The March 17 holiday, by far Savannah’s most lucrative tourist attraction, falls at the beginning of the workweek this year. And while the city’s 190-year-old St. Patrick’s Day parade will commence on the official date Monday, hotels and other businesses are cashing in on a full four days of celebrating that kicked off Friday.
Typically that would leave bars high and dry because of state and local laws that let restaurants pour drinks on Sunday but not pubs and lounges that make most of their revenues selling booze. The state Legislature and Savannah City Council changed that this year after a push by local bar owner Bonnie Walden.
“I’d have been crushed if I hadn’t gotten to open,” said Walden, who owns Bay Street Blues, a small bar located on the St. Patrick’s Day parade route and just a block from the downtown riverfront that’s typically clogged with gaudy green revelers. “I kept thinking about last call on Saturday night and people saying, ‘We’ll see you tomorrow,’ and having to tell them, no, we won’t be open.”
Gov. Nathan Deal, a teetotaler who’s previously OKed relaxing Sunday liquor laws as long as local governments get the final say, signed Thursday a waiver allowing Savannah bars to open from 12:30 p.m. until midnight on Sundays that fall on or adjacent to St. Patrick’s Day — specifically between March 16 and 18. City councilman approved a corresponding local ordinance weeks in advance.
Walden didn’t wait for the last-minute final approval. She went ahead and scheduled eight employees to work Sunday and ordered extra beer – 15 kegs plus 25 cases – to see her through the day. Walden estimates the extra day of St. Patrick’s sales will earn her up to $15,000 in revenue.
“It is by far the biggest and best event financially,” Walden said. “People spend a lot of money coming to Savannah.”
Savannah has been celebrating St. Patrick’s Day since 1824, a time when thousands of Irish immigrants were flocking to the Georgia coast. Despite the holiday’s religious roots as a celebration of the priest who introduced Christianity to Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day and Sundays have long had a somewhat uneasy relationship in Savannah. Whenever March 17 falls on Sunday, St. Patrick’s Day parade organizers in Savannah hold their procession Saturday.
It’s a tradition here that appears to predate the Civil War. In his 1980 book “The Days We’ve Celebrated,” the closest Savannah has to an official St. Pat’s history, former parade chairman William L. Fogarty writes that the city pushed its celebration to Monday in 1833 when the official date was Sunday. Fogarty’s book also notes that a Savannah newspaper reported after St. Patrick’s Day in 1888: “The city is agitated by Sunday cocktails and the Chief of Police is directed by City Council to close all places of business tomorrow.”
Letting bars open on St. Patrick’s Day may remove an economic obstacle to holding parades on Sundays. But don’t expect the private committee that organizes the sprawling procession of more than 300 pipe bands, shamrock-decorated floats and dignitaries waving from convertibles to change its ways the next time Savannah sees March 17 on a Sunday in 2019.
“The St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee is founded in Catholic values and faith,” said Kevin Halligan, the committee’s chairman. “The parade committee won’t ever hold a parade on Sunday.”
Holding the parade on Monday this year doesn’t seem to be hurting tourist bookings. Though some vacancies remained late last week, most of Savannah’s 15,000 hotel rooms were full — with many visitors scheduled three- to five-night stays, said Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, the city’s tourism bureau.
He said allowing bars to serve beer and cocktails on Sunday should help boost the number of visitors who stay past the weekend to spend the actual St. Patrick’s holiday in Savannah.
“I think there’s a pretty huge ripple effect,” Marinelli said. “If visitors know that they’re going to be able to eat, drink and be merry on Sunday as well, then they have a greater propensity to say let’s stay through Monday.”
One wild card that could affect parade attendance is the weather. The National Weather Service forecasts a 70-percent chance of rain in Savannah on Monday, with showers possible earlier in the weekend too.
Rain or shine, Walden said she and her bar’s staff are ready to make the most of the extra 11½ hours they now have to be open Sunday. She even got something special to wear for the occasion.
“I had a T-shirt printed up that says, ‘We fought the law and we won,’” Walden said.