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The river and streets turned green as onlookers gathered for Chicago's downtown St. Patrick's Day Parade, March 14, 2015.
Photograph: Max Herman

10 things you might not have known about St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago

Written by
Jonathan Samples

St. Patrick's Day is on March 17, but Chicagoans will kick things off this weekend with a slew of events and activities. From dyeing the river green to festivals and parades, Chicago is famous for its spirited celebration of Ireland's beloved patron saint. But behind all these festivities is a long history of traditions (and some secrets) surrounding the annual holiday. Here are some of the things we're sure not everyone knows about St. Patrick's Day in Chicago.

1. Chicago has three St. Patrick’s Day parades. Chances are you know about the downtown St. Patrick's Day Parade and the South Side Irish Parade, but we bet you didn't know about Chicago's third big procession. On Sunday, the Northwest Side Irish Parade will celebrate its 14th year in the Norwood Park East neighborhood. This year's parade will step off at noon and feature upwards of 2,500 parade participants.  

2. The Southtown Parade started it all. The first St. Patrick's Day parade on the South Side was called the Southtown Parade, and it inspired today's downtown procession, as well as the current South Side Irish Parade. The Southtown Parade started in 1953 and lasted for seven years before former Mayor Richard J. Daley combined it with the West Side St. Patrick's Day Parade and moved the affair downtown. Exactly 20 years later, two South Siders who were inspired by memories of the Southtown Parade held the first South Side Irish Parade.

3. Dyeing the river green is unique to Chicago. It all started in 1962 and remains one of the city's most cherished traditions. The initial idea came after Steve Bailey, a union plumber and organizer of the downtown parade, noticed that dye used to detect river pollution stained a coworker's overalls bright green. The Chicago Journeymen Plumbers eventually whipped up an eco-friendly recipe to turn a section of the Chicago River a brilliant shade of green. Fast forward more than 50 years, and that recipe remains a closely guarded secret.

4. The dye used to turn the river green isn't green. Spoiler alert: It's orange. We know that's hard to believe, but the 45 pounds of vegetable dye needed to turn the river from ugly green to emerald green is actually orange! Go figure.

5. It couldn't happen without leprechauns. Organizers of the Chicago St. Patrick’s Day Parade believe leprechaun magic is the reason why orange dye turns the Chicago River green (so the parade committee's website winkingly suggests, anyway).

6. Temperatures change but traditions remain. The downtown St. Patrick's Day Parade might be the unofficial start to spring, but it's been held in winter– and summer-like temperatures. Parade organizer Kevin Sherlock told National Geographic that the downtown parade has been held in temperatures ranging from 0 to 82 degrees. 

7. Even before the parades, Chicagoans of all backgrounds celebrated St. Patrick's Day. Chicago's Irish community didn't need parades to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. As early as the 1940s, the city's residents marked the annual holiday with smaller neighborhood gatherings

8. The South Side Irish Parade is the largest neighborhood parade outside of Dublin. With more than 15,000 marchers and over 250,000 spectators annually, the South Side Irish Parade has grown significantly in the last 28 years. According to its organizers, the parade is considered the largest "neighborhood-based" St. Patrick’s Day parade outside of Dublin.

9. It's a proud union's holiday. From dyeing the river to organizing the city's downtown parade, the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local Union 130 are the driving force behind St. Patrick's Day in Chicago. In fact, the union has sponsored the downtown parade since 1955, when it was still held on the South Side.

10. Chicago's St. Patrick's Day parades have always drawn a crowd. Anyone who's attended the downtown St. Patrick's Day Parade knows just how popular in event is among Chicagoans. But even before it moved to a more central location in the Loop, the parade was a hit. In 1955, the St. Patrick's Day Parade featured 65 marching units, 5,000 participants and 29 floats. More than 100,000 paradegoers came out to watch the procession, which marched from Garfield Park to Resurrection Church.

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