Exploring the Irish Influence in Chicago
St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago is a fun, festive city-wide party known for parades, bagpipers, and green beer. But there’s more to the Chicago Irish population than rowdy bar crawls and suspect-looking beverages. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, only a few hundred Chicago residents claimed Irish heritage in the 1830s. Within 30 years, Chicago had grown into the fourth largest Irish city in America, thanks in part to the Irish laborers, religious institutions, and strong social networks that allowed Chicago to grow and expand into the major metropolis it is today.
The Irish connection remains strong in Chicago, so in honor of the upcoming holiday that celebrates spring, Irish culture, and having a mighty craic — that’s the Gaelic slang for “a good time” — here are a few fun facts about the Windy City Irish.
There are at least seven award-winning Irish step dancing schools in the Chicagoland area, each with distinct style, flair, and world recognition. But what they all have in common is the commitment to the bouncing curly hair, colorful costumes, and lightning fast toe-taps. Chicago is also the hometown of Michael Flatley, the creator of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, the explosive Irish step dancing shows that exploded the centuries-old cultural dance onto a global stage, so we know a thing or two about jigs and reels.
What Irish call Trad, or traditional folk music, is what we call good tunes. Few things are more festive this time of year than bellying up to the bar and listening to an informal concert gathering in the corner. If want to know where to find the next rollicking trad sesh, check out the listings on The Session for all the details. If you want to jump in the action, visit the Irish Music School of Chicago or Old Town School of Music for lessons in the bodhran, the tin whistle, the fiddle, Irish singing, or any other Gaelic instrument.
If you’re a native Chicagoan, you’ve surely heard the perennial favorite ditty, “The South Side Irish” by the Irish Choir. Written in 1984 by Tom Black, Tom Walsh, and Terry McEldowney, the catchy song is in heavy rotation in all of Chicagoland from mid-February until late March and at every Chicago Irish wedding.
Founded in 1846 by a small group of Irish immigrants, Old St. Pat’s Church in the West Loop has been the centerpiece to Irish Catholicism and social justice for Chicagoans. Drawing inspiration from the renowned Book of Kells and Celtic art, the building’s design is bathed in stained glass. It survived the Great Fire of 1871 and remains one of the city’s oldest public buildings and a thriving parish for over 3000 households.
Did you know Chicago has a castle? The Givens’ Irish Castle was built between 1886 and 1887 by real estate developer and one-time Chicago mayoral candidate Robert Givens as a way to bolster development along the Rock Island train line. The castle, built for $80,000 and out of Joliet limestone, was designed to match a castle Givens saw on a trip to Ireland. The building has only had five owners in the last 140 years and remains the crown jewel of the predominantly Irish neighborhood of Beverly and West Morgan Park.
Remember when Conan O’Brien returned to Chicago and learned Irish step dance? It was hilariously filmed at the Irish American Heritage Center in the Mayfair neighborhood of northwest Chicago. The non-profit organization is housed in a beautiful historic building that hosts banquet halls, a theater, a pub, several rooms for readings, music, classes, and other events that cultivate and support the Irish culture.
Gaelic Park in Oak Forest celebrates all things Irish with a pub, a banquet hall, a theater, and the annual Ireland on Parade fest highlighting Irish culture. Gaelic Park hosts the annual South Side Irish Queen contest, summer fests, harvest festivals, and the Chicago Gaelic Athletic Association, which sponsors Gaelic football teams and hurling clubs.
There’s no shortage of options when it comes to standing on crowded sidewalks, cheering the local marching bands, and dancing to bagpipers. What started in mid-1950s as the Southtown parade through the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood was moved downtown in 1958 by then-Mayor Richard J. Daley. In 1979, a pair of friends reminiscing about the “old St. Patrick’s Day parade” started a new one with 17 children marching along the streets of Beverly and West Morgan Park. That parade became the South Side Irish Parade, a lively neighborhood-wide tradition that continues to this day. Of course, as Irish settled all over the city, new parades popped up to celebrate the day and to welcome the coming spring. Here’s a list of where to find a parade in the first weeks of March:
- West side: Forest Park, at Madison and Van Buren, on Saturday, March 4
- Southwest side: Countryside, at 55th and Edgewood, on Saturday, March 4
- Chicago Irish Parade: Downtown, at Balbo and Columbus, Saturday, March 11
- North Suburbs: Palatine, at Wood and Oak St., on March 11
- Northwest side: Norwood Park, at Neola and Raven St., on March 12
- South Side Irish Parade: Beverly/Morgan Park, at 103rd and Western Avenue, Sunday March 12
A Green River
The Downtown festivities include a Chicago tradition of dyeing the river a radioactive-looking green. Started in 1962 by members of the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local Union, the event includes a crew of six dumping 40 pounds of the vegetable-based (and nontoxic!) powder into the river. The “secret recipe” is a bright orange that gives the river its iconic green sheen for a few hours.
Yes, there’s corned beef and cabbage on the St. Patrick’s Day buffet, but don’t sleep on the other Irish delicacies.
- Irish soda bread is a crunchy, scone-like quick bread with raisins and caraway seeds that makes for great toast with tea or to sop up every bite of Irish stew.
- The boxty is the Irish version of potato pancakes—leftover mashed potatoes mixed with flour and egg and fried in oil. Often served on St. Brigid’s Day (Ireland’s patroness saint), it can be topped with cheese, scallions, herbs, or enjoyed fresh from the skillet.
- Colcannon is a dressed-up side dish of cabbage or kale mixed in with mashed potatoes and salt. It is often served year-round alongside corned beef, boiled ham, or Irish bacon.
- Irish dairy products, like cream, cheese, and butter, can thank the 10 months of grass growth for their healthy and well-fed dairy cows. Rich and creamy, Irish dairy is most delicious slathered on hearty brown bread or stirred into salty potatoes.
Want to try some for yourself? Find Irish specialties at shops like Winston’s Market (West Lawn and Tinley Park), Gaelic Imports (Jefferson Park), and Jack & Pat’s (Chicago Ridge) have been offering Irish staples for decades.
It may be too late this year to take advantage of this, but mark your calendars for next year! Beyond Liam Neeson and Colin O’Farrell, there’s a rich and exciting world of Emerald Isle cinema. And the Chicago Irish Film Festival is intent on showcasing all the best Irish talent on the silver screen and behind the camera. With independent films about political justice, horror, suspense, documentaries, and everything in between, the Film Festival promises a rich experience from the land of storytelling.
Whether you celebrate Irish culture, the coming of spring, of just want to join in the revelry, St. Patrick’s Day is the perfect excuse to gather with friends and family and have a mighty craic.