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Ald. Matt O'Shea Softens on South Side Irish St. Patrick's Day Parade

By Howard Ludwig | March 10, 2016 5:35am
 Joe Ahern (from l.) of the 100 Club of Chicago, state Rep. Kelly Burke (D-36th), Susan Johnson and Ald. Matt O'Shea (19th) attended a fundraiser Feb. 27 for the South Side Irish St. Patrick's Day Parade .
Joe Ahern (from l.) of the 100 Club of Chicago, state Rep. Kelly Burke (D-36th), Susan Johnson and Ald. Matt O'Shea (19th) attended a fundraiser Feb. 27 for the South Side Irish St. Patrick's Day Parade .
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BEVERLY — Ald. Matt O'Shea (19th) believes the South Side Irish St. Patrick's Day Parade has redeemed itself.

The Far Southwest Side alderman whose ward is home to the parade did not support its return in 2012. But this year in particular, he seems to have changed his mind.

First, O'Shea promoted a preparade fundraiser on social media.

He later attended the event at 115 Bourbon Street in suburban Merrionette Park. He also plans to march Sunday down Western Avenue from 103rd to 115th streets along with his wife, who regularly participates in the parade with her family.

"I am much more comfortable that we can keep this thing what it was originally all about in 1979," O'Shea said Monday.

Indeed, the South Side parade began with 17 children, who later became known as “The Wee Folks of Washtenaw and Talman,” marching around their block in Morgan Park. From this small, family event grew the largest St. Patrick’s Day community celebration outside of Dublin.

But as the parade grew, it lost much of its family focus. And after a particularly warm parade day in 2009, 54 arrests were made mostly due to drunken, rowdy behavior. With that, organizers pulled the plug for two years.

O'Shea said he was on the parade committee for 13 years before the cancelation. And when organizers of the event synonymous with Beverly and Morgan Park proposed its return, O'Shea had been serving as alderman for less than a year.

"I know all the hard work that goes into it. I know all the positives that come from a successful parade," O'Shea said.

But at the time, residents were split about whether to revive the parade. The strongest opposition came from homeowners living close to the route who feared property damage and lewd behavior would follow, O'Shea said.

Most of the blame for such incidents was put on revelers from outside the neighborhood. These groups often arrived by the busload from college campuses or North Side and suburban bars. Back then, O'Shea questioned whether a zero tolerance policy on alcohol would successfully dissuade that element from returning.

But the tough stance on alcohol as well as a renewed focus on families actually worked. Parade organizers even contacted bars and monitored social media, warning groups who planned to attend the parade that busses would be forced to park miles away.

And in 2013, fines for drinking in public within 800 feet of the parade were increased. Anyone caught drinking or urinating in public during the parade now face fines of $500-$1,000 or up to six months in jail.

Nowadays O'Shea said he sees more people pushing baby strollers along the parade route than lugging coolers. He credited the parade committee, Chicago police in the Morgan Park District and employees in his 19th Ward office for the turnaround.

"This is about celebrating our families and our community," he said, specifically pointing to the grand marshals of Sunday's parade.

A group called the South Siders Fighting Childhood Cancer will lead the 2016 march. It is made up of local charities led by parents who have all lost children to cancer. These groups have focused on raising money for research aimed at improving the odds for others diagnosed with the deadly disease.

The coalition consists of four groups: Live Like John, Emily Beazley's Kures for Kids, the Maeve McNicholas Memorial Foundation and Pat Mac's Pack.

O'Shea also said a successful parade spurs local business and can act as a showcase for others unfamiliar with the type of homes and strong sense of community throughout the area.

Parade day is "when people come down and say, 'Wow, this is such a nice neighborhood,'" he said.

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