Since the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1858, the City of Atlanta has supported the Hibernian Benevolent Society St. Patrick’s Day Parade in memory of the heroic efforts of Father Thomas O’Reilly and of the Hibernian Rifles. Oakland Cemetery contains a plot dedicated to the Hibernian Rifles in gratitude for their service to the city. HBSA members can still be buried there today.
The Atlanta Constitution, in 1893, told of an eventful St. Patrick’s Day parade with a full-page account of the festivities. The article read as follows: “Three hundred Irishmen from the Hibernian Benevolent Society along with the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the Catholic Knights of Atlanta, marching to the music of the Fourth Artillery band filed into the Catholic Church for Mass, at which Father Clifford preached on the life and work of St. Patrick. Upon the conclusion of Mass, the societies paraded to the Opera House on Marietta Street to celebrate.”
Over the years the parade has grown. It is now produced by Atlanta St. Patrick’s Parade, Inc. (“The Parade Committee”) which is made up of representatives of the various Irish groups that are an integral part of Atlanta’s Irish community. A member of the Hibernian Benevolent Society traditionally serves as President and Chairman. Today members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), Clan Na NGael, Fire Emerald Society of Metro Atlanta (FESMA), the Irish Information Center and the Metro Atlanta Police Emerald Society (MAPES) are all active members and participants.
In 1999 Monsignor E.J. Dillon approached the current HBSA President and Parade Chairman Matt Naughton and suggested that a larger parade with more participation might be had if a “coalition” of Irish groups could be formed to plan and implement the parade. This was the beginning of the “Parade Committee”.
In 2000 the first joint parade was held in Buckhead. Mary Harney, Tánaiste (Irish Deputy Prime Minister) and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment was the Grand Marshall. It was quite a successful parade.
The year 2001 found “The Committee” redefining itself and expanding. The 2001 Parade was the largest and longest parade in recent history. There were 150 units, approximately 20 floats, five pipe bands, seven marching bands, five dance schools and units from as far away as South Florida and New York. All of the constituent groups contributed significantly. Actor/Author Malachi McCourt and Irish Tenor John McDermott jointly served as Grand Marshalls. Special guests from Ireland included Éamon Ó Cuiv, Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food and Rural Development and Adrian McDaid, Deputy Consul General of Ireland. Crowds were estimated at 25,000.
In 2001 Atlanta St. Patrick’s Parade Inc. was incorporated. Among the goals of the group are the education of the general public about the significant contribution made by the Irish to Atlanta, the South and the United States. Floats were donated to a number of non-profit organizations, including the Lions Club, the Ulster Project and others. The parade was expanded to include groups such as “Atlanta Young Singers of Callanwolde” and numerous other groups not traditionally Irish. Attention has been focused on immigrant people in general, in addition to the Irish. We are working with the Atlanta History Center to try to develop an educational exhibit detailing the place of the immigrant Irish in Atlanta’s growth and development.
2002 saw a greatly expanded parade with over 200 units and the largest crowds ever. Grand Marshals from New York represented the NY Police Department, NY Fire Department and NYNJ Port Authority. These honored guests received a welcome they will never forget. As one Police Chief put it, “Now we know what you mean by Southern Hospitality!” Atlanta St. Patrick’s Parade is now the largest parade in Atlanta.
The year 2004 will see the beginning of a scholarship program which will award a cash scholarship to the winners of an essay contest. This program is still being implemented. Contributions to participating high school band booster clubs and bagpipe bands is expanding.
Participation in the parade is not just an “Irish thing”. All groups are encouraged to participate as long as their unit is appropriate for a “family” event. The emphasis is on children, schools and immigrants.