There is a tendency, when you’re Irish, to take the celebrations of Saint Patrick’s Day for granted – until you spend it somewhere else.

Last year, I was working in London’s Canary Wharf for Saint Patrick’s Day. Looking out the window of a fifteenth floor office, the only break of green in the glass and steel metropolis was some hastily painted inaccurate shamrocks on the windows of an empty pub across the street. With n’er a silly hat in sight, I was never more Irish than I was that day in London, listening to Raglan Road in my cubicle.

Growing up, Saint Patrick’s Day was the day to break Lent and crack open the sweet jar, a day for your granny to cut off a length of emerald green satin ribbon and tie it in your hair, a day to have shamrock replete with a lump of muck pinned about your person, a day to stand on the side of the street and have sweets thrown at you from a tractor-drawn float, a day to attempt a bit of an Irish dance, or to try your hand at an old tune about leaving Ireland and coming home again.

But what does Dublin have to offer on Saint Patrick’s Day these days? When I speak with Susan Kirby, the CEO of the St Patrick’s Festival, she tells me that in Dublin, it is not just a day; it’s a four-day festival with 30 events and over 3,000 artists. So pace yourself.

Ireland’s 2016 Olympic sailing silver medallist Annalise Murphy is to be the grand marshal of the parade but if you look behind the festival’s emerald curtain, it is Susan and her team who are pulling the levers and bringing this huge event together. 100,000 tourists will arrive in Dublin for the day itself, and 500,000 will line the route of the parade.

Twenty years old in 2017, the festival began with “the idea of looking at the parade and the fact that other parades around the world were knocking us out of the water…” A team sat down to devise “a very artistic response…we can do better. It grew to being more than just a parade…”

Now it is an arts festival with large-scale participatory events like the parade itself, the huge céilí, the Big Day Out street carnival on Merrion Square, and the Treasure Hunt, alongside smaller cultural events all over the city. “It’s really about getting the sense – from the moment you land here or knock off work on Thursday – that this is a real city en fête.”

to show Dublin for all it has to offer, not just the city

As well as expanding the programme so that “there’s something for everyone from 8 to 80”, they have also extended the “footprint” of the festival to move it beyond the reach of the city centre. Working with Fingal County Council, the Festival will feature open air cinemas in Swords Castle and Blanchardstown, and a free ‘Insta-Rail’ mystery tour to a Dublin coastal town, “to show Dublin for all it has to offer, not just the city.” Howth’s Dublin Bay Prawn Festival has even been moved to the festival weekend.

Artists in pageant companies all over Ireland will respond to a theme of ‘Ireland You Are.’ After 2016’s year of reflection on Ireland’s past, “we were very much imagining the future”, Susan says. “We worked with a lot of children around Ireland asking them who they aspired to be in the next hundred years…”

20,000 DIT students answered a call for ideas on what Ireland is to them, “so we’ve everything from tribal mythology to this really kind of future-looking pageant from DIT students.”

The festival is a highly accessible cultural experience. “Almost all of our events are free. A lot of what we do is on the street.” And the festival’s outreach and education community programmes ensure that “people who live around where the parade is, literally we’re walking past their door, to have them in the parade…different backgrounds, different nationalities, all different reasons for coming together.” The Deaf Community, the Irish Wheelchair Association, The Refugee Council all play a role.

The Irish language programme features a ‘Pop Up Gaeltacht’ around Dame Street, and a number of events, like the Treasure Hunt, can be done as gaeilge. If the parade itself, with its flasks of tea and finding a decent viewing spot and the giddiness of small children wanting up on your shoulders, is not for you, there are other ways to engage with the day.

In Smock Alley’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, broadcaster Donal Dineen, novelist Julian Gough and historian Mike Cronin will be among the speakers dealing with cultural and national issues of the day. In the National Concert Hall, ‘Young Blood: The Beats and Voices of Our Generation” will feature celebrated spoken word artists like Emmet Kirwan and Felispeaks.

Spoken-word artist Stephen James Smith will perform his epic poem ‘My Ireland’, which has had almost 250,0000 views on Facebook. Saint Patrick’s Cathedral will house ‘Music for 18 Machines’ taking “an ancient iconic cathedral and putting in an electronica and lighting gig there.”
In the Liberties, huge projections of images of Dublin’s rich social history, taken from the Guinness archives, will line the surrounding streets.

With this festival, “Ireland welcomes the world to Dublin for four great days. It’s an invitation to the world to join us or connect with us on the broadcast.” Susan says. And with that, she rushes off to make her annual purchase of a new green coat for the parade.

It is only going through the festival brochure afterwards, that I see that my cousin, and champion Irish dancer, Dearbhla Lennon, is hosting the big céilí on Earlsfort Terrace on the eve of the big day. She has done for over five years. I give her a call to ask her about it. “What you find is people tend to stumble upon it and have the time of their lives. There’s something about dancing that releases some sort of endorphins in your brain and makes you feel really good…especially when you don’t know how to dance. There’s zero pressure. It’s just jumping up and down and having a laugh and the music is always really good. You’ll never see the people you’re dancing with again. It doesn’t matter if you make an eejit of yourself. From my vantage point on the stage, when I look out, all I ever see is a lot of smiles.”

For a full list of events across St Patrick’s Festival, see www.stpatricksfestival.ie

Catherine Conroy is a Dublin writer, regularly contributing to The Irish Times, and dabbling in fiction in The Dublin Review. Her novel continues to wait patiently in a drawer.

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