From Here to Here
by Jo Kerrigan
(as published in "Ireland of the Welcomes" Vol 53 No 2 March-April 2004)
The tiny Co Cork village of Dripsey, on the road between Blarney and Coachford in the lovely Lee Valley, once boasted a paper mill, a cheese factory and one of the last original working woollen mills in Ireland.
All these, however, are long gone, and today it’s an idyll of rural peace. On a typical morning, lean on the ancient stone bridge over the bubbling little Dripsey river and watch the action. Around eight o’clock, a milk lorry may trundle down from one of the hill farms; at nine, a mother and toddler pass on their way to the playschool and at eleven, a delivery van pulls up at The Lee Valley, one of the two pubs at either end of the brief main street, and the driver goes in for a chat. Around three, there’s a positive flurry of activity as four schoolchildren arrive home from their day’s studies, calling out last-minute farewells to one another as they disappear up winding lanes.
At ten past seven, an elderly man comes slowly down the hill and repairs to The Weigh Inn, where the landlord is already pulling his pint without even glancing up. High above on the picturesquely-named Carrignamuck or Rock of the Pig, fifteenth-century Dripsey Castle stands guard in the gathering dusk, perhaps remembering more violent times as it watches the peaceful village settle into sleep.
But on one day in the year, little Dripsey explodes into a riot of colour, crowds, music, and merriment. Flags and bunting flutter from every rooftop and telegraph pole, the local garda sergeant is directing traffic, and hundreds of onlookers line the road. Because this is St Patrick’s Day and for the past five years Dripsey has been staging what it proudly claims is the shortest St Patrick’s Day parade in the world.
"It all started in 1999", explains Donal O’Riordan who is generally credited with the original inspirational idea. "Our local community association sent around a note asking everyone to think of ways to mark the Millennium. All over the world people were doing the same thing, and I thought it would be great to think of something really different that would somehow fit with what Dripsey is – a small rural community." He little thought that his one-off inspiration would lead to international fame.
Wherever they may be, he points out, the Irish celebrate St Patrick’s Day: downing tools, stopping work, and taking time out to drown the shamrock. "You hear about all the huge parades. The New York one is always the biggest, they go crazy in Australia, Dublin always boasts of having the most splendid, and so on. I suddenly thought, why shouldn’t we have one too, and the most obvious thing was to go to the other extreme – instead of trying to compete with the biggest and the longest, make a celebration of being tiny, and stage the shortest."
"We thought it was a bit crazy at first", admits John Sheehan, landlord of The Lee Valley, leaning reflectively on the counter, "but then we began to think it might be worth trying anyway". As word got around, more and more people became interested and offered to help. "There’s an awful lot of talent in the townlands around Dripsey", agrees Donal, "whether it be in music or crafts, organisation or knowledge, sports or skills. We thought if we could represent them all in our parade, we’d be achieving something."
First, it was essential to discover the exact distance the parade would traverse. Under the eagle eye of local guard Christy O’Donovan, the tape measure was stretched from one end of the village to the other, from The Weigh Inn to The Lee Valley. The verdict? Double-checked and triple-checked, it came out at 23.4 metres or just under 26 yards – somewhat shorter than New York’s Fifth Avenue, or indeed the width of Dublin’s O’Connell Street. Daft? Of course. "It was so daft that we thought it might just possibly work."
Now the discussions got under way and lasted long into the night. Gaining confidence as they planned and prepared, the Community Association sent off a carefully drafted press release to the media. The newspapers were amused at this novel variation on the predictable theme and, although March 17th is always one of their busiest days, promised to send photographers. Then a lucky break – RTÉ, the national TV station, indicated that they, too, just might have a camera there on the day. "That really got things going. The thought that our little village might be on national TV got every last individual in Dripsey involved, from toddlers to senior citizens."
That first parade, back in 1999, was a huge success, word of mouth bringing well-wishers from miles away to witness the miniature occasion staged with all pomp and ceremony. That night, everybody eagerly gathered in the two pubs to await the evening news with its customary round up of the day’s doings. Of course, they could have watched at home, but somehow they all wanted to be together for this. As the news progressed, and images from all over the world and from all parts of Ireland were beamed out, the tension, says Donal, was palpable. Then, in the very last few seconds, the announcer said, "And now to Dripsey, where what is probably the shortest St Patrick’s Day parade in the world took place today." The pictures of the village flashed up on the screen "and everybody went completely mad. All I can say is that it was like winning the World Cup. We had thrown everything we had into the event, and we’d done it. We were famous!"
Their moment of fame had immediate results. "We’re on the tour bus route from Blarney to Killarney and the very next day as one bus came through, it slowed down and we heard the driver telling the visitors that this was where the parade had taken place." Now the buses stop as a matter of course, and delighted visitors have themselves photographed beside the signs which the Community Association quickly prepared and put up at each end of the village. The planning goes on year round. "Different people are always coming up with new ideas and they all get logged in." Meetings of the Community Association, held in the long dark evenings of winter and the awakening days of spring, are models of cooperation and positive thinking. When somebody raises a query or problem, somebody else volunteers the information or says, "I think I can sort that." Nobody wastes time griping or complaining – there’s work to be done, and the honour of Dripsey is at stake. Have the loud speakers been organised for the musicians? Yes, they have. Are the signs for the road definitely here and who is taking charge of putting them up? Yes, and we will. Are we using Dermot’s CD player? Affirmative.
Marie Cotter, who runs the local playschool, tirelessly rehearses her charges in their performance for the big day and checks their costumes. "Do you know your words?" she presses, yet again. Yes! they chorus confidently, and chant them in a confused babble to prove it. A small girl proudly tries on a disc of silver almost as large as herself. "I’m Mirror Mirror on the wall in Snow White", she explains.
A group of rugby players are spending a lot of time in the clubhouse with their heads together, secretively planning something that has them in hysterical fits of laughter. Down at The Weigh Inn, Helen and Kevin Feeney are trying to calculate how many loaves will be needed for the sandwiches, and how many cakes need to be baked. For the parade may travel only 26 yards, but the celebrations will go on all day and well into the night.
The route – or rather the direction – of the parade, is strictly rotated: last year it started from The Weigh Inn and proceeded to The Lee Valley, so this year, 2004, it will start from The Lee Valley and proceed to The Weigh Inn. Or should that be the other way round? Whichever it is, both pubs will be a maelstrom of activity on the night before, as floats are hammered together, signs completed, ladders lent for stringing up the bunting and the flags outside. Every household is frantically busy putting the finishing touches to costumes, checking lists, making phone calls. A mile or two along the Cork road, Griffin’s Garden Centre is working late too. This is a big commercial venture that has won more awards than it can remember, as much for its irresistible café restaurant as for its exotic blooms and Irish specialty plants, but tonight concentration is totally on local matters. "We always provide the flowers for the Dripsey Parade," says Margaret Griffin, stacking pots of bright primroses on a trailer to be taken down to the village. "We’re part of the community too, and this is our contribution."
Dawn on March 17 sees a quiet, empty, road. By eight, figures are scurrying round, calling out instructions to each other, checking their watches, lending a hand with the setting up of the platform from which the event will be directed. There isn’t a car in sight, but traffic cones are already being put out to discourage anyone from parking in the path of the parade. At noon the band is in place and belting out lively traditional tunes. A tractor chugs down the lane from the hill farm, its snub nose a mass of daffodils. In the car park behind The Weigh Inn, an elderly lady adjusts the veil on her bonnet, while two small children seriously put the finishing touches to their decorated tricycles. The playschool group has arrived and waits sitting, dressed and ready, voiceless with excitement, in the kitchen, gazing at the adults rushing around. Over at The Lee Valley, space at upstairs windows is at a premium for those with cameras and videos (with a parade of this brevity, there aren’t that many opportunities for the overall shot). But whether upstairs or downstairs, indoors or out, every Dripsey-ite takes his or her right to participate very seriously indeed.
"It’s a great event and I wouldn’t miss it for anything", says Garda Christy O’Donovan, who sturdily resists any pressure from higher up to grace other, bigger parades with his presence on March 17. "This one is real, because it’s entirely community-generated and it has genuine heart in it." He moves unhurriedly over to a large car which shows every sign of coming to a halt in the very centre of the village. "I’d say you’d be better now moving down there across the bridge, where there’ll be no risk at all to your fine vehicle." O’Donovan is a past master at the gentle touch.
By one-thirty the crowds are packing either side of the parade route and more are hurrying in from where they’ve left their cars half a mile away. At the designated starting time precisely, a cheer goes up as St Patrick himself emerges from The Weigh Inn and makes his dignified progress up the street. As he bends his mitre to enter The Lee Valley door, Marie Cotter leads out her playschool group, delightfully garbed in their Snow White costumes. Seeing the crowds on either side of their path, they completely forget their long-rehearsed routine and stare, tongue-tied instead, clutching each other’s hands for security until led by a reassuring Marie to safety and waiting parents. ‘The French Are On The Sea Says The Shean Bhean Bocht’ declares a sign carried by a group of Breton-garbed musicians. A bishop with a suspicious smudge of lipstick on his cheek gallantly escorts a rather masculine showgirl. The children ride their tricycles. The tractor roars proudly and its driver scatters daffodils to the crowd.
The big hit of the day is the rugby team – a superbly schooled troupe of high-kicking Robin Hoods, all wired up to belt out an energetic version of ‘Men in Tights’. In their acrobatics, one loses his red wig, but jams it on again anyhow and continues the routine like a pro, drawing approving cheers. Once the parade has finished, everybody crowds into the pubs, visitors and participants alike, to laugh and talk. Food is handed around. Discussions as to this year, last year and next year are energetic. Donal is determinedly affirming that he will now somehow find time to finally make that submission to the Guinness Book of Records. "We know we’re the shortest parade of the 20th century. No-one can take that away from us. I’m sure once we get in, somebody will try to beat us for the 21st century, but if they do, it’s bound to be a manufactured parade, not genuine like ours. We can truthfully say that our procession wends its way from one end of the village to the other, right through the entire business centre of Dripsey!"
Every year more people come to see this tiny phenomenon, and every year they get more interest from the international media. "Last year we had a link-up with a radio station in Boston, which was incredible." Donal is amazed and delighted that such great things have grown from such a small seed. But it’s not just about novelty. The popularity of the Dripsey St Patrick’s Day parade stems from something far deeper. In this fast-paced modern world, we have become too commercialised, too sated by the biggest, the best, the fastest, the most spectacular. In most of us there is a yearning to return to the simpler things, the way it used to be. In Dripsey, where the celebration of our national saint is a truly community affair, we can perhaps find an echo of that gentler time.