I was having some misgivings about staying through the weekend for the St. Patrick’s Day festivities. For one thing, I couldn’t find a single local person who had been or intended to go. On top of that, the predictions of one-half million people made it sound like most of the activities would be inaccessible, in particular the parade. And the capper was the report on the news that more than 300,000 people had passed through Dublin Airport on Friday. But I stayed on and lay in bed an extra hour on Saturday, figuring I’d just muddle through.
Outside my hotel window, a beautiful morning presented itself. Breezy, but with clear blue skies. Wanting to fuel up before a day on my feet, I gathered my goods and headed down the lift figuring I’d grab a quick breakfast in the coffee shop. I guess the host of tour busses blocking the entrance last night should have been a clue. My previously quite hotel was now mobbed, and the line for the restaurant was across the lobby. Electing a more urbane solution, I sat in the lobby lounge and had a pot of tea and a scone. A couple of Russians dressed in Irish rugby jerseys sat off to my side and carried on in their native tongue, the only word I kept catching was “Amerika.”
Finishing up there, I went out and headed south, wanting to explore some of the neighborhoods I had seen back on Wednesday when I was lost on the commute. Rows and rows of beautiful Georgian-era brick town houses spiced up with flowerings bushes and brightly painted doors. I walked past Herbert Park and saw a troop of Magpies working over the grass. A couple of homeless people were sunning themselves in a park shelter. Rounding the block I stumbled upon the Embassy of the United States, a rather unattractive round modern concrete edifice. A stylized metal eagle graced the west side.
Moving on I returned to the hotel for a quick break and then went off for a walk along the Grand Canal hoping to get some pictures of a big group of Mute Swans I passed each day while commuting. The neighborhoods changed along here, moving downscale from the aristocracy to working class. Row upon row of identical brick houses marching off towards City Center. Saw a sign for the birthplace of GB Shaw and decided to check in there post Swans. Found the birds and headed back seeking Shaw whose humble origins I found at 33 Synge Street. By now it was closing on 10 AM so I decided to take a stab at seeing the parade. I followed small groups of people heading in the general direction. Arriving at Dame Street, the middle portion of the parade, I was surprised to discover that the barriers were essentially empty. Had this been the parade setting in New York or Boston, they would have been crowded hours in advance. We were now less than 2 hours from the start.
With nothing better to do, I decided to walk up to Grafton Street and get something to eat and drink. A black knit cap with an Ireland badge on it caught my eye on a display and I decided that would be a good souvenir. I asked the girls manning the stand if they could break a 50 and they said “no.” I grabbed my handful of Euro coins and counted out 8.50. I asked if that would work and the answer was “yes.” Arriving at Grafton and crossing the street by the Molly Malone statue, I heard “Terry” and found my Intel pals coming in the opposite direction. A bit of a surprise. I bought a bottle of water, a banana and yet another Pain au Chocolate and we headed off to find a spot to watch the parade.
We walked alone Dame Street and found a spot in front of a coffee shop and a pub, two key support zones for a day that was now becoming windy, overcast and sprinkly. Slowly but surely, the crowd built and the crush began. We allowed several children to move up to the barrier so they could see better, but managed to maintain a more or less unobstructed view.
The parade began at 12 but we were so far down the line that it was close to 1 before anything came into sight. A little girl, perhaps 4 became our official spotter, getting very loud and excited as the parade came around a bend in the road. All around us children were blowing whistles and these incredibly loud horns that made you think a lorry was on the sidewalk.
A group of Segway rides did spins and figure-eights up and down our stretch. And then the parade came into view.
First up was a group of people spinning long metal rods with fire burning on both ends. Judging from the smudge marks on their arms and clothing, it’s an in-exact science. The crowd roared as the festivity kicked into gear.
Mounted police, the fire brigade search dogs, a marching band of bagpipers, on and on it went. Perhaps a dozen marching bands, primarily from the US with Iowa, Indiana, Colorado, Texas, North Carolina, California, Arizona represented. I recognized a large band from Tennessee from the tour bus at my hotel. When I was last there the adults were doing a headcount and one lagging girl was running down the stairs, trumpet in hand.
A German oompa band comprised of middle-agers trooped past, dressed all in gray. Most amazing though were the ad-hoc groups of adults and children dressed in screamingly loud colors in all manner of surreal outfits. Pirates, men in hairy suits with big bunches of bells on their backs, half-horse people, cavaliers, fish monsters, a bright band of Sikhs, little girls carrying streamers swirling in the wind, some ships, Queen Elizabeth 1, a giant troll and a enormous dinosaur. Lions, kings, dancing ladies, King Midas himself and his court, all dressed in gold, men with wicker cages for heads and people driving a cart with wispy white horses towering over the crowds. A giant aligator and Dracula. All conceived in that odd Euro-aesthetic that we rarely see on our side of the pond. Honestly, I’ve not seen anything like it. It just went on and on, defying description and overloaded your senses.
This went on for about one and one-half until we had a band of motorcycles and then a train of old Volkswagens followed at last by three street sweepers driving abreast. That was the signal of the end of the show.
We did an abrupt 180 and headed into the Rogue Pub for a Guinness and a bit of televised rugby, with Ireland (appropriately) playing in the championship game. The timbre of the game drove the tone of the bar with large shouts going up with each success. Finishing our pints, we decided to head around the block to an open air food market that had been spotted earlier. Vegetables, fruit, pastries, Thai and Middle-eastern, all available for the starving. My choice seemed obvious – Fajitas! I spoke a bit of Spanish with the proprietor discovering that he was from Guadalajara. My attempt to talk about our place in San Carlos resulted in a correction to my Spanish by his Irish wife who explained that my poorly constructed sentence had simply brought the teacher out in her.
Our plan at this point was to head to the Guinness brewery where a festival was underway. It was a long haul punctuated by a stop at the Brazen Head pub, Dublin’s oldest having been first incorporated in 1198. It was mobbed so we moved on.
The brewery was pretty busy, and I decided that additional drinking was of no interest to me so I made my farewells and headed back to the hotel across town. It was now starting to rain.
The bells at Christchurch Cathedral proved a nice backdrop to my walk which was a bit tough as the streets were now crowded with the post-parade revel and people spilling out of pubs to have a cigarette. Young men standing in the alleys drinking 1 liter cans of beer made me think that the joyous tone of the celebration must certainly get uglier as the day winds up into the night. A drunken youth standing in a crosswalk gesturing madly at a car that was exercising its right of way confirmed my prediction. All the windowsills lining the alleyways down to Temple Bar were quickly filling up with empty bottles and cans.
Once again at Grafton, I headed up towards St. Stephen’s Green and my path home. The crowd was oppressive and my progress slow. Garda policemen in bright yellow vests patrolled in groups. Everyone everywhere was flaunting the no public drinking restrictions.
Arriving at the Green, my hope for a quiet walk in the trees was stymied by a locked gate. Instead, I headed down the side towards the hotel. As I came around on the south side, I heard Irish music and went off to investigate. The road was closed off at the end and a large stage was hosting a band of fiddlers, singers and clog dancers. People from the audience were invited up onto the stage to dance with the experts. At a break the crowd was enjoined to sing Happy Birthday to Irene Cunningham whose 23rd birthday was that day, she was one of the fiddlers. I stayed there for a bit and then moved on, taking a route outside my standard just to see some different things. More pubs, more revelers and finally I was at the Grand Canal. My last shot of the day being a dinner barge tied up at the end of Sussex Road.
What a day and what an experience. I would not have missed it for the world and I doubt I’ll ever accidentally have a chance to see it again. Goes to show one more time that the best experiences in life are often unplanned and that in order to have them, you have to be open.