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St Patrick’s Day in Douglas, Ontario

It’s fifteen below zero and my hands are numb, the street is packed and the music is blaring for the annual nighttime parade in Ottawa Valley, writes Niall McArdle

Mon, Mar 18, 2013, 06:00


Niall McArdle

It’s fifteen below zero and my hands are numb. I’m standing on a snowbank in the tiny hamlet of Douglas, Ontario (usual population: 250; population on March 17th: 4,000). The street is packed and the music is blaring. The whole of the Ottawa Valley, it seems, has descended for St Patrick’s weekend.

The nighttime parade is an annual event, and in spite of the cold everybody is having a good time. The street is a sea of Kelly Green. The sidewalks have shamrocks stamped into the cement. Eighty highly-decorated floats, horses, step-dancers and tractors snake their way through the street. The themes of some are ludicrous, with imagery taken from Mother Machree by way of Darby O’Gill and the Little People. For a moment I think I’ve stumbled into the saddest sort of stage-Irish theme park: Disneyland’s destitute Celtic cousin.

Earlier in the day I dropped into the Top o’ the Morning Cafe for a traditional Irish lunch: Italian sausage on a bun with sauerkraut. I then stopped in at the Douglas Tavern for a drink. For most of the year this bar is virtually deserted. During St Patrick’s week it’s heaving. You have to queue for two hours to get in. There’s traditional music and step-dancing. One whole back-room is filled with crates of beer. It’s common knowledge that the place makes most of its money for the year in one week.

The tavern – better known to locals as the Diddley (seriously) – is the sort of bar you’d probably avoid. It is an old, delapidated hotel that many years ago was a popular rest-stop for travellers and lumbermen. Now it has the air of a place that has gone to seed. The windows are high up. The seats are plastic garden chairs. A faded “Ladies & Escorts” sign still hangs outside. Irish tea-towels cover one wall. Irish blessings cover another. It reeks of drains.

I finish my drink and go back outside for the start of the parade. I blow on my fingers to keep warm as I gape at the floats. Giant shamrocks, Molly Malone, leprechauns of all shapes and sizes, “The Irish Washerwoman”, “The Irish Medicine Cabinet” (a bathtub filled with booze), “The Paddy Wagon” (convicts behind bars), and miniature horses spray-painted green.

There is one other float, though, of note. The town of Killaloe, which is just up the road, is having its own Gathering in August, and everyone’s invited. They’re taking the idea of their heritage seriously. They are planning to twin with Killaloe, Co Clare for the event. They’re asking locals to gather family memorabilia and old photos. Anybody with an Irish passport will get a free gift. Of course, the party will still have a Canadian bent (they’re having a road hockey tournament).

I can’t help thinking that although the whole evening has been bizarre, but perhaps the Irish Gathering in Killaloe will help take the bad taste out of my mouth. I will be there in August, and I’m really hoping I don’t see another Paddy Wagon.

Niall McArdle is a frequent contributor to Generation Emigration. Follow him on Twitter @RagingFluff