Old Savannah: March On

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A centuries-old parade is the cornerstone of Savannah’s most famous celebration.

St. Patrick’s Day 1956 – Joseph A. Rossiter, left, Edward A. Leonard, Charles F. Powers. Courtesy of Savannah Morning News

The Grand Marshals of Savannah’s St. Patrick’s Day parade wear striking emerald sashes, fringed with gold and adorned with Irish crosses and tricolor flags. They’re beautiful, but each sash worn since 1957 is a fake. That’s the year the original sash, one passed down from Grand Marshal to Grand Marshal was lost. The story is an insider piece of Savannah lore for most, but for me, it hits closer to home. Here’s why: it was my great-grandfather, Charles F. Powers, Sr., who lost the sash after his year at the front of the parade. 

My own St. Patrick’s Day traditions started in childhood. The extended Powers family would stake out a place on the corner of Abercorn Street and Jones Street, right beside Clary’s Cafe, to watch the parade — all three or four hours of it. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for tiny Shriner cars and marching bands. My mom, once a national champion majorette, always directed my attention to the twirlers.

Starting with the first public celebration in 1824, when the Hibernian Society processed to a mass celebrating the Feast of St. Patrick, Irish-American families like mine have been a fixture of the parade. For nearly 200 years, these green-clad marchers, average Savannah citizens on any other day, have been made famous for a day by their heritage. My grandfather marched with the Hibernian Society, and my dad still does. For years, my uncle sauntered by with the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a different Irish society with a similar name. Even though I always saw these family members before the parade started, it was a special feeling when they stepped to the side of the parade route to say hello. 

My aunts would dart into the parade as it marched by to plant lipsticked kisses upon the cheeks of old friends. By the time the boys of Benedictine Military School reached Clary’s, marching by rank and file as they have since 1903, their whole faces would be stained by dozens of such kisses.

When I returned to Savannah after college, I worked at WTOC-TV, and it was my job to be at the parade, gripping cables or operating a camera. Certainly a more sober way to celebrate, but I got to stand right beside Bishop Boland as he performed an old Irish tune in his warbling tenor. I followed our bold camera operator, Barry, up onto floats and into vehicles. Several years later, when I entered the ranks of the parade myself, one of the highlights was reaching the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, where WTOC set up shop. Sonny Dixon never failed to say my name on the live broadcast, much to my grandmother’s delight.

Of all my St. Patrick’s Day experiences, from the Sinn Fein breakfast at 6:30 a.m. to the Hibernian Society’s black-tie banquet in the evening to late-night carousing, none has been as enjoyable as simply marching in the parade. Yes, this sometimes prevents me from getting to see the Shriners. I’m not beside the route to greet every old family friend who passes by. But I have the privilege of carrying the celebration with me through the whole city, losing my voice shouting Erin go bragh about a million times and high-fiving kids so they feel like they’re a part of the parade, too. Over the years, I’ve even gotten a couple kisses on the cheek.