South Side Irish Parade gets new marching orders

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Where it began: Marianne Coakley pushes a baby buggy down Western Avenue at a past South Side Irish St. Patrick's Day Parade. Coakley was one of the original founders of the parade in 1979. | Supplied photo

If you go ...

What: South Side Irish St. Patrick’s Day Parade

When: Steps off at 11 a.m. Sunday, March 11.

Where: Parade route runs along Western Avenue from 103rd to 115th streets.

Number of participants: There will be about 80 groups marching.

More information: Online at www.southsideirishparade.org

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The theme of the South Side Irish St. Patrick's Day Parade is “Tradition Marches On,” but the South Side tradition will not be a celebration of old.

Organizers have made significant changes with the goal of better controlling crowds and creating the family-friendly atmosphere that existed during the parade’s early days.

“Our goal is to bring this great cultural celebration back in such a way that neighborhood families will feel comfortable and truly enjoy the day,” said parade committee spokesman Joe Connelly. “We’ve worked hard to make some necessary improvements and are optimistic that it will be a great event.”

The parade will take the same route as in years past. It will step off at 103rd Street and Western Avenue and proceed south to 115th Street.

Some of the changes are logistical – the parade steps off at 11 a.m., an hour earlier than before, and is expected to run two hours or less, parade committee member James Sheahan said. While the route down Western Avenue will remain the same, the parade will include no more than 80 units, about a third less than in past years.

“It was too long. We want it to be more of a family-oriented event,” Sheahen said.

Bill Figel, spokesman for the parade committee, said parking will likely be banned along parts of Claremont, Oakley and Artesian avenues on the parade day, as well as some east-west streets along the route.

The line of march will include many of the old standbys — local parishes, bands, nonprofits, and big Irish families, as well as local businesses and organized labor.

The Grand Marshal for the 2012 parade are the neighborhood’s post-9/11 veterans.

The St. Xavier University football team, which won the NAIA national championship in December, will be featured in the parade, Figel said.

Beefed-up security

A significant addition to this year’s parade is the inclusion of private security — a law-enforcement presence meant to supplement the exhaustive resources being provided by the Chicago Police Department that day, Figel said.

Organizers believe that the additional security personnel will help to enforce the committee’s zero-tolerance alcohol policy, thereby curbing much of the negative behavior which caused them to suspend the parade in 2009.

“People want the parade back,” said longtime parade committee member Mary Beth Sheehan, “but not the way it was three years ago. They want it back the way it was when they were kids. We believe that these security measures will help get us there.”

A social phenomenon

Other changes include the parade committee’s use of social media, particularly in the planning process. Prior to this year, the committee maintained voicemail and e-mail addresses and a somewhat underfunded website. That website, www.southsideirishparade.org, has since been revamped, and Facebook and Twitter accounts added.

Tom McGourty, social media director for the parade committee, wondered what could be more social than a neighborhood parade.

“We have seen social media play a growing role in all our lives over these past few years, so it is natural that the parade committee would embrace the technology as we work to bring back a great tradition,” he said.

The recently launched Facebook page — www.facebook.com/southsideirishparade — has been used to promote the parade’s return while educating interested parties on event changes and trolling for volunteer support. The page promises to include photos, video, and testimonials after the event, all of which, organizers hope, will showcase a family-friendly, community-centered atmosphere.

“Social media is not a one-way communication channel,” McGourty said. “It’s a conversation. We are having a conversation with our neighbors about the tradition, heritage and family aspects of this great event.”

Organizers believe that social media played a significant role in drumming up support for the pre-parade fundraiser — a mid-February event which enjoyed unprecedented success. Nearly 1,200 people attended the 115 Bourbon Street event, which included food, drink, and Irish entertainment. Organizers added auctions, raffles, and merchandising to bolster the evening’s take, most of which will go to pay for the use of city services, the cost of which is likely to be significantly higher than in 2009.

“The fundraiser showed us that there is plenty of community support for this event,” Connelly said. “We’re excited that we’ve been successful in restoring this fine tradition, and we’re looking forward to a great parade day.”

Contributing: The South Side Irish St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee