SAVANNAH, Ga. — If buying beer at breakfast means waiting in line for 30 minutes, it must be St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah.
Thousands of revelers decked out in gaudy green hats and beads, blazers and dresses crammed the cobblestone streets and oak-shaded squares for the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Georgia’s oldest city, which has been celebrating Irish heritage with a Southern accent for 188 years. Officials said it was possibly Savannah’s largest St. Pat’s crowd ever, though the number was in dispute.
The celebration was marred, however, by the collapse of a marching band member during the parade Saturday afternoon.
The Savannah Morning News reported that Parade Committee Chairman Michael Foran said a drummer in the Second Time Arounders Marching Band died of an apparent heart attack near the end of the parade.
Savannah police spokesman Julian Miller said Saturday evening that a marching band member collapsed and had to be taken away by ambulance, but he did not know if the musician died. The St. Petersburg, Fla. area band, whose members range from 18 to 85, bills itself as the largest permanent adult marching band in the world.
Veteran parade watchers started staking out spots before dawn for their folding chairs, which were piled up three-deep on the sidewalks by the time the parade kicked off at 10:15 a.m. Lines of thirsty patrons were already spilling out the door of downtown bars before the pre-parade Mass wrapped up at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
Started in 1824 by settlers who immigrated to the Georgia coast, St. Patrick’s Day has grown from a local procession with religious roots to a sprawling street party that’s Savannah’s biggest tourist draw of the year.
Tourism officials and local merchants were expecting the 2012 celebration to be one of the city’s busiest, thanks to the March 17 holiday falling on Saturday and the postcard perfect weather — a sunny 76 degrees in the morning that was forecast to rise into the 80s.
Every hotel in the city and surrounding Chatham County was booked solid. And parade organizers estimated more than 15,000 people were marching in the procession of bands and bagpipers, police officers and Army soldiers as well as shamrock-decorated convertibles chauffeuring local dignitaries.
Savannah police and the local tourism bureau don’t estimate crowd sizes on St. Patrick’s Day. Foran, chairman of the Savannah parade committee, told reporters he believed Saturday drew record-busting crowds of “well over a million” people. However, the city has only 140,000 residents and 15,000 hotel rooms. Tourism officials in New Orleans estimate they drew more than 1 million visitors over the entire Carnival season that started Jan. 6, not just for Mardi Gras alone Feb. 21.
“I have never seen as many people in the city as I have yesterday and today. It just seemed like there were more people than ever before,” said Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, the city’s tourism bureau. “But I can’t get anywhere close to a million people.”
Visiting Savannah from Connecticut, Mike Lorusso and Samantha Laurenza strolled the parade route Saturday sipping beer from plastic cups and wearing green T-shirts they had snapped up at a gas station — a matching his-and-hers set labeled “Drunk 1” and “Drunk 2.”
“I’m extremely excited to see all the chaos. The amount of people here, wow!” Laurenza said.
She said she was surprised to see people staking out spots with chairs on the sidewalks Friday night. “We asked this one guy if he was staying out here all night and he said, ‘Oh, yeah!’”
Savannah’s Irish families remain rooted in the holiday’s religious traditions. The parade always kicks off with a morning Mass at the cathedral. And the procession paused briefly Saturday morning as the parade’s grand marshal, Tim Ansley, received the traditional blessing from the Rev. Gregory J. Hartmayer, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.
“I am so proud to be here,” Ansley told the bishop before marching off with his 91-year-old father by his side.
Still, libations are a part of the tradition as well in Savannah, where sipping cocktails outdoors is perfectly legal as long as they’re poured into plastic cups.
Mary Ann Ayers and her family were hosting about 20 friends in Lafayette Square next to the cathedral. Bottles of rum and vodka arranged on folding table were inching well toward half-empty before the parade even started.
“We’ve been serving Irish coffee, bloody Marys, beer,” Ayers said. “We’re fully stocked. And more is on the way.”