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Chicago kicks off warm St. Patrick’s Day weekend with green river dyeing, annual parade

CHICAGO — Cheers and Irish tunes rang out across downtown Saturday as thousands of residents and tourists enjoyed the festive St. Patrick’s Day weekend in their traditional Chicago way: watching the Chicago River turn from a murky gray to bright green before frolicking to the city’s parade route to see floats, bagpipers and Illinois politicians.

By 8 a.m. Saturday morning, hundreds of spectators lined up along the river and bridges, waiting for boats to spray the dye through the channel on a windy but seasonably warm March day. Others took the opportunity to cruise down the river on a boat or peer through hotel windows, avoiding the excited crowds.

An avid St. Patrick’s Day fan, Lisa Henry of North Center sees the river turn clover-leaf green every year since she moved to Chicago decades ago. Sitting on a pontoon about to launch from the Freedom Boat Club’s Streeterville Dock to cruise down the river, Henry wore a sparkly headband lime green wig that would soon match the water below.

“It’s another wonderful reason why Chicago is one of the best cities in the world,” Henry said of the tradition.

This year, the celebration was even more special because it was the first time watching the tradition in person for her best friend, Jen Stull. “Usually I would go to a bar,” Stull said with a laugh.

The dyeing was also a first for the James family, who traveled from Ormond Beach, Florida, for the annual parade. Mia James carried a life-size inflatable leprechaun with her as she waited with her parents to catch a ride share. Her dad, Gary, was decked out in a gold and green beaded tie for the day.

The river took roughly 45 minutes to settle into a completely green state. The Riverwalk, closed for the dyeing, will reopen Sunday.

After the spectacle, dense crowds began the blockslong trek to Grant Park to watch the Irish parade. The half-mile downtown parade, in its 69th year, stepped off around 12:15 p.m. Saturday afternoon at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Balbo Drive, heading north to Monroe Drive.

Donning navy plaid kilts and carrying emerald bagpipes, the Shannon Rovers kicked off the parade with people crowded up against fences on either side of the road, and kids pushing their heads through the gaps to see.

In his first parade as mayor, Brandon Johnson led the parade wearing a black suit and green tie and waving to the loud crowd, with Gov. J.B. Pritzker close behind. In 2023, Johnson greeted crowds as the mayor-elect, following then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot on the route.

Several politicians running in Tuesday’s primary election, including Cook County state’s attorney candidate Eileen O’Neill Burke and County Clerk Iris Martinez, joined the festivities. High school marching bands from across the country kept the music going throughout the course.

The sun was out in all its glory by early afternoon, and many ditched their green jackets to bask in temperatures in the upper 50s. Teenagers made up a large portion of parade-watchers, with several hanging off street lamp poles for a better vantage point.

Some people in attendance said Saturday’s crowds far exceeded their expectations. Mike and Alice Cullen saw a glimpse of the St. Patrick’s Day parade for the first time in 45 years as the couple hung back from the main parade route while their young grandsons ate green cotton candy. The last time they saw the parade, they were a young couple with no children.

As Chicago-area natives, the Texas couple flew back to the city with their family for the weekend, but a solid wall of people blocking the parade viewing area made them give up after holding their grandsons up to see for a few minutes.

“This is like 10 times bigger than it was 45 years ago,” Mike Cullen said. “I guess it’s a nice day and people saw a reason to come out.”

North Side resident Julio Cordero dyed his beard the same color green as the river to view his first St. Patrick’s Day parade downtown, which the Chicago native called a bucket list item.

“It’s like Chicago’s Mardi Gras, it really is,” he said.

The revelry will continue Sunday when the 46th annual South Side parade gets underway at noon at 103rd Street and Western Avenue before marching south to 115th Street and Western.