Tuesday 28 April 2015

When the whole world dresses up in green

We're not alone in our love of St Patrick, writes John Costello

John Costello

Published 18/03/2014 | 02:30

Some lay claim to being the coldest and oldest, while others can boast about being the weirdest and wackiest. But while many of the world's more 'unique' St Patrick Day celebrations kick off around the globe, there is only one that claims to be the shortest off them all.

Indeed, with a parade route that stretches a mere 98ft, the residents of Hot Springs, Arkansas, obviously believe the best of goods come in small packages, at least when it comes to March 17.

"When we started the parade 11 years ago, we didn't know if anyone would turn up," says Steve Arrison, one of the event's organisers. "We got 4,000 that day and this year we are expecting 30,000.

"We have Elvis impersonators, Irish wolfhounds, Irish belly dancers and lots of leprechauns," says Steve. "We even have a man who made a motorised toilet that is all decorated in green who takes part every year! Everyone gets into the spirit of it."

However, while they may have the shortest, this small city makes room not just for one but two parades to celebrate Ireland's national day.

"This will be our 15th year and it has got bigger and bigger every year," says Mary Rose O'Donovan Fansler, who moved from Cork in the early '90s to work in a local hospital in Arkansas. "There is quite a significant Irish community here and it is a chance for all of us to celebrate."

Mary Rose, whose accent has remained unchanged over the years, works in a local hospital but her role as an Irish dancing instructor comes to the fore during the celebrations organised by the Irish Cultural Society of Arkansas.

"All the students take part in the parade and at the end we clear the stage and put on a show," she says. "Many of the dancers are from an Irish background, but we have one from India who just fell in love with it."

Like most Irish living away, however, the day does have a tinge of bittersweet about it.

"It makes you a little sad as you miss your family back in Ireland," says Mary Rose.

"But the parade is very similar to what we would have had back in Ireland so brings back good memories and helps develop the culture here." And there is another silver lining – "It will be a sunny 67 degrees (20 degrees Celsius) for the parade," says Mary Rose.

The same cannot be said for one of the world's oldest and coldest St Patrick's Day parades.

While Canada's Montreal is known for its French culture, the city's parade has been held annually without interruption since 1824, despite temperatures dipping to a bracing -10 degrees and below.

"We will have over 250,000 people lining the streets, so it is one of the largest parades, and not just St Patrick's Day parades, in the world," says Kevin Murphy, a spokesperson of the United Irish Societies of Montreal, which organises the event.

But while the Irish began to arrive in large numbers to Canada over a century and a half ago, the connection is getting stronger as newly arrived immigrants join in the celebrations.

"I arrived in 2009 after meeting a Canadian girl back home," says Larry Greene from Galway, who works as a video game tester. "I am involved in the local GAA club, the Montreal Shamrocks, and every year we get an influx of about 10 new people.

Each year we get together and march in the parade. We are not only representing our GAA club but we also feel as if we are representing Ireland. In Montreal they have such a heavy winter that St Patrick's Day is a sign spring is coming so people make a real effort to get out. There is a real buzz in the city."

But while the French-speaking Montreal's Irish heritage may be somewhat surprising, Japan's love affair with our Emerald Isle seems even stranger. "The first parade began 22 years ago in Tokyo and now there are 12 parades here," says Howard Barr, who is originally from Dublin.

"Irish traditional music is very popular here and Ireland is a big holiday destination for Japanese people, especially for newlyweds. The Japanese just seem to have a real love for Ireland."

And when it comes to foreigners celebrating their national day, it seems the Irish get preferential treatment.

"The biggest parade takes place in a really fashionable, trendy area of Tokyo," says Howard, who moved to Japan in the early '80s. The parade provides a focal point for the Irish community of about 3,000 living in Japan. But while the Irish obviously know how to party, how have the locals taken to the celebrations?

"They certainly go the whole hog when it comes celebrating it," says Howard. "You have people dying their hair green and dressing up in leprechaun suits. It's the Japanese way to do things 100pc."

But if you think Japanese leprechauns are just about as weird and wonderful as St Patrick's Day gets, you have never been to Copenhagen on March 17.

It may not have a parade to mark the day but the Danish city probably celebrates our national saint in the strangest way of all.

"We wanted to create something unique so we came up with the idea for a three-legged race back in 2001," says Siobhán Kelleher, who lives in Copenhagen with her Danish partner Martin.

"This is now the focal point for the Irish community here. It is great when you are living away from home how the Irish spirit brings Irish people together on St Patrick's Day. It is about supporting each other."

Last year's event raised €57,000 for charity and after running for well over a decade in Denmark, Siobhán and the event organisers are looking to bring the event to other cities. "And after raising so much money for charity over the years, there is little doubt St Patrick would approve."

Irish Independent

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