CHICAGO -- Chicago dyed its river green, bagpipes sounded on New York's 5th Avenue, and in Georgia, crowds waited for 30 minutes to buy beer for breakfast before watching Savannah's 156-year-old St. Patrick's Day parade.
Thousands gathered Saturday morning along the Chicago River, some in shamrock-shaped sunglasses and others dressed as leprechauns with strap-on orange beards. Applause erupted as a motor boat sped in circles and a man on board dumped a secret dye in the water, turning it a psychedelic green in just minutes. The much-loved, annual ritual officially kicked off a day of parades and wild parties.
This year, the guest of honor was Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who took part in the parade of floats, traditional Irish dancers and musicians marching along an avenue near Chicago's lakefront. In the morning, Kenny appeared at City Hall with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and both men sported green ties and shamrocks in their lapels.
The prime minister said he was honored to take part in Chicago's festivities and praised the city with a large Irish population for being so open and receptive to immigrants.
"It's a real privilege for me, as leader of my country, to come to Chicago on this St. Patrick's Day 2012 and participate in the parade," Kenny said. "And that's a privilege that I shall remember for a long time."
In Savannah, revelers set out folding chairs before dawn, and by the time the parade kicked off about 10 a.m. in Georgia's oldest city, they were piled three-deep on the sidewalks. Lines of thirsty patrons were spilling out of downtown bars before the pre-parade Mass wrapped up at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
"It's ridiculous for still being in the a.m.," said Timmy Watkins, a utility worker from neighboring Rincon, who emerged from Pinkie Master's Lounge with a beer in each hand after standing in line for 30 minutes. "These are both mine. I waited in line long enough. I figured I'd get two."
Started in 1856 by settlers who immigrated to the Georgia coast, the St. Patrick's Day celebration has grown from a local procession with religious roots to a sprawling street party that's Savannah's biggest tourist draw of the year. Local officials expected this year's party to be one of the biggest yet, with the holiday falling on Saturday and postcard perfect weather -- a sunny 76 degrees in the morning that was forecast to rise into the 80s.
In New York, a sea of green, kilts and bagpipes flowed along 5th Avenue as big crowds gathered for the city's 251st annual Saint Patrick's Day Parade.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, leader of the city's Roman Catholics, announced before the parade stepped off that iconic St. Patrick's Cathedral would undergo a $175 million renovation. He said the first phase will involve cleaning the cathedral's soot-damaged exterior and replacing its windows.