Color Me Irish: When the Chicago River Turns Green

It’s not kryptonite, or a bucket of green slime, but things don’t seem quite right in the river under our feet. Family history claims that my uncle’s father’s cousin, Stephen M. Bailey, was the guy who had the idea to dye the Chicago River green for St. Patrick’s Day. He also wanted to color (somehow) the Wrigley building, but they wouldn’t let him.


Green Water

Every year Chicago puts on an impressive St. Patrick’s Day Parade that lasts about 3 hours, and draws huge crowds. The start of the day includes the dying of the Chicago River – 45 lbs. of orange vegetable dye turn the river a vibrant, startling green. There’s no damage to the river, but there’s also no chance of missing the fact that something rather special is going on!

According to the Chicago Tribune, Mayor Richard J. Daley is credited with proposing the idea, but “it was his boyhood friend and Chicago Plumbers Union business manager, Stephen M. Bailey, who suggested dying the Chicago River instead.” The first green river was in 1962, the same year the photo below was taken. ( )


(Chicago Tribune historical photo/1962)

Irish for the day? There is certainly no shortage of opportunities to display your Irish pride, or adopt the “O’Toole” or “Kearney” name just for the day! Drink beer, dance to the Irish music, and watch the city turn green! This tradition was something I wanted to experience this year.

4 am comes early, but when there’s a flight to Chicago you need to catch, you preload the coffee maker, set out raincoats, a variety of cameras and snacks, and somehow make it work. I was on the first flight to Midway, from Columbus. With a city transit card, purchased for $5 and loaded with a $10 day pass, I was able to make my way around Chicago via elevated train, city bus and on foot. I covered around 10 miles by foot, if the tracking is accurate, but I covered much more ground than that by taking advantage of public transportation.

The river isn’t dyed until 9 am, so I was early! Starting the day at the Billy Goat Tavern. . . you know, Saturday Night Live and the “Cheezborger, Cheezborger, Cheezborger” skit with Murray, Belushi and Aykroyd . . .there were enough tables and barstools filled at 8 am to make an Irish Chicagoan proud!

As I inspected the draft beer selection, searching for a Kilian’s Irish Red or a Guinness, I was interrupted by the solo, seasoned bartender who was preparing for a busy, boisterous day. He was in front of the antique cash register, standing by. It’s one of those ancient, well-used machines that sings, and dings, and goes “Cha-Ching” when he cashes out the next loyal customer.

“They’re all green today!” he tells me, gesturing to the taps.

As an O’Dowd, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day is something I grew up with. I dressed the part, and did everything from enjoying Irish Soda Bread, to performing Irish Dance in the teacher’s lounge at the school where my mother taught. . . which also happened to be my elementary school. I’ve continued the soda bread tradition in recent years, although I have to rely on my aunt to supply the recipe when I misplace it. That happens just about every year. I’ve left the Irish dancing to the young Irish lasses, with their expertly embroidered dresses and their tightly curled hair. They wear wigs these days, while they show off their traditional dance techniques, for maximum bounce!


I don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes, but when 5 elderly ladies in cream, knit Irish sweaters came into the Billy Goat Tavern behind us, and ordered 5 Irish Coffees (To go!,) I suspected that their silver hair may have once been red, at least in spirit. Their carrier full of Styrofoam cups would never be questioned, out along the riverfront.

A pair of 20-something photographers, sitting at the far end of the place, with their DSLRs resting on the bar, were asked by the bartender.  “Would you like another beer?” They reply, “Oh, gosh no – we’re working!” with a quick glance at one another.

I notice they are wearing yellow cautionary vests, with the parade logo on the front. It turns out these were parade workers, ready to capture the best moments throughout the day. I suspected they needed photos of the green beer, in its “natural habitat”.

Back outside, the festivities were underway, with almost an hour until the river turns green. Crowds were lining the streets, walkways, stairs and bridges along the river. Not everyone is ready, however. I’m not sure if it’s a statement directed towards the Irish demographic, but I overhear one of the event’s marketing partners cautioning her team:

“Don’t start passing out the beads yet – “they’ll” rush the tent!!”  she says. Should I be offended? Nah, I’m just alerted to the scale of the event, and the excitement that dying the river would bring.

Growing up in Chicagoland, I knew the city dyed the river green every year, and maybe I’d seen some images in the Chicago Tribune, or on local news casts, but I guess I didn’t realize how green it was possible to make a river. I thought the boats were finished spraying long streams of dye from the back of speed boats long before they were! I thought it was time to move along, but no one else budged, and a team of bagpipes started a spirited performance as the boats made another pass along the corridor that spanned from Wabash Ave. and Columbus Drive.

Despite the diversity of the crowd gathering downtown, we really couldn’t expect all of Chicago to know (or care) what all the fuss was about. On the CTA bus, close to the parade route, a nearby passenger explained into her iPhone, giving her impressions of what was going on.

“Yeah, the bars opened at 6 am . . .it’s their little Irish thing!”

I had to grin. . . What we thought was so impactful, festive, and well-orchestrated is, to someone looking in from the outside, our “little Irish thing.”’

Later that afternoon, with lots of smiling faces in the crowd (Irish or not), the parade is underway! Why wouldn’t they be smiling? They’ve been drinking since 8 am, after all! When you decide to host a parade, and several days of celebrating, in March, you can pretty much expect some rain. But we lucked out, and the rain that was forecast held off.  Leprechauns were seen, even in the absence of March showers and accompanying rainbows, and I think I saw a pot of gold or two.

Another Chicago tradition, at least in my adult years, is a stop at Giordano’s for a slice of pizza. With long lines, it’s easier to sit right at the bar.  “Do you want your beer green?” asked the bartender. Why not? On one side of the bar is a recent college graduate from Florida, caught unaware of the festivities, but participating all the same. On the other side of the bar are pizza-loving working guys, on an hour-long lunch break, ordering thin crust, because the traditional Chicago deep dish can take up to 45 minutes to bake. (It’s so worth the wait!)

I catch a snippet of their conversation, as they discuss joining in the Irish celebrations once work is done for the day: “I don’t like hanging out with people who are drunker than me!” He might be in the wrong place, or he might need to down a few pints when the clock hits 5 o’clock, just to do some catching up.

Join me on my next adventure,

~ Kat

Related Links:

How the Chicago River is Dyed Green:

WGN Covers the Parade:

Choose Chicago:

Time Out Chicago:

SNL & Billy Goat Tavern:

Killian’s Irish Red:




  1. So very green and representative of your heritage! So well documented from beginning to end. Very touching on the home front as well! You truly captured the complete day. I hope you have “visits” from many locals and the newspapers get wind of your talent!
    Blog On!


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