On Friday, while all eyes will be on cities such as Dublin and New York for their St. Patrick’s Day parades, the true spirit of the occasion will be found in towns and villages around Ireland when local parades of various sizes take place.

These events are a way for communities to come together and celebrate their heritage and culture, have some fun, and continue a tradition dating back decades. 

While much of the media attention at home will focus on politicians leaving the country to sell “Ireland, Inc.” the reality is that it is the homespun festivals and events that will bring people from far and near onto the streets and drive visitor numbers and spending.

The day will be the culmination of months of planning and organizing, done mainly by voluntary committees, with inputs from local council officials, gardaí, and tourism interests. 

This year, I became involved in an arts organization whose input into the parade was to create giant puppets for community groups to carry in my hometown of Drogheda. The story of this town’s parade reflects the experiences of communities around the country. 

A parade committee consisting of individuals from various backgrounds and interests was established, led by local businesswoman Sarah Taaffe. It’s a template followed in towns around the state, with the input of the business community extremely important. 

This voluntary committee first met in early September of last year, and their first task was to set the theme for the parade. The mythology of Ireland was selected as it dovetailed nicely with a new urban art trail consisting of a series of six murals throughout the town that focuses on key figures and moments from our Celtic mythological past.

While Greek mythological figures such as Pegasus, Zeus, and Hades are well known, the same cannot be said about our own Dagda, leader of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Étaín the heroine of Tochmarc Étaíne, an early text of the Irish Mythological Cycle, and Morrigan the Triple Goddess, with shapeshifting powers.

It’s such a rich vein of stories of powerful gods and goddesses, heroic warriors, and tragic love stories that deserve to be told whether by word of mouth or through art. 

This is where My Streets Ireland came in, the local arts organization of which I am a director. In November, with support from Coca-Cola, we started running workshops for organizations including those dealing with young people, adults in recovery, special needs groups, and a third-level college. 

Using expertise from spectacle theater companies in Galway and Waterford, key personnel were trained up in making giant-sized puppets representing mythological creatures. Slowly at first but more frantically as the 17th of March approached, the puppets were completed with the finishing touches due this week. 

While this was going on the parade committee was continuing with the important work of securing finance, dealing with rising insurance costs, mobilizing schools and clubs to become involved, and handling the thorny issue of who would be the grand marshal. While some unofficial lobbying took place for this position, the decision of the committee was unanimous and universally popular. 

Three weeks before the day itself Liam Reay, a local volunteer who had for over 30 years acted as a steward on the route, was given the honor of leading the parade. It meant a lot to him, and a few tears were shed at the announcement.

He spoke movingly of how proud his parents would be. It was a town honoring the selfless commitment of an individual. This is one of the reasons why local parades are so special. 

But unfortunately, this year some towns in Ireland found the challenge of rising costs and recruiting volunteers too much. 

Midleton in Cork last week had to cancel this year’s parade. On its Facebook page, Paddy’s Day in Middleton, organizers revealed the reasons for the 2023 cancellation. 

‘’We have not received enough participants for the parade. We also have not received sufficient sponsorship to cover our increased costs this year. 

“But most importantly, we have not received enough volunteers to steward at road closure points and along the parade route. This means we have no other choice, particularly from a health and safety aspect, we have to cancel this year’s parade. We are absolutely devastated, this parade is for the kids and we work so hard every year to make this the best day for them all…we simply cannot run the parade this year. It’s impossible.”

Local papers were also reporting that abusive behavior from drivers at last year's parade was a major factor in a shortage of volunteers. Apparently, in 2022 a number of stewards who were posted at traffic diversion points around Midleton reported abuse from drivers who were annoyed at having to take an alternative route while the parade was ongoing. Clearly, there are still a few snakes around. 

Midleton isn’t the only Irish town that had to cancel its parade. Mountmellick in Laois had to call off its parade because of a shortage of volunteers and lack of council support, and Tallaght in Dublin also confirmed that there would be no parade with the committee there disbanding, citing increasing costs.

No such trouble for Drogheda, though, where the parade has been a mainstay since 1964 with the only interruptions being in 1979 due to heavy snow and in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid. Like all towns, we have had our challenges but battled through them.

So, the hard work is done but the sleepless nights for the organizers will continue until it’s over. Chief among the worries will be the logistics of the day and, of course, the weather which is so unpredictable this time of year. 

But come rain or shine at 12 noon this Friday, March 17, the whistle will blow and grand marshal Reay will lead out the parade on its two-mile route, followed by bands, floats, dancers, and puppets. The fun and craic will begin and we will all celebrate our shared heritage. 

Lá fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh go leir. Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you all!

*This column first appeared in the March 15 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral. Michael O'Dowd is brothers with Niall O'Dowd, founder of the Irish Voice and IrishCentral.