Below the Line

Navigating the Biggest St. Patrick's Day in the South

By Will PriceMarch 16, 2016

St. Patrick’s Day is synonymous with corned beef and cabbage on menus where it shouldn’t be, pinches from strangers on the street, and dying every liquid possible varying shades of green—fountains, rivers, beer; you name it. But one Southern city celebrates the holiday bigger (and some might argue better) than anywhere else below the Mason-Dixon: Savannah, Georgia.

Participants of Savannah’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade (Photograph courtesy of Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee)

Savannah’s Irish story begins with what drew many Europeans to the New World in the late 18th and early 19th centuries: hope for prosperity. Savannah was advertised as a port city filled with opportunity, removed from the bustle of New York and with better weather (we couldn’t agree more). Irish immigrants steadily arrived from the early 1800s through the mid-1800s, at one point making up nearly a quarter of the city’s white population. Following a spike after the Great Famine, the flow stagnated, but the Irish influence in Savannah did not.

An 1853 advertisement from the newspaper for Wexford County, Ireland (the county most represented in Savannah). (Courtesy of Wexford County Archives)

The city’s first St. Patrick’s Day Parade was held in 1812—a modest procession organized by Savannah’s Hibernian Society. Today, it’s a three- to four-hour-long spectacle. Between 400,000 and 700,000 attendees line the route, which starts on Abercorn Street, makes a right on Broughton, then turns from Broad Street to Bay Street, before finishing on Bull Street, just a couple of blocks from Forsyth Park, where the famous fountain’s water is dyed Kelly green for the occasion. It’s the single largest St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the South—and, behind New York, the second largest in the country.

Military men march down Broughton Street in formation in 1934. (Photograph courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society)

“For the parade to be at the level it’s become is remarkable,” says director of the Center for Irish Research and Teaching at Georgia Southern University, Dr. Howard Keeley. “That is a testament to the fact that those Irish people who came in early on were able to preserve their sense of Irishness, their cultural memory, their fraternal identity.” (Savannah’s Historic District open-container law, which the city passed in 1998, probably doesn’t hurt either.)

(Photograph courtesy of Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee)

“If you want a decent spot on the street to watch the parade, you’ll need to get out there early, around 7 a.m. in the morning, with your lawn chairs and drinks of choice,” says Tara Reese, of Kevin Barry’s Pub on River Street, which has been pouring Emerald Isle ales (and stouts and lagers) since 1980. “It’s probably healthy to realize that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. If you start drinking hurricanes or whatever else at 8 a.m. and don’t pace yourself it’s going to be a rough day.”

Outside Kevin Barry’s Pub on River Street. (Photograph courtesy of Kevin Barry’s)

Savannah’s 192nd St. Patrick’s Day Parade officially begins on Thursday, March 17, at 10:15 a.m.