St. Patrick’s Day In The Emerald City

View of Chicago River all dyed neon green

Irish-Americans are to blame, of course. We Irish-Americans can’t help but get carried away by that intoxicating nostalgia for the old sod. It doesn’t matter if our families last saw Ireland’s shores back during the great potato famine. That was only five generations ago. We’re still Irish. So, Erin go bragh! Ireland forever! For a very long time in Ireland St. Patrick’s Day was honored as a solemn religious holiday. Here, by contrast, it’s long been a secular celebration of everything Irish. We get carried away with celebrating our heritage, and as proper Americans, we do it on a grand scale. That’s how St. Paddy’s is done in Chicago–it’s a big green party.

How big and how green of a party exactly?

Well, to begin with Chicago dyes its river neon green. It makes a stretch of the river downtown look like the radioactive ooze that once transformed four hapless turtles into the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. True story. I always know that spring has finally arrived when Chicago’s river is greener than its trees and bushes. Plus there’s not just one but THREE St. Patrick’s Day parades. The Irish-American Heritage Center has a huge weekend-long festival. Naturally, thousands of people turn out for these events wearing every imaginable kind of green. If anyone has too much to drink, they turn extra green as many of the bars serve green beer. For one day each year, Chicago becomes an emerald city.

This year Emily, her brother Matt, and I went to see the parade downtown. This is always held on the Saturday before March 17th. Or on the 17th itself if it happens to be a Saturday. We took the CTA Blue Line to the Loop and had just enough time to weave through the crowds to find a spot along Columbus Drive. Too bad we didn’t have a little more time since the east side of the street seemed better. At noon the parade began with flags and a troop of bagpipers. Following them was a procession of marching bands, more bagpipers, heritage and civic organizations, and Irish dancers with curly wigs.

People watching

Also passing by were police officers and firefighters, vintage automobiles, a garbage truck festooned with shamrocks, and the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. I even saw a unicorn-headed woman and Waldo (from Where’s Waldo?). No parade would be complete without your usual bunch of politicians running amok as well. I saw mayoral candidate Chuy Garcia and Illinois’s governor Bruce Rauner.

Some of the best people watching isn’t in the parade but in the crowds around it. It’s fun to see all the ways people found to wear kerry green and shamrocks. There were many high school and college-aged kids in the crowd. Yes, some of them were sneaking drinks and being loud. If you really don’t care for that and heavy drinking, avoid the north side of the river and pretty much all of Wrigleyville. Otherwise, the parade’s all in good fun and family friendly.

See the green Chicago River by water taxi

After the parade ended, the crowds pressed along Michigan Avenue. I wasn’t having any of that, so Matt had the brilliant suggestion of walking north along the lake shore towards Navy Pier. That was much quieter. Then we went west along the riverwalk to see the green water. We missed watching the river dyeing earlier in the morning but that’s okay because the river stays green all day. A few hours before the Saturday parade, members of the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Union Local 130 pour a highly secretive dye into the waterway and churn it up with motorboats. The dye starts out kind of orange, but then suddenly turns screaming green. They won’t tell the public what it is exactly–perhaps it really is leprechaun dust?–but it’s reportedly non-toxic and environmentally safe.

A little later we made our way over to Chicago Water Taxi on the north side of the river by Michigan Avenue. For $4 a person we took a ride on the river towards Union Station. You can pay cash on the boat. What’s fun about this is that you’re right on the ultra-green water. Emily gets motion sick easily but didn’t have any problems. She later said that the boat ride was her favorite part of the day. It was mine, too. I liked when the water taxi pilot sounded the boat horn and the drinking crowd along the river cheered.

If you’re looking to get a little carried away with Irish pride and see Chicago go crazy green, then there’s no better way then to go the city’s downtown St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Several girls from the Trinity Irish Dancers on a moving float

Trinity Irish Dancers showing off on their float