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Dublin: 6 °C Tuesday 22 October, 2019
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Nervous energy... and glitter: Behind the scenes of the St Patrick's Day Parade

This year’s parade is three years in the planning. We checked in with one pageant company, as they made their final preparations.

WE PROMISED YOU the sun and you’ll have the sun.

Barry Sheehan of DIT is a whirlwind of energy as he talks the delegation from the Paddy’s Day festival through the college’s entry in this year’s Dublin parade.

But in between his modelling of bonkers-looking headgear and demonstrations of the sea-blue ‘droplet’ costumes to be worn by students on the day, there’s plenty of serious business to discuss.

pattsblue Head of Design in the Dublin School of Creative Arts Barry Sheehan shows off one of the 'droplet' costumes.

Parade Director Spud Murphy (he’s even listed on the official website as Spud) is a stickler for detail, and has some observations on – amongst other things – whether the gloves to be worn by students pushing floats will be hard-wearing enough.

From the festival’s creative director Susanna Lagan there are plenty of questions too: on the detail of how the pageant’s different elements will all work together; on how well-drilled the participants will be ahead of the start of the parade.

Sheehan, who’s overseeing DIT’s pageant, has an answer for everything – and there are as many laughs as there are questions, as the festival team are given a mini-tour of the Grangegorman workshop.

It’s all surprisingly relaxed.

We’d been expecting (hoping for, on some level) scenes of panic and chaos…

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You’ve come a long way… 

DIT’s entry is just one of eight large-scale pageants in the marquee event of the St Patrick’s Festival. From ninja St Patricks to giant smiley Irish mouths, companies from all over the country will have creations on show this year – alongside, of course, marching bands from home and abroad.

It’s a far cry from the one-day Paddy’s Days of old – and to an extent, perhaps, those of us who’ve grown up with the festival and watched its evolution have come to take the updated celebration for granted.

The first festival held over one day and one night took place 20 years ago, in 1996.

And while preparations for the annual celebration used to take around five months, each year’s production now takes around a year-and-a-half to complete.

Imagine If…

With the 1916 centenary celebrations just around the corner there’s an even greater focus on the festival this year.

Not that any of that appears to be weighing particularly heavily on the shoulders of the woman charged with making sure everyone has their ducks (or snakes or fish or… whatever) in a row each 17 March.

Sitting down to talk to TheJournal.ie after her meeting with Sheehan, Susanna Lagan notes that there has, in fact, been a three-year build-up to this year’s main event.

15/3/2014 Patricks Day Parade Preparations A piece from the 2014 'What the Ostrich Sees' float by the Brighter Futures pageant company. Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

Each recent parade has had a particular theme, she explains, working within a wider ‘Imagine If…’ concept: in 2014, it was ‘The Past’; last year ‘The Present’ and in 2016 (you’ve guessed it) ‘The Future’.

The creative team spoke to children from all around the country about their hopes and dreams for the next 100 years as they worked up ideas for tomorrow’s outing.

“Those ideas were used as the inspiration for each of the pageant companies,” Lagan says.

I was, at the beginning, kind-of worried everyone was just going to talk about Mars, but it’s just been really varied…  Kids are so amazing.

sus1 Susanna Lagan of St Patrick's Festival (left) Source: Rollingnews.ie

Giant multi-coloured islands are sailing past Lagan’s head outside the window as she speaks. The DIT students are bringing their floats back into storage for the night, around the back of the complex.

The eight pageant companies have been having their final dress rehearsals in recent days, following on from months of work and regular check-ins with the festival team.

And while the final results will be unveiled in all their vivid glory tomorrow, as we visited the folks at DIT were putting the finishing touches on the myriad fish, birds and space-rockets that will make up their ‘Future is Present’ river-themed display.

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Student Kerry-Anne Ridley is heading up the college’s entry, alongside Sheehan.

DIT had a static piece in the festival, at Dublin Castle, last year but this is their first time in the main event – and Sheehan observes that scale was one of the main factors they needed to prioritise as they worked on ideas for their debut pageant.

Big ideas 

Lagan says that ‘thinking big’ is something all the companies need to keep in mind.

“The parade is such a specific thing…

“The thing about the parade you have to remember is you’ve two major audiences: you’ve half a million people on the street, you’ve the same again on TV.

Scale is so important – and colour: sometimes you would look at something in the studio and think ‘that would have an impact’ – and then you take it onto O’Connell Street where it’s dwarfed by these huge buildings, and thousands and thousands of people wearing green.

17/3/2013 Patricks Day Festivals Parades Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

‘It can be really overwhelming’ 

Maintaining a ‘game face’ is another thing parade performers need to bear in mind, says Lagan. While many of the participants will have had some performing arts experience, there are plenty of newbies too.

“It can be really overwhelming.

There aren’t really many times in your life where you’re going to have so many people looking at you at one time.

“We’re quite aware of that, and we would be saying to the pageant companies who are working with younger groups and school children – we would say make sure they’re of a slightly higher age and that if they’ve done performance before in school that’s great.

“It is very overwhelming – and it’s easy to get kind of shell-shocked in the middle of O’Connell Bridge, and wondering what you’re supposed to be doing.”

GIF2 These 'whirligigs' will have fabric birds and fish flying around attached to them in tomorrow's parade.

Lagan has a checklist as long as her arm to run through before everything’s ready to go.

So are there any horror stories of runaway floats she can share with us before we head off, back into town?

The biggest thing would be like… Somebody might underestimate how incredibly heavy one of their floats would be; it’s only when you’re trying to get it up that very slight incline on Dame Street and up by the Olympia that you’d notice.

Ever the professional, Lagan’s not getting into specifics – but she also alludes to “steering issues” with another float, which meant it had to be retired early, before completing the route.

Nothing more serious than that, thankfully.

All photos and gifs by Daragh Brophy except the ones that aren’t. The Dublin parade starts at noon tomorrow, and will be screened live on RTÉ One. Other parades are also available. 

Read: Sliced bread, crisps, and cufflinks: The gifts that Enda gave the Obamas

Read: St Patrick’s Day Luas strike called off at last minute

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