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Irish and non-Irish revel in People’s Parade

Compass

This is the second of a two-part series on Neal Pollack's visit to Dublin, Ireland, during St. Patrick's Day festivities. The first part covered a visit to the Guinness Storehouse.

The sleet fell wet and cold that St. Patrick’s Day morning. Hundreds of us stood on the streets of Dublin, flanked on either side by restored brick Georgian homes. We lined up six abreast, keeping our eye on the bright-pink sign bobbing in front of us. In front of me was a beefy American rugby team wearing mustard-and-tan jackets, clearly not men to be messed with. Behind were a dozen Poles, draped in vinyl that bore images of the most recent Euro Cup, which had been hosted by Poland and the Ukraine for the first time in 2012. As the day progressed, they would extend their arms, which were augmented by small-p poles, and flap around making noise while people took their pictures.

“So who won the Euro Cup this year?” I asked one of them.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Spain, maybe? None of us really follow soccer.”

A great whooping went up. We were walking! The whoop quickly turned to a moan. We didn’t walk very far, only about half a block, as the thousands of people in front of us emptied slowly onto Dublin’s main thoroughfares. Again we stopped, our feet damp, our bones chilled.

“Streaker!” someone shouted.

To our left, in an upper window, stood a man, jiggling his Irish pride for all to see.

The People’s Parade had been joined.

*****

These have been tough years for Ireland. The roar of the Celtic Tiger, the great boom that was supposed to at last lift up the Emerald Isle from eons of misery, has become a faint echo of forgotten dreams. In its place sit empty buildings, massive bank debt, and a population that, once again, is leaving. Everyone I talked to in Ireland seemed to be longing for better times and better places. The guy who gave me a tour of the Guinness Storehouse, in a brief moment of candor, wistfully talked about all his mates who had gone to Australia to find work. Another guy said, “Everyone I fooking know has moved to Canada.” A bookstore clerk said, “Woe is us.” Sad to say, they must be on their way.

Only tourism stands between Ireland and eternal ruin. Fortunately, it’s one of the most charming places on Earth, and people still like to visit, nearly 920,000 from North America alone in 2011, according to the Irish Tourist Board. But that’s not enough in a country where every other home, it seems, is a B&B. This year, the Tourist Board is making a huge push, which they’re calling The Gathering. While the name sounds a bit like a horror anthology show on Fox, The Gathering is serious business. Ireland is calling the tribe home.

This is the year for clan meetings, professional alumni reunions, and get-togethers of all sorts for clubs, associations, and interest groups. If there’s an Irish connection, they’ll be Gathering this year, and Ireland will be welcoming them with all the considerable warmth and hospitality it can muster. The signal has gone out.

The St. Patrick’s Day Dublin “People’s Parade,” held this year for the first time, was the first major push for The Gathering. More than 6,000 people from all over the world came to Dublin to march through its streets. Even though half of them appeared to be Spanish teenagers with no particular Irish connection, turning the whole affair into a kind of chilly Ibiza, it was certainly fun.

Everyone was wearing fake wigs that make it look like they had leprechaun hair. Girls had shamrocks painted on their cheeks and guys wandered around drinking beer, wearing skirts and fake boobs. There was drumming and samba dancing. From the upper stories of cheap tourist hotels, cheap tourists showed us their bras. As we stopped on one block, we all beheld a swarthy-looking guy standing on his balcony wearing nothing but boxer briefs and a big stupid green stovepipe hat. We had nothing better to do, so we all took pictures of him drinking beer and smoking weed.

At last, we marched, magnificently, down St. James Street, through Dublin’s financial center, past Trinity College, Christchurch, Dublin Castle, and The Gate Theater. The precipitation stopped. Though the sky remained as gray as an Aran Islands sheep herd, it appeared that the day was smiling on Ireland’s first People’s Parade. The streets were thronged with cheerers. Many of them appeared to be Chinese tourists, but there were plenty of actual Irish people as well. Children waved flags and everyone rooted for The Gathering, an international Irish minstrel show come to their country to save it from the financial abyss.

We passed by a group of ladies who appeared to be in their mid-70s, or, given the notorious harshness of Irish life, perhaps in their mid-30s.

“I want to shamrock you,” one of them said as I passed.

I stopped.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“I want to shamrock you.”

It was the best offer I received all day. Regretfully, I didn’t get her phone number.

After 45 soul-lifting minutes, we were directed off the parade route onto a double-decker media bus, which was cold and wet but private, offering relief from the teeming throngs. The rest of The Gathering continued to walk through the streets of Dublin, dancing their dances. Then came the official parade, which was delightfully low-tech and bizarre, a mix of charmingly homemade papier-mache monsters and steampunk tributes.

One float, which seemed to go on forever, paid tribute to an Irishman who’d traveled with the ill-fated Shackelton Antarctic expedition, another centered around a giant inflatable sweater, and another featured, as its main attraction, a glass-enclosed person in a giant baboon costume, who was holding a microphone but didn’t appear to be singing. To add to the surrealism, in between every cheeky float, an American marching band would appear, from irony-free places like Purdue University or a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, high school. This was followed by more anthropomorphic dry-humping, a cheeky reminder from the Irish not to take ourselves, or Paddy’s Day, too seriously.

Everyone on the media bus seemed to think that The Gathering was going quite well.

“We’re making our way back,” said a confident woman from the Tourist Board.

The bus driver said, “There are two types of people who came here today. Those who are Irish, and those who are pretending to be Irish.”

*****

For the rest of the day, I wandered the streets of Dublin like a cut-rate Leopold Bloom, watching people get drunker and drunker. There was beer, and Irish rock bands, and sausages, and then more beer. When I looked up, it was 10:30 p.m. and guys, some Irish but most not, were kicking over trash cans and shoving one another around in bars. The Gathering had become The Unraveling.

Still, I wanted one more music set before I called the night. People and cars poured through the streets, honking and bleating. As I walked along, a cab pulled alongside me. An Irish girl leaned out the window. If she was 21, then I was her uncle.

“I like your scarf!” she shouted.

“Thanks!” I said. “Do you want to touch it?”

“No,” she said. “I’m hungry. Have you got any ham sandwiches?”

“I do not,” I said.

She scrunched her mouth sourly.

“Well,” she said. “What good are ya, then?”

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