Second in America only to New York’s celebration, and larger than Boston’s or Chicago’s, Savannah’s St. Patrick’s Day is a raucous party that doubles the population of the city from 150,000 people to 300,000 — at least. (Some citizens, a little tipsy, swear it’s 500,000.) The fountains run green, as do the city’s 22 squares, which are overrun by tailgates full of Savannah College of Art and Design students and otherwise respectable adults who’ve been up drinking since 4 a.m.
The city has founder James Oglethorpe to thank for its Irishness. He sprung many of its first citizens from Irish debtors’ prison in Europe, bringing them to America in 1733 with a utopian vision for a city where booze, lawyers and slavery were prohibited. Today that Irish community is reflected in eight Catholic churches and the oldest Hibernian Society — “for Irishmen who don’t live in Ireland,” said one member — in the world. Savannah, already fertile ground for partying, blooms with lushes; Southern belles rush into the street to plant red-lipsticked kisses on pipers, marching band trombonists, and the local tree-care specialist, who drives a Model T Ford and who gets in trouble with his girlfriend for the sea of red stains on his cheeks by the parade’s end.
“The thing that blows my mind is how New York, Chicago and Boston police and firefighters come to Savannah,” said Joe Welch. Welch, a member of the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee, was dressed in a verdant green traditional Irish garb, resplendent and rosy-faced on his way back from the completed parade, which had lasted four hours. “And the reason is that we hold on to that tradition. Back home, their city runs [the parade] now. It’s not the same as here, with the Catholic families running it, and so they keep coming back.”
If that sounds exclusive, it’s not.
“Everybody’s Irish Catholic for a day in Savannah,” Welch said, hurrying off on his way to revel in Savannah’s biggest drinking day. “Everybody fits in in Savannah. Everybody embraces one another.”