When a parade is not a parade, it’s a festival

In the Scottish town of Coatbridge, nearly two-thirds of the residents have Irish roots

Revellers across the UK have been celebrating St Patrick’s Day. Photograph: EPA/Will Oliver

Revellers across the UK have been celebrating St Patrick’s Day. Photograph: EPA/Will Oliver

Mon, Mar 17, 2014, 01:01

Eight-year-old Ailish Bradley stretched to reach the microphone to sing Amhrá n na bhFiann on the stage in Coatbridge, with the Angelus bells from St Patrick’s Church pealing behind her. Here, the celebrations to mark St Patrick’s Day are titled “a festival” rather than a parade. “The word ‘parade’ has connotations around here,” said one of the organisers, Mick O’Reilly, dryly.

Now 12 years old, the festival has grown to fill much of March, including musicians’ and dancers’ visits to nursing homes in and around the north Lanarkshire town.

“Many in the older generation felt uncomfortable about embracing their Irish heritage,” Tom Nolan, the festival’s chairman, said. “They felt intimidated.”

Festival organisers were “very careful” not to let themselves be accused of sectarianism. “That’s why we don’t have a parade, as such, or floats, or anything like that. “Anyway, that’s not something that we want to be involved. We want this to be happy, we want parents to come with their children.”

Nearly two-thirds of the town’s people have Irish roots, illustrated by the numbers that gathered in St Patrick’s church hall for breakfast. More than 300 people turned up and nearly all had an Irish background.

A genealogy club had started in Coatbridge, which was once part of the industrial heartland of the Scottish lowlands. “Twenty per cent come from Donegal, many of them have family connections still in Ireland,” Mr O’Reilly added.

Mary McAleese came to Coatbridge in 2007, a visit still fondly remembered – if some locals still bridle at the lack of attention the visit received in the Scottish media. Locals run a festival office from a shop in the pedestrianised Main Street, selling Irish-themed T-shirts, balloons and other items.

Agnes Brown, whose great-great grandfather came from Sligo, was one of the volunteers. “We were reared on songs and stories from Ireland,” she said. Up to 20,000 people have attended in some years. Her daughter Leanne said: “Up to 12 years ago it was very difficult to celebrate our Irish identity. Coatbridge is completely different from anywhere else.”

Another volunteer, Janice Sullivan, spoke about the differences between Coatbridge and its neighbour Airdrie, just three miles away. “Even the accent is different. We say we are going down the town, they say they’re ‘going doon the toon’.” Her daughter Collette, a college student in Glasgow Caledonian, said she had not encountered sectarianism.

“My friends there don’t understand it, but they are interested in my Irish heritage. I would say that I am Scottish but with a strong Irish identity, and I am proud of that. This generation is a bit different, they are more tolerant.”