There is a tingle of something in the air. It makes your toes feel like wiggling and the corners of your mouth turn up involuntarily. It’s Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland. As you can imagine, March 17th is an exciting time to be in Ireland. The shops are carrying fun and crazy supplies for Saint Patrick’s Day festivities. Here, it is celebrated like July 4th is in the States, a family holiday. Sure, some people drink or go to bars, but the big focus in Cork City is the parade! The streets are lined with people, cheering and eating food. It is a holiday with an amazing atmosphere. The day warrants a complete shut-down. Banks are dark, smaller shops close their doors, and schools shut their books for the occasion.
Our first year here we were warned it wouldn’t be much of anything because our Irish friends had seen television coverage of the festivities in New York City and Chicago. But they were forgetting that this was Ireland, just being here made it special. That first March 17th that we were living in Cork and those we’ve enjoyed since tend to follow the same pattern. We sleep late and eat breakfast then go out to explore the festival and scout out a vantage point along the parade route which happens to within a half-block of where we live. We have yet to find a place to see the parade because the sidewalks get crowded early.
Each year, the parade is filled with the best musicians, dancers, local celebrities and athletes. Military or police pipers often being the biggest draw along with Cork’s hurling or Gaelic football team. It is a family affair from start to finish.
There is a food fair and other fun delights along The Grand Parade. Again, fun for the whole family. This isn’t the excessive drinking that you may see in NYC. This is definitely like Fourth of July for me but with different colors and music.
Don’t miss out on Man of Aran’s Bannoffe Fudge. I’m serious.
We learned that just walking one block off the parade route meant not battling crowds (like go up a lane or Washington Street to South Main Street or Paul Street or Oliver Plunkett) for a calmer stroll.
The parade’s path includes Saint Patrick’s Street, or Pana as locals call it. Pana has been a hub of commerce and culture since the late 1700s. At that time, it was a channel of the Lee River that was filled in to create a street and corresponding bridge to connect the city centre island to the north side of the city. Much like the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C., Cork City expanded as it took over river-side marshland. Pana is lined with shops and known to be the second most expensive piece of real estate in Ireland.
Without a place to watch the parade, we’ve started our own tradition to find a local pub or restaurant near the route and enjoy a good meal and a bit of craic (the Irish term for fun). Inevitably, we run into friends because though Cork is the second-largest city in the Republic, it is really just a small town with big buildings and a population to match. One year, we ended up in a place that had Irish dancing on the actual bar!
Though the pints are flowing on March 17th, food and entertainment rival drinking for popularity. There is a mini festival for the weekend of the holiday with food, live music (not just traditional Irish stuff either), dancing, storytellers, and street vendors. Barry’s Tea, a local company with an international following, has a cute caravan from which they serve free hot cups of tea.
The important thing, no matter where we end up on St. Patrick’s Day, is to enjoy the lively atmosphere. It is one of the few times of the year that no matter the weather almost everyone is in good spirits and all the tourists blend with locals to celebrate the life and work of the man who brought Christianity to Ireland.
And if you’re not much for crowds or parades, just find a nice little spot to have a drink or a bite to eat. This worked well for my Mom and I two years ago because she has mobility issues and couldn’t manage the sidewalk crowds so we just ducked into Cornstore for a bite. She still remembers teaching the bartender how to make American iced tea. After her Bulmer’s, of course.
Untrue myths about St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland:
1. Everyone drinks and gets blind drunk.
People who like to drink will always look for an excuse to celebrate with a few pints.
2. You get pinched if you’re not wearing green.
No one notices if you’re not wearing green. Kids usually wear something fun or green. Tourists always do. It’s really a personal choice. TODAY, however, more people will wear green because we play England in Six Nations Rugby so must support the lads by wearing Ireland jerseys.
3. Pubs are packed.
Not exactly. The pubs are fairly quiet until the parade ends then families, friends, and just about anyone who isn’t ready to leave town trickles into the pubs and cafes for a drink (not necessarily beer or whiskey) or a bite to eat. It can be tough to get a table after the parade for this reason. But the pub itself is not a destination for St. Patrick’s Day in larger cities and towns that host parades or festivals. Later on, especially during the match today, the pubs will be crowded.