This time last week I had the great privilege of taking part in the St Patrick's Day parade through the streets of Dublin.
Now, if there's one place in the world where people know how to celebrate Paddy's Day it is Ireland's capital city. While the notion of a parade was actually invented by the Americans (the first recorded St. Patrick's Day parade was held on March 18, 1737 in Boston, the first one on Irish soil was 1931), it only seems right and natural that the best place to gain an authentic experience on March 17 is in the country that regards St Patrick as its patron saint.
How I got to take part in this event is kind of surreal. Even now, seven days on, I'm still scratching my head and wondering if it really happened. Perhaps it was just some kind of odd dream.
As a professional journalist, I've gone on overnight trips to interview people or cover events outside of London. But in 12 years of working for specialist newspapers and magazines here in the UK, I've never gone on a fully blown "press trip" in which you are wined and dined by a particular organisation for several days, put up in a very nice hotel and given free access to events and venues you'd normally pay through the nose to attend.
Ironically, having forsaken my job as a magazine editor last November to enjoy a bit of a "career break", it was my role as a blogger that provided me with an opportunity to visit Dublin on a three-day press trip as a guest of Tourism Ireland.
As you will no doubt know, Ireland's going through a rough patch right now. Thanks to the 2008 banking crisis the Celtic Tiger has crumbled and the country is in the grip of a major recession. The Republic was controversially bailed out by the International Monetary Fund, but the money loaned needs to be paid back at extortionate interest rates.There's a very real fear that Ireland will never recover financially.
According to this article in The Telegraph, Ireland has the highest level of household debt relative to disposable income in the developed world at 190 per cent, while the Lincoln Tribune reports that up to 100,000 people will emigrate by April 2012, worse than the previous record of 40,000 during the recession in the late 1980s.
Tourism, therefore, is seen as one way of helping to drive the economy. Encourage people from around the world to visit Ireland, and they'll spend their money, which, in turn, keeps people in jobs and helps businesses grow and thrive. And, let's face it, the country has so much to offer in terms of culture and scenery, it's hard not to view it as a wonderful destination regardless of the current economic crisis.
Fáilte Ireland (National Tourism Development Agency), which is also known in various guises around the world as Tourism Ireland or Discover Ireland, went all out this year to invite an international contingent of media -- print journalists, broadcasters, photographers, bloggers -- to the St Patrick's Festival in order to showcase the parade, the city of Dublin and Ireland as a whole to the world.
My invite came because much of the festival's activities had a literary theme. That's largely due to Dublin being named a UNESCO City of Literature last July.
It seemed fitting, therefore, for all the media covering the parade to meet up at the Dublin Writers Museum on the morning of March 17. We were given a shamrock "corsage" to wear and got to mill around the venue, before being briefed by the organisers.
We were also taken on a behind-the-scenes tour of the parade preparations nearby. This provided lots of great photographic opportunities, especially from the children taking part who loved mugging for the camera and striking poses.
We got treated to a delicious breakfast, complete with a flambéed Irish coffee-making demonstration (yes, I drank one, even if it was 11 in the morning!), before we boarded a specially designated open-top double-decker bus. Now, this is the truly surreal part, because the bus, with 30 or so media representatives on board, got to lead the parade.
So, there we were, all wearing silly hats (did I mention the hats? the ones our tourism hosts handed out? mine was adorned in bells, a bit like a jester's, so that every time I moved my head I thought I had tinnitus), sitting on the bus and going down O'Connell Street, waving to everyone and having our photographs taken.
We had our very own MC on board, who, shamefully, I didn't know, but have since clocked he's a rather famous RTE television presenter and former boy band member, hence the constant screams coming to us from teenage girls in the crowd.
It was a rather awesome experience, going down the main thoroughfare and being greeted like superstars. I have never seen so much green in my life. It was a sea of green hats and green outfits stretching the length and breadth of O'Connell Street. Some people had dyed their hair green, others had painted shamrocks on their faces, many were waving tricolour flags.
Vantage points were important. Along with the crowds of people lining the route, there were others hanging out of upper-floor windows or perched on statues or street signs.
I loved seeing all the children lined up -- some of them would have been waiting for hours, and as the first "float" in the parade we received a really enthusiastic welcome -- smiling and waving and brimming with joy. And, to be honest, that's the best word I can think of to sum up the whole experience: joyful.
By the time we'd traversed the first mile-and-a-half of the parade route my cheekbones were hurting from smiling so much. And I had a sore arm from waving.
After alighting from our moving bus, we got to sit in a stationery media bus in a prime viewing location. This allowed us to watch the rest of the parade as it passed us by and take as many photographs as we wanted. There was wifi on board, which meant we could tweet or blog the experience, but sadly my BlackBerry wasn't much up for the job. (Mental note, buy an iPhone.)
As I mentioned in a previous post, the parade's theme was based on a short story, called Brilliant!, written by Roddy Doyle especially for the day. (Note, you can download it from his official website for free.) It's a child-like tale about Dublin losing its funny bone and being haunted by the black dog of depression, but ends on an optimistic, upbeat note.
Each of the eight chapters was interpreted by different groups, although dogs and bones seemed a common theme in many of the "floats" and "presentations". The ingenuity, creativity and time that must have gone into them all was phenomenal, and it was so clear that many of them had really thought about the story and done their all to bring it to life in a way that must have truly excited and impressed the man who conjured it all up out of his imagination.
I took more than 100 photographs during the parade, but have edited them down to a more manageable 60-plus, which you can view in the slideshow below. Alternatively, you can view the gallery in a bigger format on my SmugMug page. Enjoy!
Just to prove I was there, and to satisfy the curious who asked for photographic evidence, I have now tracked down a picture of Yours Truly onboard the bus. Note the tri-colour jester's hat!