Europe 36 – St Patrick’s Day

St Patrick’s Day (1)

Where?

Dublin, Ireland

When?

On and around March 17

How long?

4 days

There’s something about the words “party” and “Ireland”. In a country that turns death into a two-day piss-up (someone once observed that the only difference between an Irish wake and an Irish wedding was that there was one fewer drunk person), the national holiday just had to be something special. The official face of the festival is the street parades, but the soul of the business – the real “craic”, as the Irish would say – is in the pubs of the city, where some of the antics would make Bacchus himself blanch. The parades attract street performers, puppeteers and band troupes from all over Europe, and are, like a music session in an Irish pub, about participation rather than observation. Dress up, drink up, and, as the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh would say, “bucklep” about the streets to your heart’s content.

St Patrick: fact or fiction?

■Hail glorious St Patrick, great king of our isle”. So the hymn goes, and there is little doubt that the great saint is not only hailed, but also lauded, toasted, praised and toasted again, during the course of his festival. So, when you find yourself arm-in-arm with your long-lost Irish cousin, caught up in a boisterous, terrace-chant rendition of the hymn or raising a semi-drained pint of Guinness in his holy honour, you might want to turn to your new best friend and ask him just who St Patrick was? The reply will probably be that St Patrick was the greatest saint ever: he came to Ireland, converted everyone to Christianity, drove the makes into the sea, and established the Emerald Isle as God’s chosen land. Not a bad answer, but the fact is that not only was St Patrick probably not Irish at all, but he might have been… say it quietly… English, a Romanized Briton who, legend has it, first came to Ireland as a slave, escaped back to Britain, and, on hearing the Irish call him in a dream, returned to convert the country to Christianity. This makes a good story, but probably isn’t quite true. What is sure, however, is that a missionary named Patrick did exist, and most probably worked in the northeast of Ireland in the sixth century. But it’s unlikely he drove out snakes – Ireland never had any – and whether he converted the entire place to the ways of the Lord, who knows? But then St George probably never slew a dragon, either.

Until the mid-1990s, St Patrick’s Day was a fairly arid affair in Ireland itself; indeed, the Irish took a dim view of the event, seeing it largely as an excuse for misty-eyed expats and wannabe Celts to go wild once a year in foreign climes. Dublin’s St Patrick’s Day Parade, in particular, was a brutal affair that passed by with all the gusto of a Soviet state funeral. Since then, though, determined not to be outdone by the rest of the world, the Irish version of the festival has perked up no end, and has become one of the country’s major events – and today, of course, no one does it quite like the Irish, especially on their home turf.

Nowadays, from around the end of the second week of March, in the days leading up to St Patrick’s Day, Dublin city centre comes alive with all manner of events and spectacles, featuring live bands and street theatre, as well as a funfair in Merrion Square and associated music concerts, stage shows, arts exhibitions, markets and various nautical displays down in the Docklands area. The festival kicks off with an evening display of street theatre, acrobatics, drumming and circus events, often headed by the Galway-based street-theatre troupe Macnas, whose outrageously flamboyant puppets and energetic performances have taken this kind of outdoor performance to a new level. Other major happenings include the annual boat race down Liffey between crews from Trinity College and University College Dublin – a sort of Oxford/ Cambridge affair but without the toffs and with far superior banter.

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