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‘It’s just so Chicago’: Thousands gather for annual South Side Irish Parade

Thousands of people gathered Sunday for the annual South Side Irish Parade, featuring festive floats, Irish dancers and an explosion of green.

The parade kicked off at noon from 103rd Street and Western Avenue in Beverly, led by a lineup of bagpipers. The group marched south to Western and 115th Street in Morgan Park.

The event, founded by two South Side residents in 1979, is advertised as the largest community-based parade on St. Patrick’s Day outside of Dublin.

Longtime friends Mary Ellen Lester and Rita McFee, both aged 71, waved at parade participants as they walked by. The pair has attended the celebration for most of their lives.

“I know everyone downtown is like, ‘Oh, the river is green,’ but here’s where it’s happening,” Lester said with a smile.

Each float was adorned with clovers, green streamers and Irish flags. Meanwhile, young children scampered across the sidewalks as several groups tossed candy into the crowd.

Marching bands and dancers were met with cheers from spectators. Despite the brisk, breezy weather, many attendees donned festive ensembles, from leprechaun hats to green beads.

Several politicians also attended the parade, including candidates for the Illinois General Assembly.

Twenty-year-old Jack Esselman sported an inflatable leprechaun costume as he watched the parade. He spent $30 on the outfit — mostly to embarrass his younger sister, he added.

“She was like, ‘Oh jeez, please don’t,’ and I was like, ‘I have to,’” said Esselman, a South Side native. “It’s just so much fun to be here.”

Across the street, Matt Ozark pushed a cart piled high with St. Patrick’s Day-themed accessories: clover hats, green glasses, Irish flags. The vendor shouted his deals over the clamor of the crowd with a booming voice.

“I’m a natural salesman,” Ozark, 64, said. “So, I sell stuff, I have fun. I’m enjoying it with the families. It’s in my blood.”

The Orland Park resident has been selling products at city events and ballparks since 2005. He can list his prices offhand — beads for $2, flags for $5 and hats for $10. On Saturday, he was selling accessories near the River North parade.

“I do the events I want to do at this point,” Ozark said. “I get a lot of fun out of it.”

Farther up the parade route, Christine Kraemer, 50, sat in a folding chair as she donned a green wig and a leprechaun hat. Her daughter, 11-year-old Mackenzie, watched beside her.

They both particularly looked forward to their post-parade celebration.

“After this, we’re gonna go back home and have our corned beef, cabbage, mashed potatoes, Guinness, Harp,” Kraemer said with a laugh.

Kraemer, a Beverly resident, has been attending the parade since first grade.

“People come from all over,” she said. “It’s just so Chicago.”