2014 will be the 20th year of displaced St. Patrick’s Day festivities, and the University Archives blog is marking the occasion by reviewing the official origins of an unofficial celebration.
Each year, on a Friday a week or two in advance of the University’s Spring Break, it is estimated that thousands of young adult revelers take part in the celebration of Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day in Urbana-Champaign, often referred to by enthusiasts as simply “Unofficial”.1 Participants typically include University of Illinois students, young adult residents of Champaign and Urbana, and in more recent years, visitors from other college campuses. Unofficial is typically celebrated by donning green clothing and regalia and consuming large quantities of alcohol with friends at a bar or private party, often starting early in the morning.2
In the spring of 1995, local bar owners were presented with a problem by the University’s academic calendar. Traditionally, St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) is celebrated by sociable young adult Americans with a visit to a local pub or tavern.3 However, in March 1995, the 17th fell during the University of Illinois Spring Break. University students and staff, the primary clientele of campustown bars, would not be anywhere near campus on what is presumably a very profitable day for bar owners. Not content to let the popular celebration slip away from them, local businesses organized an alternative event: the “Shamrock Stagger,” scheduled for Wednesday, March 8th, 1995, two days before U of I’s Spring Break.4
Campus bars had often held promotions and drink specials during the week before Spring Break5, but the “Shamrock Stagger” was on a different order of magnitude. The event was sponsored by 10 local taverns; one might guess from its title that it was intended as a “bar crawl,” in hopes that participants would visit each sponsoring bar in turn, to take advantage of specials on Irish ales, stouts, and whiskys, win a door prize, or just join in the general revelry. Presumably organizers were aware of Green Beer Day, an annual day-long party that happens near Spring Break on the Miami University campus in Oxford, Ohio as an alternative to St. Patrick’s Day. Green Beer Day is typically scheduled a weekend or more before Spring Break, and its dominant themes are binge drinking and the color green, both attributes that have become strongly associated with Urbana-Champaign’s Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day.6
The sharp-eyed reader will note that the “Shamrock Stagger” was advertised as “U of I’s OFFICIAL St. Patrick’s Day Party” (emphasis ours). Presumably, University administrators were not pleased with their implied sponsorship of an all-day binge drinking event. Although no record of correspondence (official or unofficial) between the University and the event’s sponsors has yet been discovered in the University Archives, some changes may have been suggested by concerned parties, because the following year’s pre-Spring Break promotion was smaller and advertised slightly differently. Drink specials on the Wednesday before Spring Break 1996 at Cochrane Enterprise-owned bars were advertised under the banner of “Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day” for the first time (or in some places, “Official Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day”).7 In 1997, Cochrane establishments advertised “Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day 3”, to be held on the Friday eight days before Spring Break, rather than just two days before.8 Subsequent Unofficial events have continued to be held a full week or more before Spring Break.In following years, Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day has outgrown its origins as a promotion held at a few drinking establishments, and become something of an annual campuswide celebration, inspiring Unofficial-themed house parties, yearly t-shirt designs, and attracting visitors from beyond Urbana and Champaign. University students have also adopted a puzzling tradition of attending class while drunk, to avoid being docked attendance points while partying.9
The occasion has grown enough that the sight of large groups of celebrants stumbling down the street in green apparel has become somewhat commonplace. Unsurprisingly, a celebration of such size and excess often has notably negative consequences. A report from the University Chancellor’s office on the 2006 Unofficial celebration details a number of adverse effects of the event, including vandalism of University bathrooms, vomit on sidewalks, sober students skipping class to avoid drunken peers, inebriated students passing out in public spaces and on sidewalks, and significant increases in calls for police services (and arrests).10 Most tragically, University alumna Caroline Yoon was killed while a passenger on a motorcycle that crashed near campus during Unofficial festivities in 2006. The driver was arrested on a drunk driving charge.11 Developments like these led the University Chancellor’s office to form an Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day Task Force in 2006, in order to “develop recommendations that might reduce or eliminate any negative effects resulting from [Unofficial] and similar activities”.10
Other University and civil bodies have joined the effort to reduce excessive celebrations during Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day. The Mayor of Champaign, as City Liquor Commissioner, issues an Emergency Order limiting beer and liquor sales in Champaign, which includes many bars and liquor stores that serve campus residents.12 The Office of the Dean of Students asks that fraternities and sororities not hold social events on Unofficial weekend.13 Police officers of the University, cities of Champaign and Urbana, and the State of Illinois are present in greater number on campus on these weekends.14 Student Legal Services takes out print and radio ads to warn students of the consequences of disrupting classes, public intoxication, and driving under the influence.15 These and other measures are intended to promote the “health, safety, and welfare” of campus residents and Unofficial celebrants.12
In its evolution from happy hour promotion to informal festival, Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day has accumulated a short but compelling history, and quite a bit of documentation. The Archives encourages you to visit our reading room in 19 Library or explore the sources cited in the endnotes below to further develop your official Unofficial knowledge.
3. John Roach, “St. Patrick’s Day 2012: Facts, myths, and traditions,” National Geographic News, March 16, 2012. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/03/120316-saint-patricks-day-2012-march-17-facts-ireland-irish-nation/
6. Liz Caskey, “Are you smarter than a leprechaun? GBD trivia!”, ,the Miami Student, February 25, 2010. http://www.miamistudent.net/amusement/are-you-smarter-than-a-leprechaun-gbd-trivia-1.1175772#.UxehI_mwKQ4
10. Report of the Chancellor’s Task Force to Review “Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day” and Other Alcohol-Related Events, January 2007, RS 41/1/6, Dean of Students Subject File, Box 172, “Task Group – Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day 2006-2007”, University of Illinois Archives.
11. Steve Bauer, “Officials still studying reports from ‘unoffical St. Patrick’s Day’,” The News-Gazette, March 7, 2006, http://www.news-gazette.com/sports/illini-sports/wrestling/2006-03-07/officials-still-studying-reports-unofficial-st-patricks-da