Tony McDonnell

St Patrick’s Day in London

The Mayor of London’s St Patrick’s Day Parade and festival is in its fifteenth year this year the first one being held in 2002. Unlike all the others this year’s events are spread over three days from Friday 17th to Sunday 19th. The official London St Patrick’s Festival website will provide detailed information. None the less, we can look forward to a parade on Sunday at noon starting from Piccadilly taking in Trafalgar Square and Whitehall. The floats and marching bands involved will raise the spirits of the crowds along the way who can join in the festivities around the stage in Trafalgar Square. The compare for the afternoon is Irish Comedian Joriath Regan who will introduce act after act to entrance and beguile the audience for the afternoon.

There seems to be an emphasise on food markets: so if you are a “savage for the bacon and cabbage” you should be well provided for. On the 17th there will be live Irish poetry and music at particular underground stations – so feel free to “cast a cold eye” on your daily commute. For all three days certain structures at certain times will bathed in a green light. As for the bars and pubs of London there seems less of the green beer so prevalent in other cities around the world this time of year but for the discerning drinkers of London’s hostelries – “a pint of plain is your only man” .

St Patrick's Day Festival - Trafalgar Square St Patrick’s Day Festival – Trafalgar Square. Photo: ©Flickr/BlowingPufferFish.

Why is St Patrick’s Day such a worldwide event and why should London in particular make special effort to recognize this 5th century saint with no personal links to the city?  The essence of St Patrick’s Day around the globe is about, (excuse the pun) ex-pats. The first recorded public celebration was in Boston, Massachusetts in 1737 with Irish exiles remembering their homeland and their patron saint. The Irish Diaspora, also known as “The Scattering”, is one of the largest in world history: 80 million people worldwide are said to be of Irish decent – astonishing for a country that even now has a population of around 4 million.

London is included in that scattering: it has been claimed that 11% of Londoners have at least one Irish parent and that 19% have at least one Irish grandparent. The claim that the Irish are London’s oldest ethnic minority can only be contested by the claims of the Jewish population. Distinct Irish enclaves were recorded in the 16th century by the Tower of London and on the banks of the Fleet River.  Usually associated with the poorest parts of London, the Irish were found in areas around Covent Garden from the 17th century and the docks areas of the East End in the 19th century.  However, it is the post 2nd World War influx that tends to be overlooked and underestimated. Of all the Irish children born in Ireland in the 1930’s, 4 out of 5 would eventually emigrate.  Of all those who emigrated the majority would come to London. The famous Irish areas of the Metropolis: Kilburn, Cricklewood, Camden, Hammersmith or Holloway with their Irish pubs, Irish dancehalls and Roman Catholic churches were products of a mass emigration from Ireland second only to that which followed the Great Famine of  1845-51.

St Patrick's Day Parade St Patrick’s Day Parade. Photo: ©Flickr/GarryKnight.

“An Unconsidered People” as this group has been called have claims on rebuilding London after the wholesale destruction of the 2nd World War, of bringing about the reality of a National Health Service in the capital and of ensuring the public transport system had and still has a worldwide reputation. The children of these Irish immigrants have made an inestimable contribution in all fields. Household names such as Mary Portas, Imelda Staunton and Johnny Rotten are just three random examples  of the second generation London-Irish who have left their mark on British national life.

The current generation of Irish immigrants especially those who have arrived since the economic down turn of 2008 can be seen to differ from their predecessors.  Educated and skilled they are the high end of those coming to take advantage of the glittering opportunities that London offers the clever and the ambitious.  Less numerous, they perhaps do not stand out as those who were here in the 1960’s but there are enclaves associated with this new influx: Clapham Junction and Wandsworth Town have echoes however faint with Camden Town and Willesden Junction of old.

St Patrick's Day Parade St Patrick’s Day Parade. Photo: ©Flickr/GarryKnight.

Beyond the diaspora it is appropriate that London has an “Irish” day: for so much of Irish history happened in London. Ireland’s greatest writers lived here and wrote some of their most important work here: Swift, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Shaw, Yeats and Wilde can be legitimately categorized as London Writers. James Joyce was married in London and Brendon Behan was imprisoned here. The great names of the Irish Nationalist cause: O’Neil, Wolf Tone, Grattan, O’Connell, Parnell, Davitt and Collins all spent significant amount of time here and some of the most pivotal moments in Irish political history were enacted in London. Also, prominent Unionist politicians: the Duke of Wellington, Edmund Burke and Sir Edward Carson were all closely entwined in the London life of their time.

For this year’s celebrations, I’m conducting a different walk for each of the three days. On Friday the 17th the tour is called “A Terrible Beauty” and is concerned with events of 1916 Easter Rising in London. It starts at Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square at 2pm. The next day Saturday 18th at Camden Town tube 2pm “Where The String Broke” explores Camden Town and all its Irish connections. Finally, on Sunday 19th from the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral at 2pm “The Emerald City” tour will commence and eventually finish in Covent Garden and concentrates on the great names of Irish history and their time in London. All the walks are free but places are limited and must be booked in advance, see the official London St Patrick’s Festival website for details.

Tony McDonnell

Working as a full time London Blue Badge Tourist Guide for more than twenty years still seems the best job imaginable . London has seen many changes in that time yet retains its inimitable style. The great historical sites and areas remain and still enchant. The sheer variety of…

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