Hilton Head Island’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade had a touch of blue mixed in with its celebration of the green – thanks to an unexpected police escort.
As parade founder Tom Reilley remembers it, a small group set out on a rainy day in 1983, marching from Kasey’s Krustaceans (which would later become Remy’s), up 278, to the original location of his Reilley’s pub in the Gallery of Shops. “Virtually no one was around,” he said.
When the soggy bunch reached the Sea Pines Circle, the police tried to stop them on charges of parading without a permit. (No one had realized a permit was needed.) In the meantime, the parade had been talked up on local radio and a few hundred people had gathered. Eventually the marchers, with Irish luck on their side, convinced officers not to make an arrest.
When there was no repeat parade in 1984, Reilley got a number of phone calls from disappointed Islanders. So he resurrected the parade the following year, forming a committee of about eight people to oversee it. What would soon become a cherished Island tradition was off and running – with the proper permits in hand, of course!
The early parades were as much a promotion for his restaurant as anything, Reilley said. “It was a fun thing to do – we had no idea where we were going to go with it.” His initial encouragement came from Kasey’s owner, who told Reilley, “if you start a parade, you can’t imagine how big it will get.”
How true that prediction turned out to be. The 1985 parade drew 60 entries. Current parades fill quickly with 150 entries or more and spectators numbering more than 20,000.
The parade is currently held at 3 pm the Sunday prior to St. Patrick’s Day, or on St. Patrick’s Day if it falls on a Sunday… so as not to conflict with the Savannah parade. (Savannah holds their parade on St. Patrick’s Day uncless it falls on Sunday, due to city ordinances.)
Participants in recent years have come from all over the country to join in the excitement. Bands ranging from military to pipe and drum come from cities nationwide, and are accompanied by dancers, Shriners, dignitaries and a host of supportive businesses.
The popular Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales first joined the parade in 1986 – and they return as often as possible as long as the Hilton Head Island and Savannah festivities are close enough for the horses to be comfortable without a long stay away from home.
The parade’s Grand Marshal is selected by the committee – and is always a local resident who is active in the community and has truly made an impact on the Island.
The parade has been listed as one of the Southeast Tourism Society’s Top 20 Events for March. A commendation was also given to the Parade by The Town of Hilton Head Island.
“It’s a major event for such a small town,” Reilley noted, stressing that the parade is community- and family-oriented. Reilley remains a major parade sponsor, chair of the foundation and member of the committee.