Yup, I've done it again. As one of the luckiest men alive I have gotten to do many spectacular things. Most people would call them "once in a lifetime." So I guess I'm a glutton, because I've come back for more.
Ireland is the place to be for St. Patrick's Day; all other celebrations pale by comparison. While this may be an American holiday (with roots in Boston) the Irish have adapted it just brilliantly and have made it one of the most fun times a human can have without combusting. I've been lucky enough to do it six times, come to Ireland this time of year. And here I sit again, in the Burlington Hote in Dublin courtesy of Tourism Ireland and their Irish counterparts, Failte Ireland. Again, I am broadcasting my radio show from around the country, and writing about it exclusively for The Huffington Post.
St. Patrick's Day, while festive, is usually a piece of a much larger puzzle when it comes to visiting this Emerald Isle; and this year is no exception. My party (Daniel Charleston, social media maven and the returning Brandon Crispo, photography and equipment handler) and I arrived Friday after the worst international flight I have ever encountered. I could go on about the classism of flying, how airlines could provide room, service, food, things to make the trip enjoyable for everyone but choose just to do it for those that pay dearly and how it defies logic that Aer Lingus could lose my bag for almost three days leaving me with no clothes in Dublin, but I won't digress. Let's just say the state of commercial airline travel for most coach passengers is dismal to say the least.
Friday we landed and headed right in to the thick of things. After my great friends Aine Kavanaugh and Ellen Redmond from Failte Ireland took me to Dunn's (think Macy's) to get a blazer and pair of shoes (100 euros combined), Cinderella was ready to go to the ball (it was like a scene from the movie getting me ready since I had no luggage). I had to be presentable because we were off to Aras an Uachtarian, the official home of the President of Ireland Michael Higgins. President Higgins was gracious enough to greet us for tea at his home and have a chat about The Gathering 2013.
Ireland's economy is hurting like every other one in the world. It has not recovered fully from The Great Recession that originated in the United States and spread like a mad virus throughout the world. In order to boost the economy the country is playing to its strengths: tourism and culture. And President Higgins is keen on both.
"After surviving the last decade of artificial economics it's time to turn to something that's real," the president began, "it is important for Ireland to play to the things that have always been there to sustain us as a people and a culture," he began. "I believe it is wrong for governments to make a choice between arts, culture and other financial obligations and it's up to us to find the space to grow the arts and culture, especially in harder times. These are things that enrich the people, but also can be economic saviors," he added.
To that end, Ireland is in the midst of The Gathering 2013. The Gathering is about encouraging the 70 million people in the world that have Irish roots or Irish heritage to come back, visit, bring friends, and gather with those like them for various events throughout the year. The President also invited some of the greatest artists, writers, poets, musicians and others to Aras an Uachtarian for "The Call" in English; the call from the president for the artists to take the forefront and help lead the way to economic recovery through the furthering of their arts throughout the world.
"It is because of the excellence of our music and culture that I issued 'The Call,'" the president stated, "We use this time of the year, St. Patrick's, to reflect together on our shared path and our unique culture and heritage that binds us together. We are grateful for the way that our Irish song, dance and folklore has continued to thrive, not only here but across the world. It is one of those parts of Ireland that survived in tact, the culture, the music and we celebrate the best of our arts, science, creativity and music. We should take the example of the culture in artistic areas and use it as an example in the economy. It's not a case of the Irish economy allowing culture to be possible during times of economic growth; it's about the cultural space being much wider that the economic space and showing us a way to grow the economy."
How refreshing, to hear a head of state talk about the importance of arts and culture to a people no matter the economic times; in fact, to show that they can help and lead in rough economic times.
After a visit with the president it was off to the 300 year old building The Church. This is where Arthur Guinness got married (and his son), where Handel played the Messiah on the organ there and so much more more history over the last 300 years. Brendan, the caretaker as he calls himself, gave us a tour of the grave yard, let us touch the organ that Handel played and then introduced us to John McColgan, creator of the international phenomenon Riverdance.
McColgan is answering the call for The Gathering as well. Not only will they be setting a record for the longest Riverdance line along the River Liffey here in Dublin, but he is launching a new show in China and then the United States, it is called The Heartbeat of Home and promises to be something totally different.
"The way the dancers dance, move, their very bodies have changed over the 20 years since we've done Riverdance," he told me in an exclusive interview in The Gallery restaurant. "I wanted to create a new show that gives them a chance to show their hearts, their souls, their incredible physicality. We've been blessed to been doing the show for over 20 years, for over a billion people worldwide that have seen it on TV or in person. This is the next step," he concluded.
Saturday was great food and great fun around the Dublin area, from a whiskey lesson at 37 Dawson Street (a fabulous bar and restaurant in Dublin) to a traditional ceili music concert later in the evening, there wasn't a moment to waste as the city filled up with hundreds of thousands for Sunday's event.
Before Sunday pre-festival and parade it was a stop at the Dublin's Writer's Museum for a chat with Adelle Ross, acting CEO of the St. Patrick's Day Festival. She was about the throw a party for 480,000 plus close personal friends and was an ever-gracious but busy hostess.
"This event puts over 50.5 million in the economy of Ireland and is an important part of the country's financial well-being," she told me as we sipped tea in the upper room of the Museum, Irish Press and International Press circling about, a small bit of calm in the upcoming storm. And the storm was quite literal, as snow and rain started St. Patrick's Day in Dublin.
"This was 18 months in the planning and already planning through 2017," she stated. "It takes a lot to pull this off, I have a lot of great people working with me," she stated. "In response to the theme of The Gathering, we did the People's Parade, which is just that, participants from over 60 countries, every day people leading things off to show that we want everyone to be a part of Ireland and The Gathering," she concluded.
The parade was the spectacle it always is, marching bands from all the world, floats, contingents from small towns around Ireland, from farming communities to the large cities; all marching, participating, having a ball. The Purdue American Marching Band closed the parade, with 331 members, the largest in the parade and in the country. This band was so big they had to charger their own flight from the U.S. But what a show. Almost half a million people lined the streets of Dublin in the rain to greet the parade, and I, and the bus full of foreign journalists, was the first thing they got to see. Until you've greeting a-half-million people personally on the top of double-decker bus in Dublin on St. Patrick's day, can I simply say, you haven't lived. It makes almost everything else pale by comparison. And the magic isn't lost on the sometimes jaded press. Even the most experienced travel journalists couldn't resist the little kid inside that was screaming, "Oh my God! I'm leading the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Dublin!" The people, the warmth, the love, the joy, the sheer happiness of the event, well, yup, I'm crying.
After the parade it was a lovely lunch at the Central Hotel near party central, The Temple Bar. The crowd, remarkably docile for all the electricity in the air. The guards don't carry guns, and the atmosphere with half-a-million people in the city is remarkably calm, all in good fun. Yes, there are the amateurs getting drunk and puking in the streets, but there are those families, having fun, sharing a meal or a pint, watching the parade and then sharing in the spirit and joy that takes over the city this time of year.
The Ireland trip is far from over. Tomorrow we leave for the southern part of the country, including riding motorcycles again thanks to Celtic Riders. This is a great group of guys that rent motorcycles and plan tours for those that want to truly see Ireland in a unique and beautiful way. Some of the best motorcycling in the world can be found here, and tomorrow, we start finding it.
So, stay tuned. There's lots more to come as we help Ireland celebrate The Gathering 2013 and St. Patrick's Day around the country. From leading a parade in Dublin to ceili music on the moors of Dingle, this is a country rich in heritage, steeped in culture and one that can provide a unique and interesting experience each and every time you come. And once you've been, you'll come back. Many an American has found that Ireland is in their blood or simply in their heart. It is a country that has always made me, a large, loud, out, proud entertainer feel completely welcomed and at home be it in a major city or rural setting; for a large festival or a simple pint.
Now, off to dinner and then more of the city as St. Patrick's day winds down here, but the week starts up.
For more on The Gathering Ireland go here The Gathering. To hear the shows from Ireland, see more photos, videos and exclusive content listen to Karel on KGO AM 810, KRXA AM 540, KGOE, WVNJ and more. To hear the podcast of the Ireland shows or to listen to The Karel Show live daily go to the website, or get the App for iOS or Android and watch Karel live on Ustream daily.
Slideshow photos by Brandon Crispo