along the parade route. For now, it seems the parade has at last returned to its roots.


Header image courtesy of City of Chicago