The first marching units were still huddled against the cold eight blocks away yesterday when Tom Phelans stepped forward at the reviewing stand, tucked a violin under his chin, and began playing.

A few voices in the crowd joined in immediately. Then hundreds. And before Phelans had finished the last strains of "The Soldiers Song," -- the Irish national anthem -- thousands of Irish and non-Irish alike were singing and humming along with the music. The eighth annual St. Patrick's Day parade here was officially under way.

"It gets the old blood up," said Phelans, a short, balding man who left Belfast in Northern Ireland, for the United States in 1948. "It's the only day of the year that we celebrate our Irish heritage publicly, and I miss Ireland a lot."

About 86,000 parade-loving people, according to U.S. Park Police, braved 38-degree. breezy weather to join the Irish celebration as 34 bands and 10 floats moved along Constitution Avenue from 7th to 17th Streets NW. Despite the sunshine, the wind-chill factor was about 10 degrees.

"I don't think it's cold, I think it is a beautiful day," said Matt Hannon, chairman of the St. Patrick's Day committee. "We've got sunshine and St. Paddy showered us with his graces again."

Others differed. Three year old Amy Kayhual, red-hooded coat and all, huddled next to neighbor Rene Lambiasi in a plexiglass Metrobus booth, trying to keep warm.

To the thousands who attended yesterday's parade, the challenge of the day, besides fighting traffic along the Constitution Avenue corridor, was how to keep warm.

"We've got no more cups, sorry," yelled a hot-dog vendor to a customer who inquired about hot coffee. Another vendor, Paula Tannous, said, "today, coffee is selling better than anything else."

Balloons and other nice-day memorabilia were not selling. Balloon vender James Turner said he lost 20 balloons to the crowd and was ready to go home before the parade even started.

"But the parade is nice, and it kind of makes up for it all," he said, watching a platoon of precision-stepping Marines march down the route, the taps of their shoes keeping cadence with the band before them.

There were antique Packards, spitpolished and gleaming in the sunlight, appearances by local government officials and parade celebrities, a pack of well-groomed Irish wolfhounds and their trainers, colorful clowns and high-stepping high school bands.

"Look at the cowboys with the shamrocks on their saddles," a puzzled spectator said to no one in particular when several men dressed in Wild West costumes appeared in the parade on horseback.

"Ever hear of Bill Cody or Butch Cassidy?" said Tom Gleeson, one of the parade marshals. "They were Irish. There were a lot of Irish cowboys."

Greg Walsh, a philosophy graduate student at Georgetown University, stood along the parade route with a Moonpie-sized "Irish Power" button pinned to his coat.

"This day means a great deal to me because I am Irish, both my grandparents came from Ireland, and out history, our Irish roots, have been passed down by our parents," he said. "I've taken courses in Irish dancing and in Gaelic."

"This parade is not as big as the ones in New York City, but the spirit is here," he said. "What's nice is that you see the Irish and the non-Irish out here together and everyone is having a good time."

Bruce and Bonnie Glover of Silver Spring, husband and wife who "have a habit of dressing up for holidays," both wore green satin costumes she had made. Bruce dressed "sort of like a leprechaun," wore green knickers and socks and green and white saddle oxfords, and Bonnie wore a green pantsuit.

"Even if you're not Irish, and I'm not but my wife is, it's fun to pretend you're Irish and enjoy the spirit," said Glover, an artist. "We dressed up as turkeys for Thanksgiving, and what shall we do for the fourth of July, honey?" he asked his wife. "I know, we'll come as sparklers."