For the last time in his 22 years of office, Mayor Richard Daley hoisted an Irish-style walking stick above his head Saturday at the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade that his father inaugurated in 1956.

It was an emotional experience, for Daley and for many in the crowd near Grant Park, in part because it resembled a farewell tour for a mayor whose name has been synonymous with the historic impact of Irish Americans on Chicago politics.

“It is very emotional when you think, 22 years as mayor, and all the various parades and celebrations in the city, it really brings out the best,” Daley said, before he walked alongside a mint green Buick Century convertible that carried his wife, Maggie, and their grandchildren while they all waved to a crowd lining Columbus Drive.

As the Daleys followed the Shannon Rovers Pipe Band on the parade route, many people applauded, and somebody in the crowd shouted: “We love you, mayor!”

Daley said he wanted to convey to attendees that it has been an honor to represent them.

“I always say thank you for allowing me to be their mayor for 22 years,” he said. “You have to say thank you.”
Even after Rahm Emanuel takes over as mayor on May 16, Daley promised to retain a presence at the event in coming years.

Daley said his family – who before the parade Saturday attended mass at Old St. Patrick’s Church in the West Loop -- will continue the tradition of sponsoring a float to honor his parents, his son, Kevin, and other relatives who have passed away.

The Daleys have been synonymous with the St. Patrick’s Day parade since Mayor Richard J. Daley put together the downtown event 55 years ago.

With even the Chicago River dyed green, the event has come to represent the influence that Irish Americans have had in many aspects of life in Chicago, an immigrant success story that Daley predicts will continue with other ethnic groups in the years to come.

“Chicago has been founded by immigrants, and will be continued by immigrants, who will play a major role in the city, this country and the world,” he said.

Does his departure from City Hall mean that the Irish will cede the spotlight in Chicago?

“I don’t think so, no, because they have people who are in all aspects of life,” Daley said. “It isn’t those who enter politics.”

But at least some attendees Saturday said it seemed as if Chicago is losing some of its Irish charm.

They lamented the loss of the South Side Irish parade in the Beverly neighborhood, a large-scale alternative to the downtown event that was often more spirited and raucous. That event was cancelled in 2009 after drunken revelers disrupted the festivities.

At the downtown parade, Leslie Vloedman of Hazelcrest, stood behind a deep crowd near the Art Institute, feeling frustrated.

“We can’t even see the parade,” she said. “South Side was much more accessible. If we can’t figure out a better way to see the action next year, we’ll probably skip it.”

jebyrne@tribune.com