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The biggest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the West: Why Denver’s Irish celebration makes other cities green with envy

Wednesday marks St. Patrick's Day
st patricks day parade.jpg
Posted at 5:42 AM, Mar 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-17 12:54:13-04

DENVER – If you believe the legends, Saint Patrick chased all the snakes out of Ireland. Unfortunately, Erin’s patron saint had no such luck in chasing away COVID-19, and two of his annual celebrations have now been derailed by the pandemic.

That’s a big blow for Denver, which in regular years hosts one of the largest parades honoring Saint Patrick in the U.S. Organizers estimate crowds of more than 400,000 gathered to watch the 2018 and 2019 events, making it the biggest celebration west of the Mississippi.

While cities like New York, Boston and Chicago are widely recognized for their Irish American communities, Colorado can trace its Irish connection back to the late 1800s and a mining boom in the state.

“The first Irish communities in the state were in the Central City area," said Clinical Associate Professor James Walsh at the University of Colorado Denver.

Mining created a huge demand for labor, and Irish migrants were willing to take low-paying, and often dangerous jobs in the mines. Places like Leadville grew to meet the demand, and its population swelled with Irish transplants.

"Leadville developed the largest Irish community between the West Coast and the Midwest," Walsh said.

From Leadville's Silver Rush to modern-day parades: The surprisingly rich history of the Irish in Colorado, explained

As the Irish established themselves in Colorado, many began to move to Denver. Soon, they felt an urge to connect with their ancestral home. Saint Patrick’s Day parades were held in Denver until the 1920s, when Ku Klux Klan activity, and anti-Catholic sentiment spiked.

The parade idea went dormant until the early 1960s, when renewed interest brought the idea of a Denver parade back into the conversation. The first of the modern parades set off in 1962, and it’s been a yearly tradition ever since.

Along the way, Saint Patrick’s celebration in Denver picked up some uniquely Colorado qualities.

“You’ve got the western culture thrown in. You know with a lot of different horse groups," said Elizabeth Price, board of directors member for the Denver St. Patrick’s Day Parade. “We bring all cultures together. You’ve got Peruvian, Bolivian groups… groups from all over.”

While the 2021 parade will not be happening in-person, organizers are encouraging everyone to celebrate through its “Dine, Decorate and Donate” initiative. It encourages people to support Denver’s bars and restaurants with in-person dining or takeout orders, as well as donating to the Colorado Restaurant Association’s Hardship Fund for hospitality workers.

You can donate and find a map of businesses running Saint Patrick’s Day specials on the parade’s website.

As for next year, organizers are already planning an in-person event for the parade’s 60th anniversary.

“I think there is going to be a lot of celebrating, maybe some tears of joy,” Price said.