State's biggest annual celebration is a crock of gold for business

 

The St Patrick's Festival is now worth €58.3 million to the economy and attracts 1.5 million people, about 40,000 of whom come from overseas, writes Claire Shoesmith

Wherever you are in the world you would have to be pretty slow not to have noticed that today is St Patrick's Day. The festivities began last Sunday when the famous fountain in London's Trafalgar Square turned its waters green in honour of the patron saint of Ireland, and have continued throughout the week, with celebrations across the world from the US to New Zealand to Paris.

In Ireland, the festivities started on Wednesday and continue through to Sunday evening, with a range of activities, from the famous St Patrick's parade and funfair through to smaller events such as exhibitions and traditional markets.

Overall the festival, which will attract about 1.5 million people, is worth €58.3 million to the economy, according to Fáilte Ireland. About 40,000 come from overseas, and of those, about half come especially for St Patrick's Day, says Mary Cosgrave, spokeswoman for Fáilte Ireland, which puts up some of the €2.5 million used to fund the festival.

The remainder of the money comes from corporate sponsorship and partnership agreements, according to a spokeswoman for the organisers.

"It is a very important day in the Irish tourism calendar," says Cosgrave, adding that the fact that this year it falls on a Friday is even more beneficial to the industry. It encourages many people to make a weekend of it, and in some parts of the country marks a start to the tourism season."

This is not the case in Dublin, where tourism runs all year round and has already been boosted by Ireland's home rugby matches as part of the six nations tournament.

Unlike many other patron saint festivals, St Patrick's Day seems to be celebrated by everyone, whether they have Irish roots or not. This may have something to do with the long-standing history of Irish emigration, which means that there are many people with Irish roots scattered around the globe, or it may simply be because everybody likes a good excuse for a party and the Irish certainly know how to do that.

"We have had a huge amount of interest from overseas media," says Cosgrave, adding that this is one of the busiest times for hotels and guesthouses in the Republic.

For those who cannot get to Ireland, there are plenty of events happening outside of St Patrick's home nation, generating further funds in those countries.

New York will today hold its 245th St Patrick's Day parade. Disneyland in Paris is hosting special events to mark the day, while Sydney will also hold its own parade. As mentioned, London hosted a parade last weekend which culminated in a street party in Trafalgar Square and an Irish food market in Covent Garden, while smaller parades were also held in Birmingham and Manchester.

It was because of the increasing overseas popularity of St Patrick's Day celebrations, and the fact that other countries' celebrations were starting to surpass those in Ireland, that the Government in 1995 established the St Patrick's Day Festival.

The organisation was charged with developing an international festival over the holiday weekend. Its brief was to reflect the talents and achievements of Irish people and to showcase this around the world.

Since the creation of this body, most people will agree that Ireland has done itself proud in showing the rest of the world what it means to be Irish.

"For me, this is one of the best days of the year," says Eimer Harris, who cannot wait to take her three children out to watch today's parade.

"It embodies all that is good about Irish society and shows what a great time can be had by everyone pulling together."

According to Harris, the aim of the day is to make everyone want to be Irish. "It certainly makes me glad I'm Irish," she says, pointing out that in England, where her husband is from, St George's Day is not a national holiday.

The first St Patrick's Day festival was held over one day and one night on March 17th, 1996. The attendance was estimated to be about 430,000.

In 1997, the word "day" was dropped from the title and it became St Patrick's Festival, allowing for the elongation of the celebrations as it became a three-day event.

Since then, the festival has grown to become a five-day event. In the old days, preparations took only five months, but now the ever-expanding size of the festival means that it takes about 18 months of planning to pull off what is Ireland's biggest annual celebration.

The main events of this year's 100-hour carnival, as it describes itself on the festival website, are an aerial music and acrobatic spectacle in Dublin's Smithfield, which hopefully you will have seen on Wednesday evening, an exhibition of arts and crafts at Farmleigh in Dublin entitled 40 Shades of Green, a treasure hunt for all ages which will test your knowledge of Dublin's streets as well as your ability to solve riddles and a fun fair on Merrion Square. For more details, see www.stpatricksday.ie.

Those of you living outside Dublin won't miss out, as there are events going on all over the country. Details can be found at www.st-patricks-day.com, or in your local papers.