SPRINGFIELD — The Chicago River ran green once again this year.
Besides a few hiccups over the years, the river has been an emerald green for every St. Patrick’s Day celebration since 1962, when the tradition began under Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley as a kickoff to the day of festivities, which included one of the largest parades in the country.
Hizzoner himself was the proud grandson of Irish immigrants.
This river-dyeing tradition celebrating one particular ethnic group provides perhaps the best personification of the large impact that the Irish Americans have had on Illinois since arriving in large numbers in the 1840s.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 11.1% of Illinois residents claim Irish heritage. Cook County has more than 460,000 people claiming Irish lineage, the largest of any county in the country.
Of course, a lot of people live there, meaning that the percentage of Irish is just 8.9%, which is lower than other cities that claim significant Irish heritage like Boston. This makes the Illinois Irish’s continued ascendance to public office even more remarkable.
Quite simply, green blood has long coursed through the veins of the state’s halls of power.
In all, nearly a quarter of Illinois governors claim some Irish ancestry. At least seven Chicago mayors — most within the past century — can say the same. Mother Jones, the prominent labor activist who organized coal miners in central and southern Illinois, was an Irish immigrant.
“From the earliest settlements to the arrival of predominantly Catholic laborers in the 1830s, Irish immigrants ran for local and statewide offices — and they won,” said Mattieu Billings, co-author of "The Irish in Illinois," in an interview at Northern Illinois University last year. “During the late 1830s, when anti-immigrant fever or ‘nativism’ began sweeping the eastern seaboard, it was not uncommon to read nativist newspapers rail against the successes of Irish politicians in Illinois.”
A key part of that success was the ability to build coalitions across ethnic lines, which they did most prominently in the 20th century with the rise of the Chicago political machine.
Though the machine — which brought together a collection of white ethnic groups like the Irish, Poles and Italians as well as Jews and African Americans, was put together in 1931 by Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, a Czech immigrant — he died two years later, leaving his organization and Chicago City Hall to a collection of mostly Irish-American politicians with last names like Kelly and Kennelly.
A symbolic example of this coalition-building came early with Chicago Mayor Ed Kelly in the 1930s renaming Crawford Avenue, a major north-south thoroughfare that cut through the city’s Polish neighborhoods, as Pulaski Road after the famed Polish Revolutionary War hero.
It was undoubtedly a shrewd move pandering for the votes of Polish Americans, the only other white ethnic voting bloc that could challenge the electoral supremacy of the Irish.
Of course, Daley was the most prominent Irish-American leader, ruling Chicago — and exuding power statewide and across the country — with an iron fist between 1955 and 1976.
This could be seen in the all-out effort Daley made to secure Illinois for fellow Irish Catholic John F. Kennedy, who eked out an 8,858-vote win out of more than 4.75 million ballots cast, and was elected president.
Nearly every Democrat running on the state ticket at this time had the blessing of Daley and the Cook County Democratic Party. For better or for worse, this meant the exertion of influence downstate and in the statehouse in Springfield.
During his long reign, the Irish did quite well, showing up on city, county and state payrolls — all while getting out the vote for the machine in their wards. Many were elected to office at all levels as well.
Among them was former House Speaker Michael Madigan, a product of ward politics on Chicago’s Southwest Side who eventually became the longest-serving state House speaker in American history.
The Irish were never the predominant group in Madigan’s 13th Ward, but the former speaker put his coalition-building skills to work time and again to remain in power as long as he did.
First this meant winning his 13th Ward committeeman post in 1969 over a number of other white ethnic opponents. And it later meant winning with significant margins in his overwhelmingly Hispanic majority House district.
Madigan was not the only statehouse leader with an Irish background.
From 2009 to 2020, John Cullerton served as president of the Illinois Senate. He is a member of the Cullerton political family, whose members have held local and state offices dating back over a century.
And Illinois’ two incumbent Republican legislative leaders, House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, and Senate Minority Leader Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, both claim Irish heritage.
However, there has been some evidence of Irish influence waning on city and state politics.
When Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, son of the political boss, retired in 2011, he was succeeded by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, of Israeli ancestry.
And in the 2019 race to succeed Emanuel, Bill Daley, the son and brother of two Chicago mayors, failed to advance to a runoff election. Instead, it was Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and now-Mayor Lori Lightfoot, both Black women.
When Madigan was forced out as speaker in 2021, he was replaced by Speaker Emanuel "Chris" Welch, D-Hillside, the first African-American to hold the title.
This has become more common as the state continues to diversify with an influx of Hispanic and Asian residents and as groups long excluded from power, like African Americans, ascend to top roles.
But the Irish influence can still be felt.
Lightfoot took it a step further, wearing a full kilt and as she and other politicians — some of Irish background and some not — led the march in the city’s parade.
Everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, right?
Facts about St. Patrick’s Day
Who was the real St. Patrick? What do shamrocks mean? What happened on March 17? Here are a few facts about St. Patrick’s Day that you might not have known.
The real St. Patrick
The real St. Patrick wasn’t even Irish. Born in Britain around A.D. 390 to an aristocratic Christian family, he was uninterested in Christianity as a young boy. This changed when, at age 16, he was kidnapped and sent to tend sheep as a slave in Ireland for seven years. According to folklore, a voice came to Patrick in a dream and told him to escape to Ireland where he would spend his life trying to convert the Irish to Christianity. (National Geographic)
The color green
The color green has been associated with Ireland since at least the 1640s, when the green harp flag was used by the Irish Catholic Confederation. Green ribbons and shamrocks have been worn on St Patrick’s Day since at least the 1680s. (Wikipedia)
St. Patrick’s blue
St. Patrick’s blue is a name applied to several shades of blue associated with Saint Patrick and Ireland. The color blue’s association with Saint Patrick dates from the 1780s, when it was adopted as the color of the Anglo-Irish "Order of St. Patrick". In British usage, it refers to a sky blue used by the Order of St. Patrick, whereas in Irish usage it is often a dark, rich blue. While green is now the usual national color of Ireland, St. Patrick’s blue is still found in symbols of both the state and the island. Pictured above: The Historic arms of the Kingdom of Ireland. (Wikipedia)
Symbolism of the shamrock
The shamrock is known as a symbol of Ireland, with St. Patrick having used it as a metaphor for the Christian Trinity, according to legend. The name shamrock is derived from Irish seamróg, which is the diminutive version of the Irish word for clover (seamair) meaning "little clover" or "young clover." (Wikipedia)
A pint of Guinness
On any given day 5.5 million pints of Guinness, the famous Irish stout, are consumed around the world.
On St. Patrick’s Day, that number more than doubles to 13 million pints, said Beth Davies Ryan, global corporate relations director of Guinness. (National Geographic)
Irish pubs were closed by law
Irish businessman and politician James O’Mara introduced a Bill making St. Patrick’s Day a national holiday in Ireland in 1903. He later introduced a law which required pubs to be closed on March 17th. This was later repealed in the 1970s. (Wikipedia)
Celebrated in space
St. Patrick’s Day has even been celebrated out of this world—astronauts on board the International Space Station have celebrated by playing musical instruments and taking photographs. Pictured above, Chris Hadfield wears green clothing in the space station on St. Patrick’s Day in 2013. (Wikipedia)
The Chicago River dyed green
As part of a more than fifty-year-old Chicago tradition, the Chicago River is dyed green in observance of St. Patrick’s Day. The tradition of dyeing the river green arose by accident when plumbers used fluorescein dye to trace sources of illegal pollution discharges. The dyeing of the river is still sponsored by the local plumbers union.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlawed the use of fluorescein for this purpose, since it was shown to be harmful to the river. The parade committee has since switched to a mix involving forty pounds of powdered vegetable dye. Though the committee closely guards the exact formula, they insist that it has been tested and verified safe for the environment. Furthermore, since the environmental organization Friends of the Chicago River believes the dye is probably not harmful, they do not oppose the practice. (Wikipedia)
The origin of the Blarney Stone
The Blarney Stone is a block of Carboniferous limestone built into the battlements of Blarney Castle, Blarney, about 5 miles from Cork, Ireland. According to legend, kissing the stone endows the kisser with "the gift of the gab"—great skill at flattery.
An early story about the origin: Cormac Laidir McCarthy, the builder of Blarney Castle, was involved in a lawsuit and appealed to the goddess Clíodhna for assistance. She told him to kiss the first stone he found in the morning on his way to court, and he did so, with the result that he pleaded his case with great eloquence and won. As such, the Blarney Stone is said to impart "the ability to deceive without offending." MacCarthy then incorporated it into the parapet of the castle. (Wikipedia)
7 Irish sites in McLean County
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March 17, 2022 at 09:17AM