Everybody’s Irish for a day

Beth KinnaneDowntown, Our Town Stories

God willing and the creek don’t rise, Knoxville’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade will step off at 7 p.m. this Friday, making its way north on Gay Street from Church Street, then back east on Jackson Avenue to end in the Old City.

The revival of the parade in 2017 was the beginning of three consecutive, well-attended editions following a 30-year absence from Knoxville’s streets. Then came the cancellations in 2020-21 due to the chronicles of Covid. Last year’s renewal was cancelled, quite at the last minute, due to an overnight winter blast that dumped a pile of snow.

Oh, the trials and tribulations of trying to throw a party. As of right now, the forecast for March 17 calls for chilly with a chance of light rain, but the latter will not stop the parade. Knoxville funny lady Leanne Morgan will be the Grand Marshal, making good on her planned appearance three years ago.

The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in Knoxville in 1869, though celebrations of all things Irish began in earnest here in the 1850s. Though there were some Irish and plenty of Scots-Irish settlers in the early days of Tennessee history, the great influx from Ireland began in the 1840-50s during the potato famine years.

The Irish that arrived here in the mid-19th century had to endure their status as the latest immigrant punching bag, but quickly established their place in Knoxville, whether working for the railroads, as stone masons, seamstresses and haberdashers or saloon keepers. Some later served on the police force and in the fire department, and a handful were elected mayor.

The 1869 parade was organized by a local chapter of the Fenians, an Irish nationalist group. Known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the homeland, it was a predecessor to Sinn Féin. So, it’s no surprise that they paraded around downtown dressed in green jackets and red caps carrying a banner that said “God Save Ireland.” They were joined by the larger membership of the St. Patrick’s Benevolent Society.

Subsequent parades of that century began near Market Square and proceeded down Walnut toward the Bowery (the Old City), and on into the near ends of East and North Knoxville, where a concentration of the city’s Irish lived. The St. Patrick’s Day parade had pretty much fizzled out by 1900, though celebrations of the day continued. Green beer’s been around here for decades.

It was resurrected in the 1980s by John and Pat McLaughlin from 1981-86, but then left the calendar again for another 31 years.

The parade as it is now was the brainchild of Chandle Turbyville, Josh Turbyville, and Christy Watkins. The Knox St. Patrick’s Parade is now a 501(c)(3), and proceeds from the parade go to Catholic Charities of East Tennessee.

If you think want to join in next year or just a make a donation to keep a good thing going, go here.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Knox go Bragh!

Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for KnoxTNToday.com

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