When it comes to St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, people generally think of Chicago’s dyed-green river, the busy streets of New York City, or the huge Irish population of Boston. However, since 1824, when the Hibernian Society organized the first public observance of St. Patrick’s Day, Savannah, Georgia, has been home to an enormous parade — especially in proportion to the size of the city — that has grown to be the third largest in the country.
The people of Irish descent in Savannah are extremely proud of their heritage. “When you’re walking through downtown and all around the squares, you think back that our ancestors came over from Ireland in the 1800s and actually built a lot of these buildings you see throughout downtown,” said Lawrence “Bubba” Edgerly, the parade committee general chairman. “The cobblestones on River Street were planted by our ancestors. It makes you feel grateful for what they’ve done before us.”
The elite 75th Ranger Regiment houses its 1st Battalion (1/75) at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah and is invited to march along with soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division (ID) and cadets from Benedictine Military Academy.
“I think everybody on the parade route looks forward to seeing the soldiers walk down the street, in their uniforms, marching in sequence,” said Edgerly. “It gives people goosebumps to see them.”
The Rangers are just as enthusiastic about their participation. “It is an honor and a privilege for the Rangers of 1st Ranger Battalion to march in the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade,” said Command Sergeant Major Joe Davis of 1st Ranger Battalion. “The support we receive from the Savannah community is unparalleled, and marching in the parade is a small way for us to give back. The Rangers truly enjoy being a part of this event.”
“The 1/75 has been part of the Savannah community since 1974, and with the last 18 years of the Global War on Terror, the Savannah community has really rallied around the Ranger battalion,” said Tracy Bailey, the regiment’s public affairs officer. “I know the battalion tries to support this event as much as possible when our deployment cycle and training cycle allows.”
1st Ranger Battalion was recently recognized for valor on their most recent deployment, their 22nd since 9/11. According to Maj. Gen. Mark Schwartz, the battalion was responsible for killing or capturing approximately 1,900 terrorists during that deployment.
The Rangers were on block leave in 2018, so they were absent for the first year that new rules were put in place restricting a longstanding tradition of the parade — female spectators giving kisses to the soldiers while they march.
“Girls do run up to you, throw beads on you, kiss you. That’s why the guys have giant red kisses on their cheeks,” said one former Ranger who marched in the parade more than 10 years ago. “They just jump into the formation screaming like kamikazes.” As would be expected, the Rangers are disciplined enough not to let the interruptions faze them. “You stay in line and look tough.”
But as of last year, the kisses are formally frowned upon. “Once again this year we are asking that people refrain from kissing our soldiers as they march in this wonderful event,” said 3rd ID’s Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Husted. “The issue, in addition to being a safety concern, is also about the respect, values, and consent of our soldiers.”
Bailey concurred: “I think it was more out of respect for the soldiers, not to be kissed during the parade or have beads flung at them.”
However, it’s still up in the air as to whether the new standard will actually be followed. “Last year the request went out, and while the majority of spectators respected our wishes, there were still instances of soldiers being kissed,” said Husted.
Husted spoke for 3rd ID in affirming their commitment to taking part in the event. “The soldiers that are selected to march in the parade feel a sense of honor and pride as they make their way through the streets of Savannah, representing the United States Army,” he said.
But once the soldiers have been transported back to Fort Stewart or Hunter Army Airfield, they are free to change into civilian clothes and rejoin the festivities. “They are on their own personal time after that,” said Bailey.
This year the parade is being held on Saturday, March 16, and based on the numbers from recent years, it will be watched by approximately 750,000 people. In a city with a population less than 150,000, those numbers are significant.
Controlling the massive crowd is a responsibility that falls largely on the Savannah Police Department. “It is a huge undertaking,” said Sergeant Dana Purvis of the SPD. “We start our preparations the day after St. Patrick’s Day the previous year. We want everyone to be safe, and also have fun and enjoy the festivities. That’s what it’s all about.”
Unexpected circumstances can certainly arise at any point during a celebration this large, but the police department is up to the challenge. Last year, one of the businesses along the parade route had a deck collapse under the weight of the spectators. But Purvis and her team were prepared.
“I had officers, we had the fire department, EMS, all in that same area to make sure everyone was safe,” said Purvis. “They were able to clear it and make sure everyone got to the hospital in a timely manner.”
While there are bound to be hiccups — from the standard drunk-and-disorderly citations to the aforementioned collapsing floor — as a rule, the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day parade lives up to the standard of excellence it has set for decades.
And though some might mourn the loss of the beads-and-kisses tradition, the safety of the participants always comes first in the minds and hearts of the organizers.
“It’s always an honor to have the military march in the parade after protecting us throughout the whole world,” said Edgerly. “We know what they sacrifice for us.”