Some thoughts on St Patrick’s Day

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These are my memories of St Patrick’s Day when I was a kid ;

My Dad (and possibly my Mum but I mostly remember my Dad) would take me into the parade. We would park somewhere near the quays but it wasn’t too much of a problem as there wouldn’t be all that many people in town anyway.

It would always (but always) be freezing cold. Normally a freezing wind would sweep up the Liffey and scour you to the bone. Your fingers would turn slowly blue as you clutched your little Irish flag.

And then the parade. First would come the Irish Army band – which for a young boy was exciting enough – some of the soldiers had real guns! – with the big drums whose sound would reverberate in your belly in a satisfying way.

Then the American majorettes, – girls in swimming costume types outfits twirling batons and, like your fingers, turning blue in the cold and then some other Irish-Americans, who having made the pilgrimage to the old sod, would actually just be walking along slapping each others backs in congratulation. I remember feeling vaguely pitying towards them all.

But what really sticks in my mind about those Dublin St Patrick’s days of the 1980s and 90s was not the above. No what I really remember was the essential dullness of the parade. This was summed up in roughly every fourth float, which was a plain truck with a loudspeaker. ‘A.D.A (pause) SECURITY’ it would drone on a loop. Over and over. ‘A.D.A – SECURITY’. This wasn’t just one year, this was every year.  For several years.

What was ADA security? I have no idea. Why was it in the St Patrick’s Day parade? Don’t know.

Just to check I didn’t hallucinate this, I asked my sister, who remembers the same thing. And my Dad who tells me it was intended as an exposition of Irish industry (stop that laughing).

It seems symptomatic of the half-assed way we did things in Ireland at that time. We used to secretly snigger at the few tourists (usually Irish American) who were suckers enough to fall for it. We used to also marvel at the St Patrick’s Day parades they apparently had in America itself. With rivers turned green, green beer and assorted other random green bullshit. I remember gazing in wonder at the film The Fugitive in around 1993 and wondering at the massive St Patrick’s Day parade in Chicago that takes place in the background of several scenes.

Anyway at some point people worked out that what St Patrick’s day needed in Dublin was to be ‘festival’. As Rio had the Carnival we would St Patrick’s Day. So some time in the late 1990s – I’m tempted to say 1998 but I’m too lazy to look it up – Paddy’s Day became a kind of extravaganza with fireworks, dancers and bongo drums. ADA Security whoever they were, were sent packing to whence they came.

For me this marks an important cultural shift in Ireland. From really not caring and going through the motions regarding our culture to making it all up from scratch to make extra money out of tourists.

Now in or around the same time, whether connected or not, St Patrick’s Day in Dublin became an absolute orgy of drink fuelled mayhem. Maybe it was always like this and I didn’t realise. But from about 2000 onwards, St Patrick’s Day grew to be an annual hunting season for gangs of feral drunk teenagers. I remember one such day around 2009  I was cycling around the Royal Canal, somewhere near Finglas when I encountered a friendly Garda. Was this, I innocently asked him a busy day for him? He merely looked at me sagely. That night the news reported the riot squad had been called out in Finglas.

On another occasion in or around the same period I happened to be drinking in a pub in Phibsborough on the day. It was the one and only occasion when, like the western saloons of the movies, the entire pub became embroiled in a drunken fist fight after a disagreement between two men. This was at about 4 pm.

The modern St Patricks’ Day in Dublin is a strange hybrid, the odd moment whereby thousands and thousands of young people come to the city from across the world for what they think it is the beer-fueled party to end all beer fueled parties. Unaware that the sensible citizen stays at home for the day and they share the city streets with that portion of the population that has been gagging all year for a spot of drunken mayhem.

The following is my facebook entry from March 18, 2012.

Went into the city centre for a while yesterday but it’s all just too mental. Garda riot squad pursuing a mob down O’Connell Street, your shoes sticking to the ground because of all the spilt drink, broken glass everywhere, packs of drunk teenagers. All the pubs and streets absolutely rammed with people. And half the people at least seemed to be Brazilian or Spanish. I like Brazilians and Spaniards but it’s just weird to hear so many people wrapped in tricolours talking away in Portuguese and Spanish, especially on Paddy’s day. Decided I was getting too old for this and needed a good strong cup of tea. The police are virtually under siege all day. However I also want to report seeing a garda bringing a case full of beer bottles into a certain station yesterday evening, just so they wouldn’t feel left out I suppose.

In the end all the participants get something out of it after all…

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My Wicklow 200, 2013

On the Wicklow Gap.
On the Wicklow Gap.

My first time doing the Wicklow 200 since 2006. It hurt.

Wicklow 200 2013

Stress. It’s 6.10 am and I get a text from Sebastian *; ‘Where are ya dude’? I was supposed to be at his house at 6.00. He comes to pick me up. But he’s not happy.

We get on the motorway after a few twists and turns and motor it out to Bray. Sebastian is not loosening up. We get there just before 7.00. After some more messing we roll out at about 7.30. Along the long brooding N11. There’s no mass start in the W200 anymore so we pass by groups in dribs and drabs and get passed too by others, including one guy in a time trial skin suit and sperm shaped helmet. It really does take all sorts. Lots of hybrids and commuting bikes as well as road bikes, but we skim by them quickly enough.

Up the Long Hill, a long but gradual climb on a good road over the shoulder of the Sugar Loaf, generally we cut through the slower riders, passing lots who’d started earlier. One or two stay with us or go faster. At the top a lot of the 100 riders on their hybrids have pulled over either to rest or maybe to wait for their friends. Sebastian is not impressed by this. Not professional enough. It doesn’t reinforce his self image of cool powerful purpose.

I’m glad to get them out of the way. On the long flat road to Laragh we try to get in a good group, but as Sebastian remarks, ‘there are no groups’. Every time we follow some fast riders into a group, they don’t settle in, but fly past them, us following. We try to sit in some groups but find ourselves going too slowly, so we hop on to the next. Same thing. In a fast group coming down through Annamoe we let the leading riders go and roll into Laragh and the turn off point for the 200 on our own.

A few more pedal strokes and it’s up the Wicklow Gap, that long slog of 8km uphill. Never very hard but not easy either. I exchange pleasantries with group of guys in black, I think we were talking about weddings or something but I honestly can’t recall now. I drop Sebastian for a short time at the steep part but drop back for him then. We reach the summit together. There’s a water stop which is kind of chaotic (there is for instance no water, just carbohydrate flavoured stuff). The sun is beating down already – it’s about 9.00.

W200 drink stop

The descent is fun and fast and we end up rolling along in a very big group, smashing down the rolling terrain towards Hollywood, led by two very strong old Northern guys. Lots of Nordie and semi Nordie riders are here including fast group of racers from Carrickmacross, Monaghan. Another climb and then a steep descent into Hollywood. Then it’s onto the Blessington Road and banging away down to Baltinglass and the first stop. We decline to match the 40kph speed of the Carrickmacross boys and plough along ourselves until we finally get overtaken by a fast, but not too fast, group led by the Blessington club,’ Reservoir Cogs’ and get dragged into the first food stop.

It’s the Wicklow so there’s queues for the check in. But everyone’s in good form, there must have been 500 riders there. The general sentiment seems to be ‘80km in, this isn’t so bad’. Experience and pessimistic nature has me telling them, ‘the tough part is yet to come’. And so it is.

There’s a long 40km stretch of rolling road between Baltinglass and Tinahely, after which the climbs start again in earnest. But first we roll through sleepy southern Wicklow and County Carlow, including a steep little hill through Hacketstown, before again facing north and back into the mountains. One little ramp downwards on this section gets us up to 78 kmph I’m told by people with the right equipment for measuring such things.

But then, as I knew it would, the fun starts. First a quick 2 km climb and descent up Aughavanagh. No big deal. Then signposts for the Glenmalure valley, which means we’re going up Slieve Mann. I just spin away and soon leave Sebastian behind. There’s no waiting in middle of hard climbs, this one c.5km at an average of 9% gradient. In other words for every ten metres you travel, one is straight up. I’ll see him at the top.

The scenery is beautiful in this quiet valley but all you can see is long lines of cyclists struggling very slowly upwards. I’m feeling fairly good and I’m passing most riders now, apart from the odd accomplished guy who spins past me. Christ it’s not easy though. The sun is scorching down, the road is steep and broken. You have to weave to avoid potholes and slower riders, some of whom are reduced to walking. Gradually, very gradually the road levels out. Around a bend is the summit and the water stop. Which is great but there are massive queues of thirsty cyclists. The strong northern guys from the road to Hollywood appear over the crest as I’m waiting and shout that they’ll get water at the bottom. But I’m completely out and it would be foolhardy to go on with empty bottles.

Besides I have to wait for Sebastian. When he does arrive, I let him skip the queue by standing beside me. But on the plus side he does persuade me out of the mad idea of getting out of the queue and continuing with no water. This is wise advice.

The reason it is so is that I had completely forgotten what lay at the bottom of the Valley – another 5 km climb, the Shay Elliot. I remember virtually nothing about the descent, just blessedly fast and easy kms and a cooling breeze. But I can remember plenty about the unanticipated Shay Elliot. The gradient is never as steep as Slieve Mann. I’m grinding away fairly handily, but I’m tired now, 130 km in, my legs ache and above all I hadn’t been mentally ready. Some riders start walking right at the bottom

Sweat stings my eyes and now my upper lip too where it’s been sunburnt. At the top riders are flaked out all over the place. One or two appear to be asleep. There’s a van selling food and drink here. I buy a can of seven up for me and two bottles of water for Sebastian, who arrives maybe ten minutes later. ‘Genius’ he says. I’m impatient to get going again. Another beautiful descent and we’re back down onto the Laragh Road, heading for Rathdrum. The surface is terrible, my ass hurts, my wrists hurts, my neck hurts. But after ten km or so we roll into Rathdrum. I meet one or two of the people I’d been talking to in Baltinglass. ‘I told you it’d be tough’. They nod. ‘It was’. Everyone seems relieved though, the worst is over. But as I recall from the 100 last year, the final 50 km or so are not easy.

At first it is. We get in a good group and fly downhill into Avoca. But then the road turns skywards again, another 3-4 km climb into Redcross. It seems like unnecessary punishment. Sebastian groans, ‘I don’t want this’. We’re all hurting though. Another water stop at the top. Another wait. On every hill I’m passing a woman in Killmallock club colours who’s not stopping.

The descent is better suited to motocross than cycling. Massive potholes span the road like tank traps, filled in only with sand. You have to either jump them or smash your back wheel into them. You know there’s one coming up when the riders ahead of you shout ‘hole!’ if they see it in time, or ‘fuck!’ if they haven’t.

The course at this point seems designed to break your spirit. Every time you think the climbing is finished you turn a bend and go up again. People are complaining. Their bodies are protesting.

But then it appears as if we’re home and dry. The terrain levels out. A good group, powering along in the big ring, headed for Greystones, less than 20km away now. I take a turn at the front, feeling really good. My phone rings, but I ignore it. I can’t reach it anyway. But I take a look behind me to make sure Sebastian is there. No sign. I check my phone, missed call from Sebastian. Oh bugger. Goodbye fast group that was going to haul me home. I pull over the side of the road. After maybe ten more minutes Sebastian appears. His spoke has broken – probably on that dodgy descent.

We limp off, losing the route momentarily before finding our way back. Then from behind me ‘FUCK!’. Sebastian’s bike is gone. His buckled wheel has snapped off his rear mech, which is now wedged in the wheel. He does not take this well. His sun glasses fall off and he kicks them into the gutter.

He hurls his bike onto the grass verge. And says something along the lines of ‘why are these things always happening to me?’ and ‘I’m cursed’. He has to call the service wagon to pick him up and take him to the finish, a mere 7 km away.

Finishing.
Finishing.

He tells me to go on. Which I do, with the relief of the unburdened. After a pleasant chat with a veteran rider I fly into Greystones, to get my card scanned, pick up my medal and get something to eat. About 10 hours have passed since we left this place. I still have to deal with Sebastian, who is inconsolable when he arrives. His chance to prove his worth to the universe has again been foiled. Still, he’s driving me home. So I make comforting noises.

*Not his real name!