Snowflakes on Shamrocks: A Frosty St. Patrick's Day in Dublin
|Irish eyes smile more brightly than ever on St. Patrick's Day.|
By Pat O'Connor, Co-Author of Rick Steves' Ireland
Imitating a soldier on the Russian front, I stamp my boots on the paving stones to stay warm as I wait for Dublin's St. Patrick's Day parade to begin. It was actually snowing yesterday afternoon as my long flight from Seattle landed in Dublin. Even after 25 years of traveling to the Emerald Isle, seeing snow fall on Irish soil was a first for me. Thankfully, it's just warm enough to keep the snow from sticking. The theme of this year's parade is "Wishful Thinking." As I shiver, I wonder whether they knew the weather report when they came up with that one.
The last time I was in Ireland for St. Paddy's Day was also my first-ever trip to Ireland, in 1981. I don't remember it being so wintry back then, but maybe the warm glow of my youthful memories filtered out whatever cold I experienced that day as I watched the parade of Boston police and Chicago firefighters in the town of Limerick.
I turn my back to the wind as a brief 30-second squall of sleet passes through. The cheery Irish couple next to me (with three wee ones wearing sparkly green cowboy hats) notice my fidgeting and apologize for the weather. "It was sunny and 15 degrees on St. Paddy's Day last year," they offer in consolation. I smile and silently occupy myself for a moment converting Celsius to Fahrenheit, coming up with 59 comparatively balmy degrees. A pod of giggling, grinning Japanese tourists walk past sporting oversized Leprechaun hats. Remembering the old Boy Scouts lesson that 30 percent of body heat is lost through the head, I quickly fork out €6 for an Irish tricolor stocking cap to incubate my frosty earlobes.
|Irish set dancers kick up their heels at the Ceilí Mór street music festival.|
Having regained mastery of my core body temperature, I look around and drink in the atmosphere. I'm standing next to one of 16 grandstands (seating 150 each), where people have paid €60 for a better view and a roof. The medieval Christchurch Cathedral punctures the gray sky across the street, with a garland of green-, white-, and orange-fringed humanity ringing the block. The kids up front peer between barricade bars to get a better view, waving Irish tricolor flags and blowing whistles, while adults pack in behind. All along the two-mile parade route, young and old sport an assortment goofy hats and festive face paint. Delicate little sprigs of live shamrock clover are pinned to lapels and hats everywhere. All around, smiles outnumber stoic faces 10 to 1. I feel a surge of self-congratulatory elation for making this trip.
My giddy mood is suddenly interrupted by heavy drumbeats. A band of five crazy drummers thump their way up the street, planting themselves in front of the grandstand. This warm-up act for the main parade gets us all chuckling for a few minutes with their wisecracks and comic stunts before the echoes of the main parade approaches down the canyon of buildings.
For the next 90 minutes, a quirky conveyor belt of visual and audio stimuli rolls by. A battalion of lock-jawed Irish soldiers march by first, each with a sprig of live shamrock clover pinned to his beret. After that, all pretense of dignity evaporates as giant puppets on long poles spider along the street. A variety of colorfully inflated floats blow Lawrence Welk bubbles and swirls of cloudlike foam into the air. At least three or four crosier staff-bearing St. Patricks — some beaming proudly, others strolling majestically — weave the street in flowing green robes while anointing the crowds with mock blessings. A huge Irish wolfhound saunters ahead of a pumping bagpipe band while a half-dozen high school marching bands from the US pepper the parade with a taste of home. A group of straw-clad "Mummers" — representing ancient Celtic traditions — are escorted by a few Norman knights draped in chain mail.
|Braving the chilly weather, scantily clad samba dancers steal the show.|
The crowd favorite (second only to the horse-cleanup guy with the shovel pulling up the rear) are the 10 smiling Brazilian samba dancers braving the frigid breeze while wearing not much more than exotic feathered hats, high heels, and less than 5 percent body fat. (This prompts the plump Garda policeman stationed near me to emit an incredulous, muffled "Jaysis, would ye look at dat" under his breath.) Even the Brazilian footballers skillfully balancing soccer balls on their knees, necks, and ankles take a back seat to their female counterparts' feats of mind over hypothermia.
After the parade, I grab a cheap sandwich and steaming coffee from a mini-market and walk 15 minutes east to the Ceilí Mór street music festival, just south of St. Stephen's Green. Today the rigid Georgian architectural order stamped on this neighborhood 250 years ago by British colonial pride is being desecrated by an unrepentant outpouring of wild Irishness.
The eight-piece band on the outdoor stage is churning out a lively rhythm laced with fiddle, banjo, and flute. They sit facing a crowd of hundreds of bobbing heads sporting green shamrock-shaped antennae that bounce frantically to the beat. After a few songs, the band introduces a troupe of a dozen young ladies in short skirts for a precision swirl of set dancing. Heathens near the stage begin their own ragged impromptu dance steps that generally involve locking elbows with the person next to you and kicking up your heels, endangering the backsides of oblivious fellow spectators. The band suggests that the crowd attempt to imitate the complicated "Siege of Ennis" dance step being performed by the troupe, and the unabashed good-natured mayhem in the crowd spreads.
After a half-hour of toe-tapping enjoyment, I head north across the Liffey River. Over my shoulder, I hear the bandleader wryly requesting that there be "no moshing, please." I picture a clover-clad lad being lowered back onto his feet from above the sea of hands that had been passing him around.
All day I've been thinking about how most national holidays commemorate revolutions or military victories. As I walk, I recall that March 17th was the day — way back in A.D. 462 — that Patrick died after 30 years of missionary work in Ireland. Even though he had been kidnapped and brought here as a shepherd slave, Patrick eventually grew to love the Irish. Ireland is perhaps unique among nations for having converted to Christianity without bloodshed (no gruesome crusades or inquisitions). Of course, blood was eventually spilled in Ireland over religious beliefs... but that was more than a thousand years after Patrick's death.
|On March 17th, Temple Bar — Dublin's most happening neighborhood — is even more packed than usual with pub-crawlers.|
Legend has it that Patrick used the shamrock (3 petals on one stem) to explain the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) while converting a pagan Irish king. Patrick was a master of persuasion, explaining the new concept of Christianity by using a common local plant to a Celtic people who had been worshipping their gods through nature for centuries. The Irish were converted not at the point of a sword, but rather through Patrick's enlightened blending of the old beliefs with the new. The shamrock has since become the most recognizable emblem of Ireland.
I meet my Irish friend and tour-guide colleague Stephen in a friendly pub across the street from the Abbey Theater. It's approaching evening and I'm surprised to see that mineral waters outnumber pints on the table where Stephen and his friends are congregating. He reminds me that St. Patrick's Day falls during Lent, and some Irish people have chosen to give up "the drink" during this period without letting it spoil their enjoyment of the festivities.
"Christmas, Easter, and St. Patrick's Day are the only days sure to fill the churches anymore," Stephen remarks, highlighting the religious aspect of this national holiday. "But it's also become an international phenomenon, celebrating Irish culture around the world." I tell Stephen that back in Seattle, Rick Steves is grand marshal of this year's St. Patrick's Day parade. We ponder that other St. Patrick's Day parades are taking place today from Sydney to Vienna. "It's our national festival," Stephen says, "and we're proud that so many are drawn to it."
A couple hours later, woozy from jetlag, I reluctantly leave Stephen and his merry friends. As I wave goodbye, they're belting out "Waltzing Matilda" with a group of visiting Australians... Guinness or no Guinness.
|While the Irish partied in Dublin, Rick Steves served as grand marshal for Seattle's St. Patrick's Day Parade. Here, Rick and his wife Anne rub elbows with Noel Dempsey, a member of Ireland's parliament, and Una Fannon, the Vice-Consul of Ireland.|
On my way back to my hotel, I make it a point to walk up the gut of the Temple Bar district. Tonight this famous pub zone is a hive of happy humanity. It's also immediately apparent that I'm surrounded by a shifting kaleidoscope of rambunctious party people, few of whom have opted to observe Lent the way Stephen's friends have. Going out for a "gargle" or a "jar" is what makes this neighborhood tick. A loud bachelorette (or "hen") party, sporting devil horns and matching pink tank tops, passes me. Squads of young guys sporting bet-you-can't-top-this hats pretend conversation while their eyes scan beyond their mates' shoulders, seeking target lock.
"The craic was mighty in that last place," I hear an English accent blurt as I turn to see a trio of grinning young women exit a pub. Borrowing the classic Irish term for "good conversation and fun atmosphere," they're as caught up in the celebration of Irishness as everyone else. Somehow being in contact with the Irish (with the aid of a pint or two to oil the gears) has given everyone around me an excuse to temporarily banish their inhibitions. By Monday, these young women will probably be back behind their desks in stiff-upper-lip London offices. But for tonight, what happens in Ireland, stays in Ireland.
An hour later, I surrender to jetlag and call it an early night. Twenty-five years ago, I might have stayed out to "drown the shamrock." But tonight, as I crawl into bed contemplating the day's events, I reflect on the many foreign accents I've overheard during the day and what drew them all here. Few nationalities have as beloved a reputation worldwide as the Irish — and for good reason. To be Irish is to know how to have a good time. Even the gloomy weather hasn't dampened anyone's spirits. And anyway, as a wise Irishman once told me, "It never rains in a pub."
Pat O'Connor is the co-author of the Rick Steves' Ireland guidebook. He also leads Rick Steves tours in Ireland.
St. Patrick's Day celebrations like the one described here (but on a smaller scale) take place in about 20 different towns throughout Ireland, including Belfast and Downpatrick in Northern Ireland. The best source of information for Dublin's annual five-day St. Patrick's festival — including the parade route, grandstand reservations, and schedules of special events — can be found at www.stpatricksfestival.ie.