Several years ago, I served as the Grand Marshal for Seattle's St. Patrick's Day parade. That year, the visiting dignitary was Noel Dempsey, then the Irish minister for communications. Noel explained to me that each St. Patrick's Day, the demand for Irish dignitaries empties their country of politicians as they fan out to festivals around the world, bringing Irish cheer to all corners of the globe.
Some years I celebrate vicariously through my son Andy, who is usually at the heart of the action in Dublin. There he's joined by about a hundred foreign-exchange students, as he leads them on a three-day tour of the festivities through his student-based tour company (www.wsaeurope.com). Like Carnevale in Venice, Easter in Rome and Oktoberfest in Munich, St. Patrick's Day in Dublin is the type of experience where lifelong memories are created.
Dublin's St. Patrick's Day festivities are highlighted by a giant parade. All along the two-mile parade route, revelers sport an assortment of goofy hats and festive face paint. Delicate little sprigs of live shamrock clover are pinned to lapels and hats everywhere.
The parade features a quirky conveyor belt of visual and audio stimuli, including school marching bands, giant puppets spidering along the street on long poles, crosier-staff-bearing St. Patricks in flowing green robes anointing the crowds with mock blessings, and colorful floats blowing Lawrence Welk bubbles and swirls of cloudlike foam into the air. The general public is invited to participate in the parade; this is the only day of the year when anyone can be an honorary Irishman.
The revelry continues long after the parade ends. Bands on outdoor stages churn out lively rhythms laced with fiddle, banjo and flute. Irish dance troupes featuring lasses in short skirts perform a precision swirl of set dancing as locals break into their own ragged impromptu dance steps, locking elbows and kicking up their heels.
With all of the beer-drinking and celebrating going on, it's easy to forget the origins of St. Patrick's Day. March 17 commemorates the day St. Patrick died. A Roman boy enslaved by the Irish, Patrick helped Christianize Ireland peacefully in the fifth century. Legend has it that Patrick used the shamrock, with its three petals on one stem, to explain the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) while converting a pagan Irish king.
As is typical of any day in Ireland — not just St. Paddy's — the real action is in the pubs. Pub is short for public house — an extended living room where, if you don't mind the stickiness, you can feel the pulse of Ireland.
In Dublin, my favorite pub neighborhood is Temple Bar, south of the river. While rundown through most of the 20th century, this revitalized and now-trendy center feels like the social heart of Dublin. It's fun to people-watch here.