Monday, March 20, 2017

Joyous faces in the Galway rain

So what does it mean to be Irish?

And what’s the best way to celebrate on our national holiday?        

Awaiting the parade in the Galway wind and rain

Those questions hit me on a strange St Patrick’s Day this year, when I took in my city’s rain-swept parade, attended the funeral of an old friend’s sister, and somehow managed to survive a night as possibly the only sober person in a crowded Galway pub.

Is the best way to celebrate being Irish to get absolutely hammered, as so many did on our national holiday?

Friends in the service industries tell me they hate to work on this particular day.

The stereotype of the "drunken Irish" has become such a cliche that Amazon even tried to sell an offensive green 'Drunk Lives Matter' t-shirt this year.

In one fell swoop, they managed to insult the entire Irish race and the black people in the United States who have genuine grievances with the racist elements of their country's police.

I've long since given up on hard drinking on March 17, as it can be alarming to walk through Galway city centre in the evening and to see so many drunken "zombies" milling about the place.

And, normally, I'd give the parade a miss if the weather was foul.

But this year there were lessons to be learned from the way thousands of people made the most of atrocious conditions to celebrate our national holiday.

To be honest, like many people, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my native land. For most of my adult life, I have fantasised about leaving the cold and wet island behind in order to live in a place with a warmer, more welcoming climate.

As a young man in London in the late 1980s, I revelled the experience of leaving the confines and constraints of home behind. London offered freedom, wildness, and a multi-cultural environment which seemed alien compared to the confines of ‘Catholic’ Ireland.

Try telling people now that it was impossible to buy a condom or to get a divorce in the Ireland of my youth. That repressive country felt like a different planet from the one that voted for Marriage Equality in May 2015.

A view of the parade
by Turlough Moore
I experienced long breaks in places like Australia, Egypt, Spain and Thailand, and loved the experience of holidaying or scuba diving in hot climates.

I fantasised so much about moving to hot countries, I almost wished my life away.

If you decide in November that you are going to hate the next five months of your life then - guess what! - that invariably becomes your truth.

You don't make any room for joy on a winter's afternoon down by the Salthill prom.

Wanderlust, of course, is part of who we are. I have friends from Galway who are scattered all over the world.

They have made new lives in the US, UK, Australia, Norway, and Thailand, because they never saw their futures back home on the wet and windy rock.

In 2010, during a gap year, I lived out my ‘Bucket List’. A full year away from Ireland brought me unbrldled joy, the chance to live and work in Thailand and Nicaragua, and left me with a real sense of doom and gloom upon my return.

So I have to admit I had one of those dark days of the soul when I opened the curtains on Friday morning. I cursed the dark, grey sky and found myself wishing I hadn’t agreed to cover the Galway St Patrick’s Day Parade for a national newspaper.

It was with dread that I made my way to Eyre Square, wishing I could just close the curtains, put on a fire, and spend the day at home. But work is work, especially for a freelancer!

And there was a valuable lesson to be learned.

All around me were smiling people, making the most of the driving wind and miserable rain. Tourists and locals alike were determined to enjoy themselves, even though the rational side of any human being would say it was no day for an outdoor parade.

It was amazing to see such good humour among the 1,000 poor participants who were soaked to the skin as they approached the end of the parade route.

I didn’t see a single person cry or complain, although a politician joked to me that the Town Crier “must be crying now” with the kind irreverence and good humour us Irish can take for granted at times.

Could you imagine a British MP joking with an English journalist with such informal ‘craic’ in his voice as he sat outside in the cold and rain?

Given our country’s terrible relationship with alcohol – and how downright messy St Patrick’s Night can become – it felt so fitting to me that a young man who has battled alcoholism and addiction was the guest of honour at the Galway parade.

The weather was simply awful, but it was great for me to meet Gavan Hennigan for the first time.

This young man from Knocknacarra rowed solo across the Atlantic earlier this year and showed plenty of good humour as he surveyed the one hour parade from the viewing stand.

“If you can put up with conditions like this, that’s the best training you can get!” joked the extreme athlete in the relentless rain.

“The conditions are pretty tough. It’s as bad as it is out in the middle of the Atlantic, nearly. I think it’s incredible that so many people came out to enjoy the parade today, given the conditions.”

Gavan has been overwhelmed by the welcome he has received in his native Galway since completing his solo row.

What a role model he has become for the children of his native city. Gavan hit rock bottom in his late teens and early 20s, but he has shown us all what can be done with determination and the will to turn his life around.

“I was kind of worried that a lot of people wouldn’t know who I was, but a lot of kids were shouting out my name as I made my way through the city today. Overall, the reception has just been incredible since I got back,” he said.

Following Gavan at the head of the parade were the Galway 2020 activists who secured European Capital of Culture status for the city and the Let’s Get Galway Growing network, whose community-based projects played a key role in securing the prestigious Green Leaf 2017 designation.

There's no rain like Galway rain .... !
The awful weather failed to dampen the spirits of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, the oldest military company in the United States and one of three visiting groups from overseas.

Some of the more colourful floats were provided by representatives of the city’s ethnic communities, including a fantastic red and yellow dragon from the Irish Chinese Society.

The Galway Traveller Movement celebrated their recent designation as a minority ethnic group, while That’s Life Gamelan Players highlighted the wonders of performance theatre for people with special needs.

The most magical moment of the day came when a young man with special needs brought a giant love heart up to the politicians in the viewing platform, and then decided not to share his love with them.

That simple, wild, irreverent gesture prompted a huge ironic cheer.

Representatives of the city’s Filipino, Polish, South African, and Indian communities underlined just how multicultural my city has become, and every one of them seemed to be genuinely thrilled to be representing their communities in the driving rain and near gale-force winds.

I was amazed by the salsa dancers. They revelled in showing off their slick dance moves on the street in conditions which must have been totally off-putting for most of them. And they went through their dance moves with huge, beaming smiles.

There was a special round of applause for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association, who marched behind a banner which proclaimed ‘Love for All, Hatred for None’.

“I haven’t seen the parade in years, because I’ve been away gallivanting on adventures, but the first thing that jumped out at me today was the diversity of the communities here in Galway. It’s great to see it,” Gavan told me afterwards.

It was a relief when the parade ended, I have to admit, and a joy to get home to put on a hot drink and change my clothes.

But it was still so uplifting to see the joy on so many faces on a horrible day in my native Galway, the kind of day which would normally make me fantasise about moving to sunnier climes.

The drunken steretype: one of the more offensive t-shirts
on sale in the USA to mark St Patrick's Day
Each and every one of the 1,000 participants in the parade, and the thousands watching them pass by, taught me a lesson about acceptance.

You can wish your life away, dreaming of beaches and sunnier climes, or you can leave the house with a smile on your face and celebrate the joy each new day can bring.

Attitude is so important and the people in Galway city centre on Friday could teach a cynic a thing or two about making the most of life in horrible conditions.

And that’s how I will remember a joyful St Patrick’s Day, 2017.

The true spirit of the Irish is in the beaming faces who embraced a  communal event despite in the rain, not in the scenes of drunkenness in the crowded pubs hours after the parade had ended.


Earlier blog post: Banned from the land that made us refugees ....

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