I've been lucky enough to visit Ireland multiple times over the years. One of those visits included a very memorable St. Patrick's Day in Dublin. From the parade to the pubs, from parties to street brawls, it was a remarkable day that allowed the best and the worst of people to shine.
St. Patrick's Day, officially, is a cultural and religious celebration held on 17 March, the traditional death date of Saint Patrick, the foremost patron saint of Ireland. It has, however, evolved into a celebration of Irish culture with parades, special foods, music, dancing, drinking and a whole lot of green. It's estimated that 750,000 people visit Dublin for the celebrations.
I arrived the night before St. Patrick's Day and went for a walk before giving in to travel fatigue and bed. It was a chilly night and I was struck by the number of young people willing to stand in a 2 block-long line for every bar we passed. The young women didn't seem to have coats. The young men were a little more sensibly dressed, considering the chill in the air. It was clear from the loud chatter and general high spirits that those in line were greatly anticipating the holiday.
The next morning we were up early to walk along the Grand Canal towards the parade. The parade wasn't scheduled to begin for an hour, so we felt we had plenty of time to arrive and secure a good viewing spot. It was fairly quiet and we didn't pass many people along the route. But getting closer to the parade area, the streets were busier, and busier, and busier. It soon became clear that getting near the parade route was going to be a challenge.
There are always lots of cheap crappy tourist stuff at these kinds of events. Every kiosk and store was full of items of dubious quality. It seems to be required that one is festooned in green and orange. By noon, everyone was wearing something festive, including me!
The parade begins about 10 o'clock. We knew there was a parade behind that crowd so we decided to get closer. What a foolish idea. That led to us getting crushed while crossing a bridge. It was seriously terrifying as the crowd kept pushing from either side of the bridge and those of us in the middle couldn't move. Even worse, I couldn't see anything except people's backs and chests. I was rescued by a determined young man who grabbed me & his lovely lady, tucked us under one shoulder and used some pretty impressive skills to get us to safety whilst opening a pathway for others to follow in his wake. As our little human train burst through on the other side, literally gasping for air, he disappeared into the crowd, waving off all gratitude.
Some people had a magnificent view! This is the way to watch and the only way I will attempt to watch a Dublin St. Paddy's Day parade in the future, although I suspect I don't meet the age requirements for this balcony!
There was a stunning array of choices in "Paddy's Day" street fashion including this fellow who claimed to be a leprechaun... just don't expect him to tell you where his pot of gold is hidden.
As the parade ends, all those people start moving out across the city. Some are heading to pubs, restaurants, and parties; some heading for family events organized at various venues around the city, and others are off to see some of the tourist sites. We decided to do the tourist thing and walk along the River Liffey.
The Temple Bar is the party area of Dublin. Families tend to steer clear of this area every day but especially on St. Paddy's Day. The lineups are huge. Waits are estimated to be several hours long by midmorning. For most revellers, once a seat is secured, they plan to stay. Expect to see many very drunk, very loud people of all ages having a riotously good time. I found most were quite amiable. There were also some loud, obviously drunken confrontations in the streets. The presence of plenty of Gardas (police) kept things more or less controlled, at least during the daytime hours.
Locals warned of "surge pricing" in this area and advised us that the best experiences would be elsewhere. Temple Bar on St. Patrick's Day is definitely a "hurtin' place". For many, this is very appealing. Not so much for me. We chose to leave this area of Dublin for exploration on a different day. We continued our wanderings until we got to the site of the original Jameson distillery where Jameson Irish Whiskey was distilled until 1971.
As we arrived near the site, things were calmer. There were still crowds but less frantic partying. Crowds were generally sober and enjoying their day off from work. When we arrived we enjoyed a warming Irish coffee before joining a tour to learn all about the Jameson distillery and the process of making whiskey. We learned about how grain was spread on perforated floors with fires built on the floor below to dry without burning. After fermenting and some other mysterious things, whiskey is then distilled. Visitors can see the gleaming original copper stills used by Jameson.
Irish whiskey (with an "e") is triple distilled and then placed in port or sherry barrels for ageing. For comparison, Scotch is double distilled, and bourbon is single-distilled.
The barrels are an important part of the recipe. 12-year-old whiskey is not simply whiskey that has been in the barrels twice as long as 6-year-old whiskey. There is also a completely different mix of barrels and recipes.
Up until this point, I had only ever tasted really peaty whiskeys and was very surprised to discover that the differences between different whiskeys are significant. This was the beginning of my whiskey education, which would be supplemented by visits to many Irish and Scottish distilleries in future years.
There was still enough time to do another activity so we chose to visit Kilmainham Gaol, the notorious Dublin prison which first opened in 1796 and was closed in 1920s. The gaol housed and hanged many political prisoners, both men and women, over the years. It plays a significant role in the history of the Irish struggles for independence. A tour takes visitors through several different stages of the gaol's history and includes visits to the cell blocks and the hanging areas. Excellent narration provides a thorough overview of the prisoners, the conditions, and the connections to Irish history.
The sun was beginning to set and the daytime crowd was being replaced by a more enthusiastic party crowd. We had not made any previous arrangements and the thought of lining up for hours to get a drink or meal was thoroughly unappealing to the "mature" travellers. The 20-somethings, however, were not daunted and we headed in separate directions.
Fish & Chips for Dinner
As we were trying to figure out what food we had at the AirBnb, we were thrilled that our meanderings back through The Temple Bar took us past the Leo Burdock Fish & Chip shop. This was immediately appealing. A serving consisted of a huge slab of fish on top of a pile of lukewarm pale chips. It wasn't impressive but it was filling and someone else cooked it.
We had been out wandering all day and as the sun set and the night chill set in, we were done, and left the streets to the increasingly drunken crowds.
I'm not a huge fan of large crowds and drunken revelry, but I'm glad I experienced St. Paddy's Day in Dublin. I wouldn't deliberately organize a trip to Dublin to include St. Patrick's Day in the future without having reservations for parade viewing and dinner. My advice to those who wish to experience this is to do some careful planning, get your green swag, and be prepared for a loud and crowded day full of line-ups and public drinking.