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“There are only about 200 Irish people in the city, so to be able to get so many joining in our party is very special.”
Gerard Michael MacGregor, a film director and one of the organisers of the Irish Film Festival running this week (see page 11), said it was “a chance to have fun, to let your hair down and do it in the spirit of being Irish.”
“That’s important for everyone, and it’s great to see it celebrated in so many cities and countries around the world, including Moscow,” he said.
This year’s parade welcomes Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov – a real coup for the organisers – and Dublin Lord Mayor Eibhlin Byrne, to enjoy a Celtic carnival of more than 1,000 performers and 10,000 spectators. Even Moscow’s city government is still slightly surprised at how a relatively small expat community has managed to grab such a huge slice of local affection since the first parade in 1992, but the event has become truly established in the capital’s calendar.
While the St. Patrick’s festival attracts an impressive and ever-growing range of international guests, the bulk of the work is done by volunteers. And impressively, the overwhelming majority of those “Irish” acts marching down Ulitsa Novy Arbat are Russian enthusiasts.
“There are huge numbers of Russians who love playing, listening to and dancing to Irish music,” Conroy said. “We even have groups learning the Irish language.”
Some have theorised about political and cultural links between two countries that have long found themselves on the edges of mainstream European culture – literally and figuratively. But Conroy’s explanation for the popularity of St Patrick’s Day is far more pragmatic.
“It’s a big celebration, and people here love their prazdniki,” she said. “It’s wonderful the way they make such a big show of birthdays and other holidays. I don’t think it’s really got anything to do with two countries which have gone through hard times; it’s more a case of people identifying with Irish culture – especially music and literature – and wanting to celebrate that together.”
Moscow student Natalya Akimova visited last year’s parade and joined the columns marching down Novy Arbat. She agreed with that assessment.
“It’s getting more and more popular every year,” she said. “It’s a bright and interesting parade – and of course there’s lots of Guinness!
“Ten years ago events like this were almost unknown in Russia, the same as Valentine’s Day and Halloween. Since then people have started to learn more about Irish culture, maybe done some Irish dancing and listened to Irish music and it’s grown from there.”