Gap Year Travels: St. Patrick’s Festival in the Land of Saints & Scholars

[This is the third of a series of posts about my travels through Western and Central Europe and Southeast Asia this Winter/Spring as part of my self-designed Alternative Gap Year. Click here to read more.]

Oscar Wilde Memorial in Merrion Square

Ireland: the land of saints and scholars! Admittedly, the only saint we interacted with was the namesake of that famous Irish celebration which we, too, celebrated: St. Patrick, the sheep herding missionary of St. Patrick’s Day fame all over the world. However, we did meet a number of Ireland’s literary scholars at cultural events and readings during the festivities: W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Seamus Heaney and many other greats. I mean that figuratively, of course — except in the case of Seamus Heaney!

The St. Patrick’s Festival, a five-day celebration in Dublin of Ireland’s rich contemporary and traditional culture, was fabulous. Yes, we saw a number of leprechaun hats, shamrocks and beads, but we also found the festival–including music, dance, film and comedy acts–offered much depth. In celebration of Dublin’s recent appointment as one of the world’s four UNESCO Cities of Literature, the 2011 festival was literary-themed, including interesting events such as literary treasure hunts and Dublin Swell (more on this below).

Not surprisingly, the festival parade was entertaining. Fancifully-costumed dancers followed whimsically contrived mechanical floats through the streets of Dublin in the parade, designed to illustrate  a short story commissioned for 2011 festival by Irish writer Roddy Doyle (read more here). But the Friday evening literary bash, Dublin Swell, at the new Dublin Convention Center overlooking the impressive Samuel Becket Bridge, took the ticket.

New Dublin Convention Center overlooking the River Liffey & Samuel Beckett Bridge

The articulate introduction to Dublin Swell, conducted by Mary McAleese, President of Ireland (and practically a kinswoman, having lived much of her life in Rostrevor, a stones throw from my Aunt and Uncle!), was followed by an electrifying performance by musician Damien Dempsey of The Auld Triangle (hear a similar recording here). For the next two hours, we were treated to a litany of funny, profound, heartbreaking and witty performances of famous Irish literary passages by the likes of Neil Jordan, Roddy Doyle, Paul Durcan, Claire Kilroy, Dermot Bolger, Joseph O’Connor and Sebastian Barry. They colorfully performed readings of Beckett, Wilde, Joyce, Swift, Yeats, Kavanagh and many passages of their own work. (Read The Irish Times coverage of the Dublin Swell event here.)

The succession of readings was penetrated by a brilliant performance of Lille by Irish musician Lisa Hannigan (see a video of another performance here), several dramatic performances by members of the revered Abbey Theatre and three of W.B. Yeats’ poems performed to music by the colorful Mike Scott. Midway through the evening, Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney made his way to the microphone to read several short poems, sure-voiced though hesitant-bodied, and with a generous twinkle in his eye (hear a reading of his poem The Road to Derry here). What an electric night it was!

Among others, I was taken by Joseph O’Connor’s reading from his most recent book, Ghost Light, about Irish playwright John Synge and his muse, actress Maire O’Neill. I picked it up at a bookshop and hungrily read it during the first few weeks of April. Coincidentally, I was reading Ghost Light with all of Dublin (even though I had traveled to Thailand) as the book was chosen for Dublin’s One City, One Book April 2011 festival!

See pictures from our travels through Dublin for St. Patrick’s Festival 2011 as well as around the island here. Also, check out an excellent NY Times article on Dublin’s theatrical and literary scene.

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