Spectators decked out in green shirts, tights, hats, beads and more lined Higgins Avenue on Saturday for the 36th annual St. Patrick's Day parade.

The crowd created a river of green, especially when the rain hit as the parade wrapped up: hundreds of people streaming over the Higgins Bridge, north and south, to escape the unpredictable weather.

"People here love parades," said Pat Kouris, who moved to Missoula three years ago from Billings. "I think it's because most of them have lived here for a long time. It creates this sense of community cohesion."

This year's grand marshal was Bob Whaley, a retired Missoula stockbroker who also served three tours in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot with the U.S. Marine Corps, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1979.

The Irish Man and Woman of the Year were Kevin and Janice O'Meagher.

Children – the greenest people at the parade – lined the curbs and medians beforehand, anxiously waving around plastic bags waiting to be filled with candy.

"This brings the community together," said Sandi Hart, who's lived in Missoula for 22 years. "And the kids just love it.

"Missoulians love parades. And it's important this time of year to get out since it's so dark."

Hart came out with her dog, Luna, a timid black labrador-border collie mix who had to have her ears covered when the parade got too loud.

The parade was filled with community organizations and businesses.

Missoula's Irish community "really comes out of the woodwork" for St. Patrick's Day, Kouris said. There's the Irish Studies Program at University of Montana, the Ancient Order of the Hibernians (the Irish-Catholic organization that sponsors the parade) and Missoula Irish Dancers.

"Until this, you don't really realize how many there are," Kouris said.

According to the U.S. Census, about 16 percent of Missoula County residents in 2014 had Irish ancestry. That's second only to German, which makes up about 25 percent of the county's population.

The Montana Grizzlies Hurling Club (two-time national champions) and Thomas Meagher Hurling Club (a new community club) also marched in the parade. A couple of hours later, they faced off in the inaugural Missoula Cup at the Loyola High School field.

Relay for Life exchanged its usual purple for green on Saturday, its truck swarming with youngsters blowing on party horns, handing out candy and a sign that read "Hope is more precious than gold." The Western Montana Shrine Club produced some laughs, zooming down the street on their small cars – what they've dubbed "midget patrol" – and waving to the crowd. One even took a cue from the presidential campaign circuit, stopping momentarily to give a baby a big smooch on the cheek.

As the parade wrapped up after 40 minutes under stormy skies, green-clad onlookers threw on jackets and raced for cover or their cars, many winding up under the overhang at Ciao Mambo.

"I was going to take my jacket off to show my green. Maybe not!" one spectator said.

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Reporter for the Missoulian