Trip to Ireland March 17, 2005
This is an online diary of my latest trip to Ireland.
Dennis J. Ahern

Thursday, March 17th

Macnas assembling at the boatsheds
Macnas assembling at the boatsheds
Jim's wife, Marie, gave us a lift in to the city, stopping for petrol (gasoline) on the way at .98 euro per litre. That's almost as much as the orange juice I run on. She dropped us off by the boatsheds where the Macnas folk were gathering in controlled chaos. There were mugs of hot cocoa for the sleepy-eyed children and coffee for the adults. Printed schedules gave the order in which groups got their makeup done and what was involved; greasepaint handlebars and rosy cheeks for the New York Cops, solid green faces with a bit of sparkle fleck for the shamrock girls, ruddy, peat-smoked faces for the Claddagh women. Little girl "tea ladies" in kimonos hefted trays of styrofoam sandwiches that looked good enough to eat. Two boys dressed as "farmers" in cloth caps, vests and wellies (rubber boots), with shirt-tails and hayseeds hanging out, practiced pushing their tractor about. Stripe-shirted youths in white shorts clashed hurleys the size of shovels and burly men in short skirts and pom-poms practiced their majorette drills with a drum major in green shag Elvis wig. Jim Aherne was quite fetching with balloons in his brassiere. Kevin Donnelly, a retired Librarian from Cambridge, Mass. needed no such augmentation. Kevin was born in New Haven (CT) to a mum from Portlaoise and a dad from Leitrim. When the rent on his previously rent-controlled apartment overlooking Cambridge Common tripled three years ago he decided to make full use of his Irish citizenship. His one regret is that with the weak dollar, his pension is eroded to the point where he cannot go home to visit his two adult children as often as he would like.

Majorettes, Only One of Whom is Real
Majorettes (Kevin Donnelly far left, Jim Aherne, second from right)

The crowd of costumed marchers practice their routines to the booming beat of a 1940's vintage ceilidh band from a mini-disc player hooked up to a truck battery and speakers concealed in a green-covered push cart under the control of John Ashton, Macnas' assistant manager and his wee son Evan. Also in the cart is a first aid kit and a fire extinguisher. The mini-disc player is preferred over a CD player as it is less prone to skipping on bumpy pavement.

Dave Donovan Getting Michael Hagerty's Ferrari Ready to Go
Dave Donovan Getting Michael Hagerty's Ferrari, Ready to Go

Inside the boatshed workshop, Michael Hagerty's wheelchair was being converted to a Ferrari racer, the cockpit being lowered around him and lashed to the arms of his wheelchair with plastic ties like the riot police use now for handcuffing large crowds. Once Michael is safely and securely in the cockpit the racer is pushed outside where the pit crew attach the big styrofoam wheels. The musicians on stilts with their cardboard accordions and plastic-pipe horns must also make their way outside and their challenge is to duck low enough to exit through the boatshed door without losing the pompoms off their chin-strapped hats.

As I am in no need of makeup I am free to explore the backstage of the Macnas world. In the office there are shelves of old National Geographics that are used for costume research and the walls are pinned with assorted proposed designs, such as a Victorian lamppost with the actor's head inside the main lamp and the arms supporting two smaller lamps. Sketched out are variations to show how the lamppost can interact with the crowd, for this is what Macnas is all about.

Getting Tiny Ready
Getting Tiny Ready

Once the various marchers have been lined up in their groups they are sent off across town to the assembly point and Macnas manager Dave Donovan leads the dog handlers to the other end of the boatsheds to awaken "Tiny" from his slumber. Tiny is a shaggy grey Irish wolfhound of indeterminate age, somewhat over thirty feet in length by my estimate. We stood ready, a team of thirteen handlers. Inside there would be three strong persons with over-the-shoulder, belted pole-holder harnesses, one to support the head, one for the middle body and one for the hind end of the hound. There would be four footmen, one for each paw. Initially it had been suggested that I might be a leg man, but I'm glad I dodged that task as it was more complicated than I thought as the leader had to coordinate so that the left foreleg and right hind leg moved together alternating with their opposite numbers. That was all too complicated for this puppeteer and I was happy to be one of six handlers controlling guylines running to either side from the head, middle, and tail. This was needed to help the pole holders supporting the body to maintain a vertical aspect, not an easy task given the fierce wind that was blowing. It would be a disaster if this beast were to roll over onto the crowd. And imagine the size of the fleas! The guy handlers were all given gloves and I used my boy scout skills to tie a couple of bowline bights to use as grip handles in my line as the thin cord was hard to hold onto. When all was ready it was hoist up and haul away 'round the green by the river for a practice run, letting Tiny chase his tail and dash hither and yon.

Taking Tiny the Irish Wolfhound for Walkies Beside the Boatshed
Taking Tiny the Irish Wolfhound for Walkies Beside the Boatshed

Then off we went, with people ahead to stop the cars, past the Cathedral and across Nun's Island to assemble with the main parade at the staging area by the fire station. It was by then too congested to squeeze into our place at the tail end of Macnas so we found a space on the edge of a children's pennywhistle marching band and gave Tiny a lie down. My opposite number, holding down the starboard side of our charge introduced himself as "Carol" and I asked him to spell it. It turns out his name is Karel. He is from Prague and has been in Galway for six months working for Boston Scientific, the Massachusetts-headquartered company that makes stents and catheters for medical use. When I told him I was in town for a genealogy conference on the weekend he told me his "auntie" back home often was asked to help visiting Czech-Americans find their roots. He also had an uncle who emigrated to Fargo and he has cousins there named O'Connor. The pennywhistle band nearby struck up a familiar tune and I pulled out my D whistle to join in and Karel snapped my picture with his cellphone. The way the wind is blowing a pennywhistle doesn't stand much of a chance, even when there are forty of them all playing the same tune.

Children's Drum and Pennywhistle Band at Staging Area by Fire Station
Children's Drum and Pennywhistle Band at Staging Area by Fire Station

The sky continued grey and the wind strong but I was assured it never rains on a Macnas parade. Soon the call came to arise and go forth among the cheering multitude. We fell in behind the farmers, boys in wellies (rubber boots), waistcoats (vests) and cloth caps, hayseeds dangling from their mouths. Some drove a plywood tractor while others tried to drive a bevy of bouncing sheep. Two carried pitchforks to harrie the wandering haystacks into line. They also had to contend with the manure from the two elephants up ahead as part of a circus that was in town. If Tiny had added his droppings to the pile it would have blocked all the groups behind us.

Sheep and Runaway Haystacks Getting Ready
Sheep and Runaway Haystacks Getting Ready

Mounted on a cart was a rockery grotto with a "moving statue" of the Virgin Mary played by a teenaged girl in blue and white robes who every now and then would outstretch her otherwise folded hands.

There was a big-headed Bono who started out pushing Michael's Ferrari, but the adulation of the crowd made his head swell up even more and he abandoned his assigned task to work the sidelines and flirt with his female fans. This left Michael temporarily disabled until someone else jumped in to give him a push.

The Claddagh women had their baskets of fish. Girls whose painted green faces were the centerpiece of enormous shamrocks had green hooped skirts for stems. The majorette band on stilts wielded accordions, fiddles and clarinets of cardboard and styrofoam and the dragged-up majorettes flirted with the male Gardai saying "Meet me down the lane afters, willya?"

Supporting Tiny's head, is Ian King, a 22-year old Galwegian whose people came from Dublin. He works in the bakery department at Dunne's department store and patted his stomach to prove it. He had great fun swooping the head down to be patted by gleeful children and the crowd would laugh when our hound went after a Garda's hat. Whenever there was room at a corner, or a widening in the street, we would do a turnaround, with Tiny chasing his tail in a circle. This took a bit of coordination, especially as the wind was stronger in the open spaces. In the narrow streets the crowds pressed in closer than it was planned and it became hard to keep a strain on the guy ropes from too close in.

The reviewing stand in Wood Quay was packed with city councilors and red-robed Mayors and Mayoresses in their gold chains of office. A senior Garda officer in dress uniform stood by with the mace, not the spray , but the ceremonial silver skull basher. An announcer named each group and gave Macnas a plug for their part in the Galway Summer Arts Festival. Another block or so and we were done and Tiny was laid down in a grassy field for a much needed nap. A TV crew was interviewing the Macnas kids, asking how long they had been in the group and how they had first heard of it.

Karel from Prague is not the only evidence of Ireland's place in the new Europe. On the day after St. Patrick's, the front page of the Irish Independent newspaper had a picture of Dublin parade watcher Evita Andrkevicikte (2 1/2) from Clane, county Kildare.

Editorials in the Galway papers of March 17th had strongly worded editorials hoping that there would not be a repeat of last year's disgraceful mayhem with rubbish strewn every place and drunken gurriers vomiting in Kennedy Park. There's no risk of that this year as Kennedy Park in Eyre Square looks like a bombed out city with all but a couple of the trees cut down, everything plowed over and demolished, the only thing standing being the remains of the old door to the courthouse surrounded by sandbags as defence against the construction vehicles.

After a bit, we hoisted Tiny up again and headed back over the river to the boatsheds for a mug of tea and a bite to eat. A side room of the main workshop had a kitchen and the table was spread with sliced ham, cheese, brown bread, salad things, tomato sauce beans and lots of tea. The line for the only loo was not long, but I had to wait as more than one little one whose need was greater cut in front of me.

Behind the scenes there is a great deal of organization goes into these creative efforts. The walls are covered with sketches of costume ideas for various shows and reports analyzing and critiquing past efforts. A collection of old National Geographics supplies inspiration for costume designs.

Once the costumes were put away and most of the makeup removed we set off in search of a pint. On the way back to Wood Quay we were drawn off our track by the sounds of bagpipe and bombard to find the French folk dance group performing on the cobblestones in front of the Town Theatre. There was one dance of two couples in a circle where at one point the men kicked their heels in the air while supported by their partners linked arms. It was quite impressive.

Breton Dancers Performing in Front of Town Theatre
Breton Dancers Performing in Front of Town Theatre

After the parade, all of the pubs had people spilling out the doors onto the sidewalks, but until you went in you couldn't tell if they were full or if it was just smokers forced outdoors by the new ban on smoking in Irish pubs. I will say it makes it a lot more enjoyable to not have to strain your pint through a haze of burnt tobacco leaf. People on the streets and in the pubs had bunches of real shamrocks pinned to their lapels, except Deidre and Michael had plastic ones with a battery that flashed little green lights off and on. By the time we got back to Wood Quay the parade had ended and the crowd had been sucked into every pub on the outgoing tide. We went first to the Stage Door, a favorite of Jim's, but if you were wearing shamrocks in your lapel they would have been pressed to a pulpy green smudge in the crush. We went along and started up Eglinton Street but every place was the same and Jim's wife, Marie, who had joined us, could no go too far due to an infirmity of the legs. I elbowed my way into the Central Bar and found there was at least one free stool for Marie so we went in to slake our thirst. Soon we were joined by Deidre Dooley, still in her Claddagh woman costume, and Michael Hagerty who brought his own chair. Michael was born with cerebral palsey and has been in a wheelchair for 23 years. He's not able to get around on his own because, unlike the U.S. where the Americans With Disabilities Act mandates curb cuts at every corner, Ireland has no such requirement and a motor driven wheelchair would be impossible to maneuver. He can still lift a glass, however, and takes his pint a bit at a time in a smaller glass. His usual is Budweiser, but I failed to ask if he liked the taste better or was the Guinness too heavy to lift. Sometimes he needed someone to put the glass in his hands, but once he had a grip, he could manage all right. Deidre still had her makeup on, but had left the basket of fish behind lest she be shown the door.

There was much greeting of friends and relations with calls of "Happy Patrick's Day" and "Happy Saint's Day". I was introduced to Jim's cousins, siblings Ollie and Dollie Ryan who informed me they were planning an October visit to their cousins in Boston, or more specifically Dorchester, which I taught them to pronounce "Dooahchestuh". Dolly had lived in England near where the Henley Regatta was held and I told them if they were coming in the Fall they should find out when the Head of the Charles Regatta was to be held.

Having shot all my film at the parade, I excused myself to go and find a shop where I could get another of those disposable cameras. I did find some generic ones in Dunne's, but I wasn't sure if I could get them developed easily at home and went further in search of some that were Kodak brand. The shops in Shop Street that might have had them were all closed, which made sense as the crowd flooding the streets was only in search of food and drink, and drink, and drink. I returned to the Central Bar and watched a bit of horse racing on TV. Unlike American tracks, the Irish horses run on grass and have to jump over all sorts of obstacles, hedges and fences and the like, at which point some riders get off and the horses go on without them. You'd think the empty horses would gain advantage from the reduced weight, but they seemed content to just follow the herd.

Subsequent pints were sought at the Stage Door which proved very noisy and I excused myself again and went around the corner to a cybercafe to check my mail. It was after 8 p.m. when we joined up again and made our way to Eyre Square to catch the Ballybrit bus, Jim, Diedre, Michael and myself, Mrs. Aherne having gone home earlier with the car. We stopped at the SuperMac for a bag of chips to share and were soon homeward bound.

The bus home was a shorter trip than the night before which goes the long way around. We got off together and wended our way up through the estate to drop Michael off at his mum's house. We passed the Aherne house on the way and I had the option of going in and letting Marie know we were there to put the kettle on but I tagged along up the hill, somewhat to my subsequent regret as Jim and I found ourselves waiting at the corner while Deidre and Michael's mum had a chin wag that seemed set to last 'til the wee hours. Eventually we pried her loose and were soon back at the Aherne abode where Marie had our supper in the oven on hot plates. Another sumptuous repast was had; breaded chicken filets, boiled potatoes and mixed vegetables. All this walking the dog gave me an appetite. Jim and I both turned in by 10:30.

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This page copyright © 2005 by Dennis Ahern.