Moscow celebrates St. Patrick


Stiltwalkers from Macnas, an Irish street theater group, make their way down The Old Arbat during the St. Patrick's Day celebration, Saturday, in Moscow. (Will Englund/WASHINGTON POST)
March 17, 2012

The skies were sullen, the temperature freezing and the mood merry as the St. Patrick’s Day parade got underway Saturday, its 20th anniversary in Moscow.

The Irish were everywhere, from Mansfield, Ohio (a Protestant chaplain in Moscow), Boston (an MIT professor starting a new university) and even Ireland (Philip McDonagh, the Irish ambassador). But the most ardent flag-wavers were hundreds upon hundreds of Russians, who share the Irish reverence for literature, love Irish music and apparently find few other opportunities to put on a kilt.

Many a toe was tapping — “Lots of fun at Finnegan’s wake,” the music commanded, and a moving foot fights the cold nicely. A thick crowd filled the Old Arbat, a pedestrian street in the heart of the city dating to the 15th century, and the speakers on the reviewing stand, wearing clusters of shamrocks flown in from Ireland, had their say quickly so the parade could begin.

Traditional dancers swathed in green and wearing plaid tams led the way, looking as if they had arrived with the shamrocks, except they were draped in oh-so-Russian pelts of arctic fox.

The procession of the local Irish wolfhound club put spectator Conor Lenihan in mind of Grace O’Malley, the 16th-century Irish pirate queen. Grace visited Queen Elizabeth I on a peace-seeking mission in 1593, escorted by two pony-size wolfhounds, taller than she.

The Elizabethan court expected to greet an ignorant woman from wild County Mayo, said Lenihan, a former Irish minister for science and technology. Instead, the two majesties chatted in Latin, and came to an understanding. Today’s hounds may be shorter, but they have warm, flowing coats tailor-made for the Russian climate.

Any prize for most unexpected participant could go only to the FSB Band, the FSB being the successor to the fearsome KGB. Looking smart in their gray, double-breasted, gold-braided greatcoats, the musicians wowed with “You Are My Sunshine,” “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Down by the Riverside.”

They strode off to a stirring Russian march, leaving the Irish repertoire untapped. Bad intelligence perhaps? Did they think they were playing for the American ambassador, who lives a trombone note away?

The weekend had begun with a Friday night reception at the Irish Embassy, where Ambassador McDonagh awarded this correspondent a prize for understated but vibrant wearing of the green.

Flush with the luck o’ grandparents from Mayo, she walked through the crowd, her bounty in hand: a bottle of chilled Brogan’s Irish Cream. Happening upon a nice-looking man standing alone, she gave him an encouraging smile, failing to notice that his dress shirt was unblemished by the Western frippery of a tie.

He was, he told the alcohol-brandishing American woman, from the Iranian Embassy. A few diplomatic bon mots later, and he had melted into the crowd, international incident averted. The bottle of Irish Cream was briefly stowed on a nearby table. A few minutes later, it had disappeared.

A place on the Irish Embassy guest list yields more lasting riches, however, and the exceptionally fortunate may find themselves invited for an evening of poetry, read in English, Irish and Russian.

The publication in Russian of a journal of Irish literature provided one such occasion earlier this month. Patrick Prendergast, provost of Trinity College Dublin, emphasized the Irish-Russian bond by quoting a recent Irish Times article that cited Vladi­mir Nabokov: “None but an Irishman should ever try tackling Gogol.”

The reverse of that would have to be a Russian tackling William Butler Yeats, whose work was at the center of the evening. McDonagh, himself a poet, quoted Yeats by heart and recited one of his own compositions as well. Other poems were read in Russian by a Yeats translator. A visiting poet from Ireland, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, recited a poem she had written for her son’s marriage to a Russian woman.

Back at Saturday’s parade, the music eventually turned to “Whiskey in the Jar” — even though when it comes to real drinking here, vodka in a glass rules.

As the parade dissolved into the audience, groups of spectators joined hands to dance, men in kilts and tams chatted in their native Russian, and the pipes, the pipes were calling, not from Danny Boy’s glen, but along the rough paving bricks of the Old Arbat.

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