Believe everything you hear about St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah and you might think hotel rooms are sold out as 1 million people cram Georgia’s oldest city to see the Savannah River dyed green.
A sober look at those assertions, however, reveals they’re all pure blarney.
To be sure, the St. Patrick’s Day parade that Savannah will host Thursday is a supersized celebration. What began in 1824 as a modest procession by Irish immigrants who moved to this Southern port city for work has swelled into one of the South’s largest street parties after Mardi Gras.
That history comes with lore that sometimes strays from the facts. Here are five of Savannah’s greatest St. Patrick’s Day myths:
BUT WHO’S COUNTING?
Parade organizers, the mayor and others all say it: Thursday marks the 192nd St. Patrick’s Day parade in Savannah.
They’re overlooking an inconvenient historical wrinkle. Yes, Savannah’s parade began 192 years ago in 1824. But at least six years since then, the city held no parade at all.
Blame the Civil War in 1862 and 1864, the early arrival of Holy Week in 1913, World War I in 1918, and a decision to cancel during the Irish Revolution in 1921. According to “The Days We’ve Celebrated,” William L. Fogarty’s 1980 book on St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah, there was no parade in 1830, for reasons unknown.
Parade Chairman Jerry Hogan defends calling this parade the 192nd despite the cancellations. “If there’s not been an official parade,” he said, “there’s been a celebration on March 17.”
Tourists call the visitor bureau every year asking: When do they dye the Savannah River green?
They’re 55 years too late.
Savannah attempted to color the river behind City Hall on St. Patrick’s Day in 1961. Twenty boats pumped dye into the water as roughly 5,000 people watched. Newspapers reported the river turned “greenish,” mostly in streaks.
It was “not the perfect job the sponsors hoped for,” the Savannah Evening Press reported.
But visitors still ask as if it’s an ongoing tradition, said Erica Backus of Visit Savannah.
Savannah does add green dye to its park fountains every year, but don’t expect another attempt on the river. Kevin Chambers of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division said dying the river today would violate the state’s clean water rules, which prohibit human activities that markedly increase the haziness of public waters.
Apparently that’s not an issue in Chicago, which still dyes a stretch of the Chicago River green on St. Patrick’s Day. That tradition began in 1962, the year after Savannah’s attempt flopped.
WAR HERO’S ROOTS
It’s tough to correct history that’s been cast in bronze.
Every March 16, the day before St. Patrick’s Day, parade organizers lay a wreath at Savannah’s monument to Sgt. William Jasper, who died fighting the British during the American Revolution in 1779. A bronze plaque beneath Jasper’s statue pays tribute to the bravery of “the Irish American soldier.”
Historians have since concluded Jasper was most likely German.
In 1981, University of Maryland professor George Fenwick Jones published a paper revealing immigration records from Philadelphia that show a young John William Jasper arrived in October 1767 aboard a ship from Rotterdam, Germany. He wrote there was “little doubt” this Jasper was the war hero.
Others have come to agree.
“He is German,” said Howard Kempf, chief organizer of the Jasper ceremony. “But everybody’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.”
Planning a last-minute trip? Hotels are probably sold out, right?
Not so, says Joe Marinelli, president of the visitor bureau Visit Savannah. He says that while many hotels end up full or close to it, he always sees rooms available even the day before the parade.
Hotels probably sold out years ago. But booming tourism in recent years has fueled new hotels, which Marinelli says makes a total sellout unlikely.
MILLION MAN MARCH 17
In 2012, Savannah’s parade chairman boasted St. Patrick’s Day had drawn a record-busting crowd of “more than a million people.”
Michael Foran didn’t base that on any official crowd count because nobody in Savannah attempts one. The city’s top tourism official was downright befuddled.
“My head kind of exploded like, ‘Where did that come from?'” said Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah.
It’s hard to find room for 1 million revelers in Savannah. The city and surrounding Chatham County have a population of 283,379. There are 15,250 hotel rooms and 103,807 households. Where would 716,621 visitors stay?
Foran — now the parade’s 2016 grand marshal — stands by his count. Only now he says the million revelers were spread over several days and a broad area that includes parts of neighboring South Carolina.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t even make it to Savannah,” Foran said. “But they’re all partying for St. Patrick’s Day.”