Chicago Irish for St. Pat’s Day: Three Influences on History

With the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and celebrations in Chicago coming up this weekend, I began to wonder about why a specifically Irish celebration is such a big deal here in Chicago. Do the Irish make up a large portion of the populace? What’s their history here and how have they contributed to Chicago’s history? The Irish make up just 6.6 percent of Chicago’s population (not counting descendants), but their role in the history of Chicago has had major influence.

1. Labor Unions.

Back when Chicago was just a little tyke of a frontier town, Irish laborers made up a majority of the workers on the Illinois & Michigan Canal in 1836 (one year before the incorporation of Chicago). Unskilled labor that spoke English and worked diligently was a high commodity in those days, and the Irish continued laboring across history with lumber, wharves, stock yards and steel mills.

The Union Stock Yards in the 1900s.

The most significant labor reform movement of the 1800s was the organization of the Knights of Labor in Chicago, a union originally formed in Philadelphia. They brought together tradesmen and laborers, including women, and published newspapers. As one of the most radical powers in the U.S. at the time, they fought for the eight-hour work day. Along with the Germans, the Chicago Irish created the first national organization of unionized meat packers around the turn of the century. This labor history explains why you’ll see at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade of Chicago this weekend a procession of not corporate floats so much as those of Chicago’s labor unions.

2. Police

Also around this time of labor unrest, the police force was organizing with specific departments and wards. The position of policeman called for no skills except for fluency in English. The Irish were a perfect fit for the job, since many were physically strong from labor jobs and they were known to have a culture of fearlessness. By 1900, the police force was dominated by the Irish.

 1891 posed Irish policeman of Chicago. Photo from Chicago Historical Society.

3. Politics

The Chicago Irish have had an outsize influence on the city’s politics. Even before the legendary Mayor Daley’s reign in the 1950s-70s, the Irish had a deep-rooted history in Chicago politics, dating all the way back to Mayor John Patrick Hopkins term from 1893-95. With the city’s 12 Irish mayors, just less than half of Chicago’s history as a city has had the Irish controlling it. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago History, “The Chicago Irish are perhaps best known for their political skills in winning elections and creating a multi-ethnic Democratic machine. Never a majority among immigrants in the city, the Irish enjoyed a distinct advantage thanks to their knowledge of the English language and the British system of government.”

An affluent Chicago Irish family in the 1890s.

On this note, hooray for Saint Patrick’s Day! May the luck o’ the Irish continue to shape the bright city of Chicago, and may you show your support for them Irish by being one of the half a million people that partake in this weekend’s official celebrations!

 — Jenna Rae Staff, Editorial Intern


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