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For some it is kitschy and commercialized, for others it is the essence of Irishness: On March 17th Ireland celebrates St. Patrick’s Day with festivals, parades, the wearing of green and a lot of booze – and the entire world joins in the craic.
Text: Franka Leehr
Country: Ireland

or once it is warm and sunny in Ireland. The streets are busy with people chattering and laughing, eating ice cream or simply sitting in the sun and enjoying the atmosphere. You can’t help but be infected with the good mood that seems to prevail everywhere. The smells of grilled meat, curry and fish and chips waft through the air. Street artists have set up their stalls next to face painting booths for children. A juggler on a unicycle performs in front of a group of kids, a Victorian lady with a lace parasol walks on giant stilts through the crowd and wardens with bright uniforms, crooked teeth and big glasses enforce funny laws they make up on the spot, such as walking on the cracks in the pavement without a permit or humming an infectious song. People wear green, white and orange wigs, shamrock shaped sunglasses, leprechaun hats or t-shirts reading “Kiss me! I’m Irish.” It’s St. Patrick’s Day and for one weekend the city centre of Cork has turned into a huge festival to celebrate the patron saint of Ireland who is credited with bringing Christianity to the island in the fifth century.

Celebrations of St. Patrick’s death date on March 17th go back as far as the Early Middle Ages, but never were they as colourful and lively as today. “Up until only a few decades ago it was a very quiet and religious day in Ireland. People would wear the shamrock, but nothing more,” the Corkonian John O’Sullivan recalls. Parading on the occasion of St. Patrick’s Day is a practice that swept over from the United States in the 1970s. Irish emigrants in America, originally mostly members of the British Army, have been using the Feast of Saint Patrick to celebrate their identity and strengthen the bonds with their country of origin since the late 18th century, and to this day the largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the world is still held in New York City. When it comes to enthusiasm for their national day however, the Irish are second to none. The religious origins of the holiday have almost completely faded into the background and now it is all about celebrating Irishness, be it real or not.

But while some consider today’s St. Patrick’s celebrations a lot of paddywhackery and an excuse to get drunk, others see a deeper meaning in it: “St. Patrick’s Day [...] is a day to forget our problems and celebrate the good things in life with our fellow compatriots”, says Damien Keohan who is originally from Dublin and now runs an Irish pub in Santiago de Chile.

And not only the Irish enjoy the holiday. Johanna, a German girl who studies fashion design in Cork, walks through the crowds with a sign advertising free hugs. “Within the first couple of minutes I already gave about 15 hugs”, she recounts happily. “I don’t really understand the concept of celebrating that someone brought Christianity to a country, but I just love the good mood everybody is in and want to spread some happiness myself.” Fionán Cogan and Niamh O’Flynn from the Owenabue Valley Traditional Group have been participating in St. Patrick’s Day events for more than 20 years and also enjoy the interaction with people. With their dance group they perform a traditional Irish céilí for and with the visitors and usually people of all ages and nationalities join in. “You always have great craic,” Niamh explains.

Céilís are an integral part of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, as are traditional Irish music sessions in the local pubs, concerts and street performances, fun fairs and artisan food markets. But the highlight of every Paddy’s Day, as it is sometimes called affectionately, are the parades that take place in more than 100 towns and villages all over Ireland. While in Cork approximately 50,000 people come to watch the up to 3000 performers every year, in Ireland’s capital Dublin about half a million spectators attend the parade, many of which are visitors from overseas. Each parade has a theme, usually based on what is current or what people can connect to. This year Cork celebrates its “Legends” and each of the 50 to 60 groups participating in the parade has their own interpretation of the theme. Mystical creatures such as fairies and phoenixes mingle with famous footballers, musicians or explorers and ancient gods walk next to the Indian heroes Mahatma Ghandi and Mother Theresa. Participants outdo each other with their elaborate costumes and impressive floats and especially the multiculturalism of the parades has increased over time, with most foreign communities in Cork being represented by a group of their own. “When I was a child, St. Patrick’s Day parades were much more tame. They’re so colourful now,” a spectator marvels while Chinese dragons, fire breathers, African drummers, Nepalese dancers and trapeze artists on bright floats pass by.

That the events around St. Patrick’s Day get bigger every year is largely due to the efforts of the Irish government, who recognised the economic potential of the national holiday in the 1990s. In a national and international campaign it aimed to create a festival that showcases the Irish culture, emphasises the skills and achievements of the Irish and transforms the image of the Emerald Isle worldwide – with huge success. St. Patrick’s Day has become one of the most popular tourist events in Ireland and is the national holiday that is celebrated in more countries than any other.

Saint Patrick’s Day around the world

But why is St. Patrick’s Day so popular everywhere? “It’s a celebration of Irishness and the Irish have emigrated all over the world. It’s a way of celebrating their identity,” John O’Sullivan explains, referring to the more than 70 million around the globe who have Irish ancestors. But it is not only in the big centres of the Irish Diaspora, such as North America, Argentina, Great Britain and Australia, that people love Ireland and everything that is Irish. “Irish people are very popular throughout the world. I’ve travelled a lot and the moment you mention you’re from Ireland, you’re automatically greeted with a smile. The country’s neutrality, combined with our general easy-going attitude can relax any situation”, Damien Keohan points out and adds with a wink: “And the fact that copious amounts of alcohol are consumed on the day do no harm to its popularity either, of course.”

Damien and his compatriot John O’Brien run Fiddlers Irish Bar, one of three Irish owned pubs in Santiago de Chile, a city with a relatively small Irish community of only 142 people. Their clientele consists mainly of Chileans, who discovered St. Patrick’s Day for themselves over the past couple of years. “It’s lovely seeing Chileans dressed up in green hats, glasses and T-shirts when they’ve probably never even visited Ireland. The atmosphere in the pub was great”, Damien recalls. “Even in the afternoon we had a few customers who wanted to sneak a quick Guinness in before returning to work after lunch” The masterpiece of their efforts to celebrate this date, however, was outside the pub and loomed majestically over the city, attracting everybody’s attention. For four nights on and around the 17th of March the statue of the Virgin Mary adorning the top of San Cristóbal Hill in Santiago was lit in green. While other cities boasting green monuments on Saint Patrick’s Day participate in the Irish government’s Global Greening Campaign, the illumination of the Virgin Mary statue was a private deal between Fiddlers Irish Bar and the administration of the statue. “We sourced the lights and built special stands for them and went up every night to arrange them. Then up again the next morning to disassemble them!”, Damien describes their efforts.

Considering such infectious enthusiasm for St. Patrick’s Day and all things Irish, can anyone still wonder why once every year the world becomes Irish for one day?

The World goes green on St. Patrick’s Day

Seen from space the world is never as green as on 17th March, when the entire globe seems to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. For the past five years more and more landmarks and monuments on all continents have been lit in green as part of the Global Greening Campaign of Tourism Ireland. Next to the usual participants like the Pyramids of Giza, the Christ Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, the Sydney Opera House, the Table Mountain in Cape Town, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the London Eye and the Citadel in Amman, this year’s additions include the Holmenkollen ski jump in Oslo and the Sleeping Beauty castle at Disneyland in Paris. “The Greenings are emblematic of a relationship that we have built as Ireland with our Diaspora communities and, increasingly, with countries around the world thattake part in the Global Greening out of a spirit of friendship, respect and partnership.”, the Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore declared at the launch of the Global Greening this year. People all over the world identify the green landmarks with St. Patrick’s Day and the small island where it all began. And who knows – maybe next year they will celebrate it there.


St. Patrick’s Day, the day everybody wants to be Irish

On March 17th Ireland celebrates St. Patrick’s Day with festivals, parades, wearing green clothes and a lot of booze – and the entire world joins in the fun. St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and he is credited with bringing Christianity to the island in the fifth century.

St. Patrick’s Day has been celebrated since the Early Middle Ages, but in the past it was not as lively and colourful as it is today. In Ireland it used to be a very quiet and religious holiday. The celebration as it is known today came over from the United States in the 1970s. Irish emigrants in America started celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in the late 18th century as a way to celebrate their identity and strengthen the bonds with their country of origin.

St. Patrick’s Day is now celebrated around the world with parades and other activities. The Irish government promotes the celebration of the holiday and works to have many monuments and landmarks around the world become green for a day.



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Saint Patrick’s Day

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