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Behind the St Patrick's Day parade: 'You walk in with tears in your eyes - they are so dedicated'

We spoke to the two women responsible for the St Patrick’s Festival pageants, which will make up part of the parade this year.

Image: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

ST PATRICK’S DAY is about fun, floats, and parades – but it’s also about community spirit.

And as part of this year’s parade during Dublin’s St Patrick’s Festival, that will be crystallised when people representing a range of different cultures come together for two pageants. They’ll have spent months working together to great vibrant, colourful pageants complete with costumes and choreography.

The first group, City Fusion 2017, includes adults from Bolivia, Ireland, Lithuania, and China, to name a few countries. Then there’s Brighter Futures 2017, which involves young people under 18 representing Syria, Brazil and Ireland, for example.

Both pageants will form part of the large St Patrick’s Day parade, which will snake around Dublin city on 17 March.

‘It makes you feel proud’

The festival’s artistic director is Karen Walshe, who explained to TheJournal.ie that City Fusion and Brighter Futures reflect how multicultural and vibrant Irish society is in 2017.

“They are our own in-house pageants for the parade, and they are quite unique compared to the other pageants from around the country,” explained Walshe.

Rather than being formed by stage schools or existing groups, these pageants bring together community groups who didn’t know each other, made up of people from different backgrounds, cultures and socioeconomic experiences.

“It makes people feel really proud when you bring together community groups,” said Walshe.

“For them to have such a focus and for them to have a pride in what they’re working towards, something presented on their national day, it gives them an awful lot of pleasure and enjoyment and fun.

“But also it makes them feel really important. They put a lot of work and dedication into the rehearsal and turning up for fittings and learning their choreographed moves.”

The choreographer they work with is Muirne Bloomer, while the designer is Sabine Dargeant. On the day itself, professional make-up artists and hair stylists will be there to work on the participants, while each costume is specifically tailored to each person.

“Barriers are just broken down and everyone works together,” said Walshe of the process. “It’s a message for the world in where we are today.”

While the groups have been practising since January on a weekly basis, they have all been meet for group rehearsals before the big day itself. It’s a huge thing for the organisers to see all the work come together.

“You walk in nearly with tears in your eyes – they are so dedicated and it’s just gorgeous to see,” said Walshe. “They all come together and the choreographed sections merge into one.”

Ireland you are

The theme of this year’s St Patrick’s Festival, Ireland You Are, was inspired by Stephen James Smith’s poem, which was commissioned for the festival.

Source: St Patrick's Festival/YouTube

With this year’s theme, Walshe said she “wanted to explore Ireland today and how we are a culturally diverse country”.

We wanted to reflect the hardships we have gone through presently and in the past, but also to look at the amazing attributes we have, and the new attributes we have, and the new cultures we have in society today. And how bringing new cultures into the country can make us better, because we’re learning more and we’re diversifying all the time, and we are learning from new people as they are learning from us.

“It’s about unity and it’s about coming together,” she said. “And for me the parade morning and parade day is really about celebrating our Irishness and being really proud. And for a few hours to try and honour the past, but just really feel positive about Ireland today and try and reach out.”

And when you actually shake someone’s hands and spend time with them you realise they are not that different to you…

“It’s celebrating individuality and the collective,” said choreographer Muirne Bloomer. “People from all over the world have always come to Ireland and fed into the culture and then become part of the culture. People have always come here and settled and stayed or visited and their very presence has informed the culture. And so it’s a celebration of that.”

While the adults group’s piece is responding to Smith’s poem and the theme, with Brighter Futures they will be telling the story of Ireland’s pirate queen, Grace O’Malley – so keep an eye out for lots of mini pirates on the day.

The Brighter Futures event is also inspired by the work of the half-Irish surrealist artist Leonora Carrington.

“Her art is very influenced by the mythology of Ireland as well as the mythology of other countries,” explained Bloomer.

‘You don’t understand what it’s like until you do it’

On the day itself, the participants will meet at 7am, get ready and have breakfast, then get bussed to the event itself. “It’s a great buzz and it’s a great atmosphere to walk through the parade,” said Walshe.

“You don’t understand what it’s like until you do it. People can be quite cynical about what it means to people, but when you’re in it and you’re on the route and you see people’s faces in the crowd you realise ‘my God, that means a lot to people’.”

When it came to choreographing the pageants, Bloomer didn’t want to march in and tell people every single move they should do.

While parts of the movement were choreographed in advance, some of it is filtered through the different cultures involved, while groups were encouraged to come up with ideas. This gives them a sense of ownership and ensures “that they are fully invested”, said Bloomer.

“I think of the pageant as storytelling but also a moving tapestry,” said Bloomer, who has worked with the festival for 13 years.

For Walshe, the greater programme for the festival is also indicative of showing how much a richly diverse Ireland has going for it.

She encourages people to attend one of the other events, and to “just take a little bit of time, dig a bit deeper and stop and listen and appreciate what we have on this island right now”.

One of the events she highlights is Young Blood: The Beats and Voices of Our Generation, which will see a range of young Irish musicians performing at the National Concert Hall. It’s being curated by Aoife Woodlock, music producer of Other Voices.

The inspiration for it came from Smith’s poem, which got Walshe thinking about the spoken word movement in Ireland. “Young artists are coming out of the woodwork – young people are writing poetry at the moment and they are expressing their feelings about society and their hardships and challenges,” she said.

For Walshe, who was one of the co-founders of the Dublin Electronic Arts Festival (DEAF) among other ventures, the chance to get a “real melting pot of voices” onto the NCH stage was a big draw.

Although work on the 2017 parade is almost at its conclusion, it doesn’t stop there – Walshe is already looking at things for the 2018 and 2019 festivals.

St Patrick’s Festival runs from 16 – 19 March in Dublin, with a range of events taking place across the four days. For more details, visit the official website.

Read: An Olympic hero will lead Dublin’s St Patrick’s Day parade>

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