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

Share:

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on pinterest
Pinterest
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn

be a
curious
person!

SIGN UP FOR OCCASIONAL UPDATES FROM CHICAGO DETOURS.

Ellen

Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”
Robert
GetYourGuide

Jen

Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”
Heather
TripAdvisor

Elyse

Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.

Anthony

Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.

Marie

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”
Lorit
TripAdvisor

Sonny

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
Wade K
TripAdvisor

Alex

Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
Katie K
Yelp

Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
Shelby F
Yelp

Book a virtual tour

Fill in your details below