Remembering the South Side Irish parade

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Honoring heroes: Kevin Coakley (foreground, left) and his brother, Pat, look on after placing a shamrock wreath during a memorial at King-Lockhart Memorial Park at 106th and Western Avenue in Chicago, IL on Tuesday February 12, 2013. The Coakley family were one of the founding famiiy's that started the parade. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

Patrick Coakley celebrated his third birthday last year by riding his scooter in the South Side Irish Saint Patrick’s Day Parade.

The moment was not lost on his father, Kevin Coakley, who 33 years earlier carried the American flag in the inaugural parade, which featured 17 children — the Wee Folks of Washtenaw and Talman — who marched around the block in their Morgan Park neighborhood.

“He smiled the whole way,” Coakley said of his son.

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Coakley was 6 years old when he marched in the first parade, which also included a boy dressed as St. Patrick and the first float: a baby buggy covered with a box decorated with shamrocks and the 26 county flags of Ireland.

Grown-up Wee Folks

Three decades later, Coakley is co-chairman of the parade, many of his fellow Wee Folks are parents who continue to march in the parade with their children.

“I’ve been walking in this thing since 1979 when it went around my block,” Coakley said.

Coakley’s son is named for his grandfather, who along with friend and neighbor George Hendry founded the parade. The two men fondly recalled the original South Side Irish Parade on 79th Street that they attended in the 1950s and wanted to create something similar for their children, Coakley said.

“Our parents really started all this. They were the originators. Now we’re taking the reins,” Coakley said. “I don’t think they thought it would get to what it is today.”

The parade has grown from a handful of children walking around the block to a two-hour procession along Western Avenue that draws approximately 150,000 spectators. The event serves as the centerpiece for a daylong celebration of Irish culture and its importance to the community.

“I have a family party that day. I live one block off the parade route,” Coakley said.

Meaningful return

Last year’s parade was especially meaningful for Coakley, who, along with other organizers, proposed bringing it back after a two-year hiatus.

The idea was not enthusiastically received by everyone, but organizers were convinced a more family-oriented parade that included zero-tolerance alcohol policy and tighter security would work.

“I’m very happy that last year’s parade was a great success,” Coakley said. “You didn’t hear a negative thing about it. It’s back to its roots.”