Father Patrick O’Sullivan raised the cross high above his head and, to the skirling of bagpipes and the solemn tolling of bells, stepped out the front door of St. Monica’s parish church in northwest Detroit on March 17, 1958 — and into history. The parishioners circumnavigated the church for a total of nine blocks, then returned for Mass and a light breakfast.
This was Detroit’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade in nearly 50 years, and it went mostly unremarked at the time.
But Father O’Sullivan was obviously keyed into something. The following year, the parade moved to Dearborn, attracting around 3,000 visitors. In 1960, 48 marching units, accompanied by 19 bands and 16 floats, established a Detroit parade route south on Woodward Avenue from Brush Park to Campus Martius.
In the 60 years since that 1958 revival, Detroit’s St. Patrick’s Day parade has changed times, routes, and tenor, but to many Detroiters, Irish or not, it’s ingrained into the fabric of the city.
Historically, Detroit’s parade has had its ups and downs, popularity-wise. In its early incarnations, the St. Patrick’s Day parade was an occasion for pomp and circumstance. The first celebrations of Ireland’s national saint in Detroit was recorded in 1808.
The festivities grew annually, especially with Detroit’s two major influxes of Irish immigrants in the 1850s and again in the 1880s. Army battalions and Irish immigrants marched in an hours-long procession of emerald uniforms, brilliant ribbons, and jubilantly waved flags from every county in Ireland.
Most times, the final parade route was not announced until a day or two before the event, since the planners were forced by weather and road conditions to work spontaneously.
Wrangling together 4,000 or so marchers was no easy feat in the days before direct telephone lines; the 1893 St. Patrick’s Day parade kicked off nearly a half hour late because the leading band couldn’t find the starting point of the parade. As the procession meandered its way up Washington Boulevard for an honorary stop at the home of Bishop John Samuel Foley, Foley had to rush over to greet them from the Mass he was celebrating at St. Patrick’s church.
By the early 20th century, temperance, wars, and an increasingly suburbanized Irish-American population led parade attendance to dwindle. In 1907, early Detroit’s final St. Patrick’s Day parade consisted of one lone holdout. Saloon keeper Jim Foley (no relation to the bishop) hired a German marching band to follow his green-bedecked horse to a tavern. After a few toasts, the German band was too tired to accompany Foley on his march back up Woodward Avenue so he made his way alone with the Irish flag drooping slightly from his hands.
Detroit’s Irish-Americans, though, never ceased to celebrate their heritage on St. Patrick’s Day. Despite one gloomy Detroiter proclaiming in 1929 that “there is no more Corktown,” banquet halls and dance palaces could count on a large showing at annual gatherings. Organizations like the Gaelic League and the Ancient Order of Hibernians hosted lavish dances and balls, with 5,000 party-goers cramming into the Book Cadillac’s three ballrooms in 1940. As early as 1952, petitions to City Council requested that the parade be brought back.
Back in 1958, it took 12 community members and Father O’Sullivan, meeting for months in the upstairs room of the newly built Gaelic League on Michigan Avenue in Corktown, to bring it back.
“We wanted to re-establish the close ties between County Cork and our own Corktown,” recalls Nora Cassidy, whose husband Jim was one of those organizers. She notes that in recent years, more and more Irish dignitaries are joining the occasion. “We showed them such a good time last year, this year they’re coming back with five.”
“It’s about our pride in our history, but it’s also a chance to give back,” says Erin Keem, who, with her husband Dave, is the 2018 Grand Marshall. The parade is organized by the United Irish Societies, a group composed of 32 fraternal orders, heritage societies, and professional organizations.
“We’re about so much more than just the parade, really,” Keem explains. “Our groups donate and raise funds for charities all over metro Detroit all year long.” In addition to Irish heritage charities, the United Irish Societies support First Step domestic violence shelter, Toys for Tots, the St. Patrick’s Senior Center, and a host of other nonprofits.
Brian Dunleavy, last year’s grand marshall and co-owner of Dunleavy’s Pub in Allen Park, agrees. “It’s an honor to be part of the parade, and it’s the result of a lot of hard work from everyone involved. It’s not just about the one day, though that is a pretty great day.”
Although the current parade route, in Corktown since 1985, is fairly well established by now, marchers and spectators know well that March in Michigan can bring weather extremes and the occasional unexpected obstacle. A caution from a 1900 parade route announcement applies equally now: “The condition of the streets,” whether clogged by mud or partygoers, “will influence the route very materially.”
All are welcome to participate.
Mickey Lyons is a Detroit-based researcher and writer. She holds a master’s degree in Irish studies from Boston College. The 60th Detroit St. Patrick’s Parade will be held at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 11. Visit detroitstpatricksparade.com for more information.