A history of Savannah’s biggest parade

SURE, you’re up to date on the drinking portion of St. Patrick’s Day weekend, but are you as equally versed in the parade?

The Savannah St. Patrick’s Day parade is one of the largest in the country.

Ashley Norris, a native Savannahian, serves as secretary of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. In his ten years on the executive committee, he’s held every role except chairman or vice chairman—but that’s coming.

We talked with Norris about the parade’s history, what the parade committee does, and what to expect this year.

click to enlarge A history of Savannah’s biggest parade
Photo by Bailey Davidson.

The St. Patrick’s Day Parade is in its 196th year.

The first publicly-held St. Patrick’s Day parade was in 1824 and organized by the Hibernian Society.

“The parade was pretty much established for the purpose of the Irish families celebrating the patron saint of St. Patrick,” explains Norris.

While St. Patrick was not actually from Ireland, he’s credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. The most popular story about St. Patrick is that he drove all the snakes of Ireland into the sea, but he also used the shamrock’s three leaves to explain the Holy Trinity.

Irish culture in Savannah dates back to when General James Oglethorpe first founded the colony of Georgia.

“During Oglethorpe’s time, when he came, there were a lot of Irish Protestant families that came over with Oglethorpe, and there were Irish that were here already,” says Norris, “but the majority of the Irish Catholics that came over were more or less from the potato famine.”

Norris’ own family came to Savannah around the potato famine of the mid-1800s, settling in the Old Fort district where the Brice Hotel now sits.

The parade is a separate event from the festival.

While the dates of the festival and the parade usually coincide, this year’s parade takes place on Tuesday, while the festival happens Friday through Sunday.

“We have the parade, which separates and differentiates from the festival itself,” says Norris. “People come because we have a parade, and the festival is just kind of the party zone. We like to celebrate as well, but our main focus is to celebrate the feast of St. Patrick. It’s all about faith, family and country, is what we focus everything around.”

Where the festival is known for its bacchanalia, the parade is known for its adherence to Irish history and tradition.

“Being with your family on that day, walking all together through the streets and hearing all the people in Savannah, and everybody is proud to watch the Irish, it’s a great feeling,” says Norris.

It’s a huge honor to be involved in the parade.

The parade committee, which consists of over a thousand members, has an executive committee of five elected and 12 appointed positions. The committee votes on the grand marshal, who this year is Michael W. Roush Sr.

“He’s not from Savannah originally, but he’s been here long enough,” says Norris. “He was an awesome adjutant to work under, a really nice guy, well deserving of the title.”

Being the grand marshal of the parade is such a big deal, says Norris, “that if you’re from Savannah and a mother had two kids and one was the Vice President of the United States and one was the grand marshal of the parade, they’d recognize the grand marshal first.”

The parade is just one event in the Irish season, as Norris calls it.

By the time St. Patrick’s Day rolls around, there have already been plenty of events celebrating Irish heritage.

Irish season in Savannah begins with the Irish Festival, which takes place over Valentine’s Day weekend—“it’s caused arguments in the past,” laughs Norris.

There’s also the greening of the fountain and the Celtic Cross Mass, which Norris says is absolutely beautiful.

On Mar. 16, the day before the parade, there’s the Sgt. William Jasper Memorial Procession and Ceremony. Jasper was a soldier in the Revolutionary War and was killed in the Siege of Savannah in 1779.

There’s also an Irish parade and celebration down on Tybee, which happens during festival weekend. “When everything’s happening on River Street, come get away down there,” says Norris.

Then, on parade day, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist holds Catholic mass bright and early at 8 a.m.

This year, the parade is a little smaller, but it’s still a big deal.

Since the parade falls on a weekday this year, it’ll be a little more toned down than in years past. Norris estimates there are under 300 units, whereas last year there were around 400 units.

“With the weekday parade, we’ll see a little bit smaller of a crowd,” says Norris. “Some of the people will hang around from the festivities on the river and come and actually see the parade.”

This year will also see the absence of a parade favorite.

“We’re going to be missing part of the 3rd ID, since they’re deployed,” adds Norris. “It’s always fun when they’re here, but when they’re deployed, we don’t tend to see them.”

Planning for the parade begins about a month after it’s over.

“Our dues and first quarterly meeting is in May, so sometime in April we start planning that and getting things in order,” says Norris. “We start to talk with some of the bigger bands; we’ve had Virginia Tech here several times. Things that take an act of Congress to get here, it takes a while. We can’t just jump in in September and be like, ‘Hey, wanna come in March?’”

Actually, the parade committee doesn’t get much of a break.

“With having the leap year this year, it’s been a little different because we’ve had a couple days off, and usually we’re used to a two-and-a-half week nonstop every day,” says Norris. “This is the first year I can remember that we’ll have the Tybee parade on Saturday and nothing on Sunday.”

On parade day itself, the executive committee is hard at work.

“We always start off with a few breakfasts we attend as the executive committee,” says Norris. “We’ll go around to the different societies—they usually have breakfasts for a few hours, but we make an appearance at all of them, shake some hands, and then we’re off.”

This year is also special because of the Wexford connection with Georgia Southern.

Georgia Southern University’s Center of Irish Research and Development recently opened a campus in Wexford, Ireland.

“There was some good trade industry between Savannah and Ireland at that time, mainly coming out of Wexford County,” says Norris. “Now the SEDA and the Wexford-Savannah Axis and things have gotten together and we’re actually doing trading as we speak. Savannah Bee Company is selling all over Ireland—it’s a good connection. We keep those strong ties with Ireland and Savannah.”

The St. Patrick’s Day Parade is open to everyone and designed to bring everyone together.

It’s a powerful moment, Norris says, being at the parade and seeing everyone together in support of Irish culture.

“During a time when we have so much hatred in this country, almost half the country is in disagreement with each other,” says Norris, “to bring everyone together is one of the things we love.”


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