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2014 Grateful 12

IMG_3375 (600x800)Each year, for the last four years, Ronnie Thompson would come to Budapest in March. The Londoner visited at other times, too, but it was his March visits that I best remember. Ronnie wouldn’t have won any prizes for being the tallest chap in the room, but he made up for it by being larger than life itself when he headed up the annual St Patrick’s Day parade in the city. Ronnie was our mascot – our leprechaun – our piece of magic that made the day special.

When Mark Downey first ran into him one night in a bar and proposed the idea, Ronnie told him to feck off. If you’ve met Ronnie, you’ll know how funny this was. He thought Mark was joking, taking the mick. But he was serious. And finally convinced that it was all for real, when Ronnie donned his green and gold, he was serious, too. Seriously funny.

Ronnie (602x800) (2)His humour could draw blood from the most insipid of turnips, make a crying child laugh through their tears, and put a smile on the grumpiest of faces. You couldn’t help but laugh at his antics. I remember the first year, when he and St Patrick (aka Patrick Davitt) led the fledgling parade through the streets of Budapest, the city didn’t quite know what was happening. There were times when Ronnie appeared to be walking on air – he loved it. The celebrity hairdresser from the East End (a Brit I ask you!) leading the St Patrick’s Day parade in Hungary … how far he had come. And along that starry path I heard mention of Dragon’s Den and a chair made of hair. He was a certainly a man with stories.

Last weekend, RonIMG_1366 (464x800)nie died. Suddenly. His tea was still warm when he was found. I don’t know what happened but judging from the shock of it all, it wasn’t expected. I didn’t know him well. But what I knew of him I liked. He was a breath of fresh air, a man who loved life with a passion. His enthusiasm was infectious. Our parade will be all the greyer for his passing.

But no – wait a minute. He wouldn’t have wanted that… he’d have expected us to party on and celebrate. And we will, Ronnie, we will, and we’ll certainly raise a glass or three in your memory.

Le mile buíochas, Ronnie. I am truly grateful that I had the chance to march a few streets with you.

 

 

Irish. In Budapest. Next week.

It’s not difficult to be Irish abroad, especially not in Hungary. And especially not during the lead-up to St Patrick’s Day. When he was writing in 1957, James Michener called Hungarians ‘the Irish of Eastern Europe’. In the years I’ve been here, I’ve seen so many similarities between the two peoples. We both have what WB Yeats describes as an ‘abiding sense of tragedy that sustains us through temporary periods of joy’. We both like to party. And we both like to talk.

_IGP2353-1 (800x532)Next week begins a series of events for everyone with a drop of Irish blood and those with a penchant for all things Irish. Far from what has become a drink-fuelled frenzy in other parts of the world, St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Budapest are of a different standard altogether.

Kicking off on Wednesday, 12th March, is the final of the 2014 Gift of the Gab, a charity speech slam that is now enjoying its fourth successful season. Five qualifying finalists compete to see who in Budapest has that unequivocally Irish trait, that ability to talk to just about anyone, just about anywhere, about just about anything. The five hopefuls will each give a five-minute prepared speech on a topic of their choice and a three-minute impromptu on a topic suggested by the audience. Five judges chosen on the night will decide who is crowned the winner of the GOTG 2014. This year’s final takes place at the New Orleans Music Club on Lovag utca in the VI kerulet and kicks off at 7.30 pm. Tickets can be purchased from the venue (10am – 5pm) and cost 2000-2500 huf with an additional option for dinner. All proceeds go to the Irish Hungarian Business Circle’s Give a Little charity campaign.

On Sunday, 16th March, the annual St Patrick’s Day parade will set off from Szabadsag tér at 3.30pm. People start gathering about 2pm and as the crowds amass, the craic kicks off. Leprechauns, Irish wolfhounds, and other random characters dressed in green mix and mingle as the anticipation grows. Then, in true parade fashion, with banners and bands, as many as two thousand people will wean their way through the city to end up at Instant,  Nagymezo 38 for a real Irish party including the three essential elements: ceoil (music), caint (chat), agus craic (and fun). Festivities will continue on in to the night with the foot-stomping Hungarian Irish band, Firkin. All you need to do is dress up, show up and bring a smile.

On Saturday, 22nd March, the annual St Patrick’s Day Gala Dinner will be held at Le Meridien hotel in Budapest. In its seventh year, this annual event is a great opportunity to experience a real Irish-Hungarian night out. With a four-course Irish dinner, traditional Irish music and dance, it’s a night not to be missed.  Tickets are on sale now from the IHBC or Le Meridien. See www.IHBC.hu for more details.

Whatever you’re after, St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Budapest will sort you out. Step out with the crowd and banish those winter blues by donning any one of the forty shades of green.

First published in the Budapest Times 7 March 2014

A bet is a bet

Fancy dress and all that comes with it makes me break out in a cold sweat. I hate dressing up unless we’re talking ‘put on your best boots and I’ll put on my pearls‘ sort of fancy. So when Tim Child agreed to participate in the GOTG on condition that I ‘dress up’ for the St Patrick’s Day parade, I reluctantly agreed. If it’s attention you seek, try dressing as a leprechaun and taking the M3 from Klinikak to Arany János utca on a quiet Sunday following the national holiday. There is no crowd to get lost in! If anything, it’s cured me of any latent desire I might have had to be famous.

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The occasion? The third annual St Patrick’s Day parade in Budapest. Alongside 1346 other people (and yes, me and my team of four stalwarts counted them all) I walked the route, decked out in my leprechaun hat and beard, silently thanking St Patrick himself that no one seemed to recognise me. Unlike last year, it was bitterly cold. Zero degrees. With sunshine. The pace was brisker than usual. It wasn’t weather for sauntering. As the crowd made its way from Szabadsag tér to Erszebet tér, it gathered momentum. In a city where demonstrations and mass gatherings are becoming more and more common, it was a refreshing change for many to have a mass of people partying not protesting.

IMG_2690 (574x800)Only the hardy braved the outdoors at Godor while the rest of us supped on our whiskies and pints of Guinness while enjoying Irish music and dance inside. Everyone who should have been there, was there. From the Irish wolfhound to the Pipe Band. From the Ambassador to the representative of the Garda Siochana. Irish, Hungarian, Spanish, English, Scottish, Welsh, American, Czech, Lithuanian, Russian, Latvian, Norwegian, Chilean, Canadian … it was an all-encompassing multinational crowd that had one thing in common: the colour green. My award for best-dressed went to Dalma Jeney  – what style!

There’s something quite remarkable about St Patrick’s Day. It doesn’t matter who you know or don’t know… everyone is the best of friends. Total strangers have the craic, friendships form on the basis that one looks more ridiculous than the other. Conversations that strike up at the bar lead to lasting friendships.

IMG_2619 (599x800)I’m proud to be Irish. I’m proud of my heritage, my tradition, and everything that makes me, me. To be Irish, away from home, on St Patrick’s Day, in a city where others share your passion for life if not your bloodline, is quite an experience. Hat’s off to Mark Downey, the IHBC, and the team of organisers that made Sunday yet another day to remember.

Don’t tell Tim Child… but loathe that I am to admit it, dressing up was actually fun!

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The wearin’ of the green 2012

I don’t do fancy dress…not since I went to a party in Dublin cleverly dressed as a tube of toothpaste and everyone thought I was a table lamp. I never once entertained thoughts of dressing up as a leprechaun for St Patrick’s Day, even if it meant getting my name in the Guinness Book of Records. I have zero interest in it all. Last year, in Budapest, on this very day, I confessed to being a parade pooper but I was converted to the joys of it all. This year, I took a major step forward in my therapy and went out, in public, wearing a headband with green bopping shamrocks. One step at a time. Perhaps in 20 years time, I’ll be the one in the orange pigtails.

As we walked over to Szabadság tér, all three of us in our boppers, watching people’s reactions was priceless. Some  laughed out loud. Some tried to hide their smiles. Some stared at us as if we were mad. For the most part, we were like three little rays of light bopping our way through Budapest. Turning onto Szabadság tér and seeing the sea of green, white, and orange, was amazing. The sun was out, the sky was blue, and everyone was in great form. Lots of people dressed up – went the whole hog. Whole families were togged out in the gear and everyone looked like they were having a ball. The Irish wolfhounds competed for attention with the Jameson girls and everyone milling around was in great form.

By my reckoning (verified by two others ad hoc counters) there were about 980 people in the parade at one stage. Let’s say 1000 people took part. That’s 1000 people wearin’ the green, tramping through the streets of Budapest led by a pipe band and a pack of hounds. The reception from the man in the street was nothing short of brilliant – cheers, shouts of encouragement, laughter – and that from those who hadn’t a clue what it was they were witnessing.  In a week that saw parades of political nature on the streets of the city, this one was refreshingly simple, uncomplicated, and happy. A bunch of Irish and Hungarians celebrating what it means to be Irish.

The party ended up back in Deak tér with dancers, musicians, and plenty of leprechauns. The festivities were still in full swing when we left and no doubt will continue well into the night. The brainchild of the Irish Hungarian Business Circle, the parade is part of a four-day festival celebrating the Irishness in Budapest. This is its second year and it’s going from strength to strength. It’s no mean feat organising such an event – hats off to the Parade Committee and all those involved.  There’s nothing quite like seeing grown-ups enjoying themselves like children. We need to do this more often  and remember what it’s like to have simple, uncomplicated fun.

Beannachtaí na Féile Padraig daoibh go léir

 

The wearin’ of the green

I dislike St Patrick’s Day parades with a passion that should have received specialist treatment long ago.  It’s not just St Patrick’s Day parades, it’s any parade. I’m a self-confessed parade pooper. So, sometime late last summer, when I first heard about the idea of  staging a St Paddy’s Day parade in Budapest, I cringed. I heard it twice from two people I both like and admire so for once, I kept my mouth shut; I held my counsel. For the past few months I’ve been silent on the subject, keeping my distance. Other than haranguing the organisers about missing apostrophes and unnecessary full-stops, I have said nothing, and done even less.

I even went so far to arrange to be out of the country for St Patrick’s Day itself, but I was out-paddied. The parade was scheduled for the 19th and I arrived back in town a day too soon. Today, Saturday, was a miserable day – damp, drizzly, and grey –  typical parade weather. Tempting as it was to stay home and clean my floors and windows, sort my socks and alphabetise my spices, I couldn’t not go. I’m Irish for God’s sake. I had to go. I had no excuse, at least none that would hold water. So off I toddled to Szabadság tér for the grand gathering, with every intention of showing my face, saying my quick hellos,  faster goodbyes, and then beating a hasty retreat.

When I got there, I saw a sea of green in the top corner of the square. The weather was doing little to dampen the enthusiasm of those who were first to arrive. Had Johnny Cash risen from the dead and launched into 40 shades of green, it wouldn’t have surprised me. I doubt the wearin’ of the green has ever been taken so seriously. The IHBC lads were togged out in style with St Patrick and the Leprechaun playing their parts a little too convincingly. From toddlers in prams and pushchairs to those who have seen more than a few parades in their lifetimes, the crowd slowly grew.

When the pipers arrived and opened with Amazing Grace, something inside me switched on. I finally got what it was the lads were on about, the gap they wanted to fill and suddenly a St Patrick’s Day parade didn’t seem like such a bad idea after all. It’s not often that the Irish in Budapest get to gather in one place for one reason and it quite surprised me to see so many there.  And I know they weren’t all Irish Irish – which is even better still. James Michener, in his 1957 book, The Bridge at Andau, describes the Hungarians as the Irish of Eastern Europe. There is a huge affinity here for all things Irish – and while that can be said of many places, to see such a friendly, fun, high-spirited parade in Budapest that served little other purpose than to underscore the importance of having the craic, was probably an attraction in itself.Today was a work day in Hungary but that didn’t stop those in their offices along the route stopping for a minute to wave and wonder. The bemused faces on the passersby, or the faces of drivers stopped in traffic to let the parade were priceless. For many, seeing St Patrick standing on the steps of the Basilica with a Leprechaun by his side, both dispensing blessings on the crowd below, must have seemed a little surreal. As the sea of green marched onwards towards its final resting place – the Guinness House – more and more people joined in. I stopped once to count and at a rough estimate I’d say 546 people took part, give or take a couple of balloons. Not a bad showing at all for a first attempt at rallying the troops.

If you’d told me a few months ago, or even last week, that I’d have marched in a Paddy’s Day parade of my own volition, I’d have said you were mad. If you’d told me that not alone would I have marched, but that I’d have enjoyed it, I’d have said you were off your rocker. But sometimes it’s not a bad idea to remind myself from whence I’ve come and to take a little pride in the fact that St Patrick’s Day is billed, worldwide, as the friendliest day of the year.

So kudos to Messrs Downey and Griffin and Harron, the IHBC, and parade volunteers for pulling this one off. Impressive stuff. Today was a good day to be Irish in Budapest. And, you never know, next year I might even wear a hat!