Friday 23 June 2017

PROGRAMME OF THE WEEK: St Patrick’s Festival Parade

Thursday, RTE1, 12.30pm

Paul Whitington

One might have expected a slightly muted St Patrick's Festival this year, what with the times that we are in, but the lavish plans for the Dublin parade contain not a suggestion of sackcloth or ashes.

On the contrary, this year's cavalcade of dancers and puppets will be themed around a new short story by the city's unofficial laureate, Roddy Doyle. 'Brilliant' is an uplifting tale about banishing the black dog of depression that's been hanging over the city for at least two years now, and re-discovering our collective sense of humour. It's a challenge.

In this year's parade, the country's pageant companies will interpret different aspects of Doyle's story, which will hopefully inspire the odd delicate flicker of hope. World boxing champion Katie Taylor will lead the parade as Grand Marshal, and as usual there will be plenty of contributions from abroad, especially America.

The Patrick's Festival will continue in Dublin and around the country until Monday, and on Saturday RTE1 will screen coverage of this year's Skyfest, with Sile Seoige presenting a round-up of all the festival's events on Monday.

Festivals and themed parades seem a far cry from the Patrick's Days of my youth. In the 1970s, the Paddy's Day parade seemed more like some sort of forced march towards Siberia than anything approaching the festive.

Like most kids, we were made go out of some twisted notion of patriotic duty, and stood there with sprigs of wilted shamrock in our lapels watching the disconsolate procession through a haze of perma-drizzle.

The costumes weren't fancy in those days. The only companies that could afford to take part were long-established Dublin firms such as Guinness and Jacobs, who disguised flat-back lorries as carnival floats on which brightly decorated volunteers danced about uncertainly. I remember one year looking into the eyes of a young woman disguised as a cream cracker and seeing despair.

Then there were the Americans, God bless them, who added a much-needed dash of colour with their marching bands and majorettes. In those days, their golden skin and perfect teeth marked them out as exotic creatures from another planet, though one felt for the majorettes who turned out insufficiently dressed for an Irish March. We admired those visiting Yanks almost as much as we resented them.

There was something pure and quintessentially Irish about the parade in the 1970s -- it wasn't very good and it went on forever, like some sort of national civic penance.

All that changed in the 1990s, when the dreaded 'craic' entered the equation. The idea of a 'Patrick's Festival' was dreamt up in the mid-1990s, and the first festival was held in Dublin in 1996.

By the year 2000 it was a four-day event, and in 2006 it was extended to five, including gigs, parades and a spectacular fireworks display in Dublin's docklands. In fairness, it's extremely well organised, and in 2009 it's estimated that almost a million visitors flooded into Ireland for the event.

We can expect a more modest stream of tourists this year, but perhaps it's us who need to be celebrating our Irishness and bucking ourselves up.

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