This is the story of how the South Side Irish St. Patrick’s Parade began. As with many stories told by the Irish, exaggeration is inevitable, however, this story is completely true. The parade was the vision of two best friends, George Hendry and Pat Coakley. Both were raised on the South Side of Chicago, George in the St. Sabina Parish and Pat in the Little Flower parish in the Auburn neighborhood. The two did not meet until their early thirties, when both moved to the Morgan Park community with their young wives. There they became neighbors, best friends and in 1979, co-founders of the South Side Irish Parade.
In the winter of 1979, sitting around the Hendry’s kitchen table enjoying a few beers, George and Pat fondly remembered their experiences at the original South Side Irish Parade (aka the Southtown Parade) that was held on 79th Street. That parade moved downtown in 1960. It was at this time, while they were reminiscing, that George and Pat felt the obligation to create “something” for their children and the children of their friends and “green” neighbors. Nearly twenty years had passed, but now the South Side would rise again with a new parade in a new location for a new generation.
So on a rainy Saturday, March 17, 1979, George and Pat, with the help of their wives, Mary and Marianne (Mernie), gathered 17 children from the West Morgan Park community to march in the first South Side Irish St. Pat’s Parade. The children were the only marchers: Tim Kelly was dressed as St. Patrick; Eileen Hughes was the parade’s first and only queen; a few Boy Scouts, including Jack and George Hendry and Pat and Kevin Coakley, carried the American flag; and the parade’s original float, a baby buggy covered with a box decorated with shamrocks and the 26 county flags of Ireland, was pushed around the 10900 blocks of Washtenaw and Talman. The children were given the moniker “The Wee Folks of Washtenaw and Talman”. The theme of the parade was “Bring Back St. Pat”, which was George and Pat’s way of saying bring back to the South Side the parade they had cherished as children. Notices of the parade which were placed in mailboxes along the “route” invited neighbors to stand on their porches and wave to the marchers. Immediately following the parade, the children were invited to the Hendry’s basement for Kool-aid and Twinkies. Later that evening, the adults continued the party in the Coakley’s basement until the “wee” hours.
Others noticed this small gathering and celebration in the community and so in 1980, the parade moved from the sidewalks to the side streets and began at Kennedy Park. Three hundred participants marched past friendly neighbors watching from their front yards and windows. Marchers included families with wagons, children on decorated bicycles, dogs, and a bag piper. The St. Cajetan School’s band sat in chairs in front of the Kennedy Park field house and played for the gathering crowd. The parade meandered through the neighborhood and ended at the Beverly Bank parking lot, where Terry McEldowney sang Irish songs for the crowd.
It was hard to believe, but the parade was gaining in popularity and George and Mary and Pat and Mernie decided it was time to take the parade to THE STREET. On Sunday, March 15, 1981 the parade would march down Western Ave. for the first time, where it continues to march today. Then-Mayor Jane Byrne would only provide a permit for the southbound lane of Western from 103rd Street to 115th Street, while live northbound traffic whizzed by in the opposite lane. The Chicago Police were ordered not to provide crowd and traffic control, but parade volunteers and a few crossing guards assumed the responsibilities and the parade marched on safely. The 1981 parade was a parade of “firsts” – traditions that continue today and without which the parade just wouldn’t be the parade. This was the year that St. Cajetan Church, the official parish of the parade, would celebrate with a Mass honoring St. Patrick. Following the parade, a party commenced in St. Cajetan’s Memorial Hall. It was named the Post-Parade Party, and the parade trilogy and unofficial motto, which referenced the three successive aspects of each Parade Day, was born: “Pray, Parade, and Party”. Today, many families in the area celebrate the day by attending a special Parade Mass, then gather along Western Avenue to watch the parade, and finally head home to host parties for family and friends. A number of neighborhood families also use this gathering day as an excuse for an annual family reunion. Another 1981 first for the parade was the use of a Grand Marshall. That year, three neighborhood children, Bess Hendry, Annie Coakley and Sean Crowe, were the parade’s first Grand Marshalls. All three were chosen to signify that the parade would be first and foremost a family affair.
With the success of the 1981 parade, it was apparent that George and Pat needed some help. They asked a few friends and local parishioners to get involved, and a committee was formed. Without the help of Fr. Marty O’Donovan, Mike Hayes, Jim Davoren, Bob Rafferty, Paul Poynton, Sean McCarthy, Bill Letz, Jack McNicholas, Dick Norris, Bill Gainer, Jim Sheridan and Bill Wallace in those earlier years, the parade wouldn’t be the success it is today. Currently, there are 26 committee members handling everything from logistics, float entries, sanitation and sponsorship to related events, PR/Media, marshals, bands and merchandising. Today, the South Side Irish Parade is considered the largest neighborhood-based St. Patrick’s Day parade outside of Dublin. It grew from 17 children marching around the block 27 years ago to an event that hosts over 15,000 marchers and 250,000+ spectators each year.
Each year after 1981, the official parade route has been from 103rd & Western to 115th & Western, and each year a Grand Marshall is chosen, often a charitable organization that is dedicated to children. Each year since 2004, the parade has also designated another organization as a Special Honoree, thus enabling the parade to highlight and honor two unique organizations each year.