175 Years of Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Cleveland
Posted 02/12/2017

A few years ago, the Parade Committee of the United Irish Societies of Greater Cleveland was looking forward to celebrating the 150th anniversary of Cleveland’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 2017. But now the Irish American Archives Society is poised to assist the Parade Committee in commemorating the Parade’s 175th anniversary.  How did we acquire 25 years of history in those intervening years?  

Several years of intensive research into old newspapers and archives around town have revealed that the public celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in Cleveland has a longer history than we once thought.  The Cleveland Public Library has scanned and indexed the run of the Plain Dealer since 1845, and 19th century membership rosters have been found for the Ancient Order of Hibernians (now housed at Western Reserve Historical Society) and minute books for a once prominent group called the Irish Literary and Benevolent Association (in the CPL Special Collections).  William A. Manning, a telegraph operator, kept a diary from 1867-1873 that references events in the Irish community and also wrote a history of St. Patrick’s Parish on Bridge Avenue in 1903 that describes early St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.  Diocesan histories also shed some light.  A treasure trove for more recent Parade history can be found in the papers of Raymond “Rip” Reilly, a longtime Parade director and publicist, at the WRHS.  All of these sources have helped us to recover a rich sense of how St. Patrick’s Day has been celebrated in Cleveland for 175 years.  

The very first Parade that we know about in Cleveland was organized in 1842 by the city’s third resident Catholic priest, Rev. Peter McLaughlin.  Fr. McLaughlin was a proponent of “temperance,” or abstinence from alcohol, and his St. Patrick’s Day celebration began with mass at St. Mary’s on the Flats—the only Catholic church in Cleveland’s city limits at that time—continued with a Parade of the Catholic Temperance Society, and concluded with a banquet attended by friends and family members.  

Various organizations have sponsored and participated in the Parade at different times over the Parade’s 175-year history.  Sometimes it was organized by explicitly Catholic groups, such as the Fr. Mathew Total Abstinence Society, the Catholic Central Association, or the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a Catholic fraternal organization.  At other times, the Parade was organized by groups more specifically interested in the cause of Irish nationalism, such as a local militia known as the Hibernian Guards, the Fenian Brotherhood, or the Irish Literary and Benevolent Association.  In more modern times, the Irish American Civic Association organized the Parade from 1935-1957, and the United Irish Societies of Greater Cleveland has managed the Parade from 1958 through today.

The structure of the United Irish Societies was formalized with the sole aim of running the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade.  The concept was, and is, that independent, constituent organizations would come together, headed by an Executive Director, to take mutual responsibility for raising the money for the Parade and for developing and implementing the guidelines for the Parade.  At its founding, member groups were the only Irish organizations that were allowed to march in the Parade.  

The charter members consisted of 8 groups:  The Irish Civic Association, Sons and Daughters of Eire, the West Side Irish American Club, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and their Ladies Auxiliary, the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Irish Cultural Garden League, the Cleveland Gaelic Society and the Pioneers. The constituent groups agreed on a charter and an administrative structure.  Today there are 29 constituent organizations.

Each constituent group sends two delegates to year-long meetings.  Deputy Directors are chosen from the ranks of long-serving and committed delegates.  An Executive Director, who serves a three-year term, is chosen from among the Deputy Directors.  Each year, the United Irish Societies choose several honorees: a Grand Marshal, an Irish Mother of the Year, and two co-chairs—an “inside co-chair” from a constituent group and an “outside co-chair” from the community at large who might serve as a community ‘ambassador” to expand support for and interest in the parade.

The following article was written in 1995; at the time of publication, this article reflected the accurate, available known history of the Parade.

Parade History
By Lonnie McCauley
2001 Grand Marshall

Perhaps it was a blustery day, or perhaps the sun sent its warming rays on the first group of Cleveland Irish that marched its way from church to church on that March 17th, St. Patrick's Day approximately 1867. Most likely it was the Ancient Order of Hibernians that organized the songs, and dancing, while large groups of friends and relatives looked on with pride. In the early years, the parade was always on the West Side, as that is where most of the Irish were, from the Flats on west to about 67th Street.

As the years progressed the Parade enlarged as did the audience and by the turn of the century and shortly thereafter, the Hibernian Riflemen and the Irish Tradesmen were an integral part of the planning and carrying out of the St. Patrick's Day Parade. In 1900, the Cleveland Leader , Cleveland's most prominent, but anti-Irish newspaper, would give a list of the happenings for March17; St. Cecelia's was producing the play, Shaun Aroon; Inshavague was at Cathedral Hall; and St. Thomas Aquinas had Soggarth's Return ; but no notice of the Parade was to be seen in their print. It wasn't until ten years later, on March 17, 1910, that Senator Dan Mooney of the Ohio State Legislature introduced a bill which even recognized St. Patrick's Day in Ohio.

Two years later, however, who could help but take notice, as crowds estimated at 100,000 from as far away as Chicago and New York, came to the 1912 Parade. They came to welcome home Johnny Kilbane, a local boy from W. 74 St, who won the World Featherweight Championship Crown, a crown he won from Abe Atell in Los Angeles and was to keep until 1923. This was Cleveland's largest Parade ever.

The war and depression affected the Parade; too many men off to war, women working in factories, poverty and hard times, so that from 1913 to 1935 there was no Downtown Parade, but instead some smaller version on the West Side of town from either a hotel or church to some prearranged destination.

From 1935 until 1957, under the auspices of the Irish Civic Association, the Parade gained in scope and stature. The event, however, was becoming so large and expensive that in 1958 eight groups: The Irish Civic Association, Sons and Daughters of Eire, the West Side Irish American Club, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and their Ladies Auxiliary, the Gaelic Athletic Association , the Irish Cultural Garden League, the Cleveland Gaelic Society and the Pioneers, formed a single group: The United Irish Societies(UIS). It is this group that established the Parade Committee whose sole purpose was to be the planning, fundraising, organizing and execution of the Parade. Since then the following groups have also joined the UIS: the Irish American Club East Side(1979), the Emerald Civic Society(1989), the Retired Irish Police Society(1980), St. Jarlath's Football Club(1980), the Cleveland Feis Society (1983) St. Patrick's Football Club(changed from the Gaelic Football Club 1985) the Irish Heritage Club(1987)the Shamrock Club (Firefighters 1983), the Irish Northern Aid Committee (1992), the Padraic Pearse Center(1993) and the Irish Cultural Festival (1993). Representatives of these groups meet many times a year to plan all phases of the Parade.

As part of the ceremony of the Cleveland Parade, a Grand Marshall is chosen to preside over the Parade. This is an honorary title given to a man "usually in his senior years, who has contributed significantly to the advancement of the Irish Activities in Cleveland." This recognition has been part of the ceremony since 1935. also, since 1963, a "Mother of the Year" has also been recognized. this honor is given to "a woman whose life has reflected credit on the Irish Nationality. and who's example has been a source of inspiration to the community."

The year 1966 was a special one in Parade History as the 50th Anniversary of the 1916 Easter Uprising was recognized. Twenty-five irish Republican Army Veterans of the uprising were recognized, nineteen of them being able to attend the Parade and hear their names resound over the loudspeaker of the Reviewing Stand to the thunderous applause of the audience.

Cleveland's Parade, of course, is one of many; the original being in Manhattan, March 17, 1762, as irish militiamen on their was to s St. Patrick's Day breakfast in Hull's Tavern, played their band music and marched as enthusiastic crowds surrounded them. John J. Concannon, former Public Relations Director of the New York Parade, has verified the existence of some 124 other parades; the second oldest being Savannah, Ga, their 182nd this year, Montreal, their 170th and Chicago's 151st.

This year there will be over 10,000 participants in bands, floats, drill teams, marching units and novelties, who, after hearing the American and Irish National Anthems will march, float, jig, rid, dance or unicycle in honor of St. Patrick and Ireland. It will be the 128th time Cleveland Irish will be publicly showing their pride, talent and their commitment to their heritage. It is a proud tradition.

This history was written in 1995 by Lonnie McCauley. Lonnie gave thanks to Rip Reilly, Executive Emertius and United Irish society member for 38 years for his time and historical information.The United Irish Societies appreciate that Lonnie McCauley wrote this history of our Parade.

In the fall of 2000, the delegates of the United Irish Society chose the first woman to be Grand Marshall. That honor was bestowed on Lonnie McCauley the 2001 St. Patrick's Day Parade Grand Marshall. Unfortunately, Lonnie was not able to march up the Avenue on St. Patrick's Day. Lonnie McCauley was Called Home to God on March 18, 2001.