By David Hennessy
London became a sea of green on Sunday for the city’s annual St Patrick’s Parade and concert in Trafalgar Square.
Thousands lined the route to see Mayor Sadiq Khan lead the parade with the Irish Ambassador Martin Fraser and Ireland’s Minister for Rural and Community Development and Social Protection Heather Humphreys.
The London Mayor Sadiq Khan paid tribute to the contribution of Irish people who ‘literally rebuilt’ the city after the Second World War and whose contribution is still very much evident in every public service such as the NHS and the emergency services.
Speaking to the crowd in Trafalgar Square, the Mayor reflected on the dark days when Irish people and people of colour were very much discriminated against but also the solidarity between those communities, saying ‘our diversity is a strength, not a weakness’.
Excited crowds squashed into Trafalgar Square to enjoy an afternoon’s entertainment curated by the London Irish Centre and hosted by television presenter Riyadh Khalaf.
Sharon Shannon was the headline act with other acts including Ais, The BibleCode Sundays, The Craicheads, Celaviedmai, spoken word artists Leon Dunne and Roxanna Nic Liam, the London Celtic Youth Orchestra.
There was also performances from Maguire O’Shea School of Dance and a fashion display by Irish youth creative programme Junk Kouture.
The day ended with a singalong that was unfortunately interrupted by someone jumping over barriers and running onstage to shout a drunken proposal into the microphones before being led away.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan spoke to the Irish World as the concert was getting started.
The Mayor told us: “It’s a wonderful day here today in London.
“We’re celebrating- a few days early- St Patrick’s Day.
“We’ve had outside of Ireland the biggest parade in Europe.
“This will be St Patrick’s week, St Patrick’s month, celebrating the links between London and Ireland, celebrating the history, the culture, the identity of our Irish communities, but also a massive contribution made to our city over many, many generations.
“We this year celebrated 160 years of the world’s oldest underground. Irish navies and construction workers helped build that. This city was literally rebuilt after the second world war with a big contribution made by the Irish community. They have a huge influence on our culture, our arts, our music.
“Look at our public services: The NHS, teaching, the care sector, the police, the fire service, our business. Massive role played by the Irish community.
“We must never forget the role they have played but also recognise our diversity is a strength not a weakness.
“But also we celebrate 25 years of the Good Friday Agreement. We’re gonna make sure we go from strength to strength, forwards not backwards.
“Outside of Ireland this is the biggest St Patrick’s Day Parade in Europe, it’s a good way for us to get together not just the Irish community, others as well enjoying music, Irish dancing, Irish fashion, Irish culture, a really good way to make friends, to mingle, to mix and after the last two, three years we sure need it.
“It’s a free event, we want people who are struggling with the cost of living crisis to come along, to enjoy themselves today, make friends.
“If you’re not originally from Ireland, you have got no links with Ireland you can learn about St Patricks’ Day, learn about the history, learn about the role they played.
“The wonderful thing is we celebrate our diversity and that includes the contribution made to our city over many, many decades by the Irish community.”
The Mayor would echo many of these sentiments when he addressed the crowd from the Trafalgar Square stage.
He said: “We’re here to celebrate the historic bond between London and Ireland, we’re here to celebrate the history and the culture and the identity of the Irish.
“We’re also here to celebrate at 3 o’clock when those 15 men in green jerseys will be beating Scotland and going on to win the Grand Slam,” he said to cheers from the audience before adding: “Sorry to my Scottish friends by the way.
“I’m also here to say thank you.
“I want to thank the Irish community for helping make London the greatest city in the world.
“Our city was literally rebuilt by Irish people after the second world war
“You go to any public service in London- the NHS, teaching, the police service, the fire service, the care sector- you see the contribution made by Irish men and women, Irish Londoners every single day; Thank you.
“But we also recognise the huge influence Irish culture, Irish music, Irish arts have had on our city.
“But I’ll tell you this, although London is the greatest city in the world there are people who try and divide communities. They try and pitch people against each other.
“My father told me a story when he first came to London in the 60s, the signs he saw outside the guest houses and the B&Bs: ‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs’.
“And during that decade there was solidarity between people of colour and the Irish community and we built on that during the 80s and 90s during the Troubles: People of colour, Muslim people, the Irish communities coming together.
“That’s why we’ve got to say without any equivocation, without any doubt, we believe our diversity is a strength, not a weakness.
“Happy St Patrick’s Day.
“Have a great week, have a great month.”
The Mayor was parading in a Father Murphy’s GAA top. Introducing London Mayor Larry O’Leary of the organizing community and the club said, ‘The transfer fee has yet to be negotiated but he’s with us now’.
The Irish Ambassador Martin Fraser said to the crowd: “Thanks to everyone here, we’re going to have a great afternoon for St Patrick’s Day, St Patrick’s week.
“We’ll paint Trafalgar Square green, we’ll paint London green for the rest of the week and we’ll paint the world green until Friday and then we’ll paint the England rugby team green on Saturday.”
Ambassador Fraser told The Irish World afterwards: “It’s absolutely wonderful to be here. It’s s great day for the Irish and a great day for London. It’s a fabulous feeling to be in the parade, to walk down Piccadilly and into Trafalgar Square and see the square bedecked with green and seeing so many people from Ireland and all around the world celebrating St Patrick’s Day.
“It really is special to see the city basically opened up for the Irish and to see all the great historic landmarks of London here in Trafalgar Square and along the route festooned with green. To be the guest of the Mayor and all the people of London is fantastic.”
Minister Humphreys told the crowd: “I know that the theme of this 20th St Patrick’s Day parade is London loves the Irish. Well I can tell you the Irish love London.”
Minister Humpheys told The Irish World: “I’m so proud to be here today representing the Irish government at what is a celebration, the 20th St Patrick’s Day Parade here in London, which celebrates everything about Irish culture, everything that’s wonderful about our heritage, our dance, our music.
“I know that everybody wants to be Irish today and rightly so. It’s great to be here, it’s been a fantastic day and it’s so important that we recognise and thank all involved.”
London Irish community figure Catherina Casey, who was the parade’s grand marshall, told The Irish World: “It’s been an amazing privilege. A really amazing privilege.
“It’s a torch bearer role in a sense, carrying the tradition forward and into the present time and then also carrying it forward for future generations so a really special day.
“One of the things that is really important about what we’re doing here now is how it’s changed and evolved over the years. It’s become a very diverse and inclusive festival reflecting modern Ireland and I think we should be really proud of that.”
Celaviedmai from Galway, who delighted the crowed with her rap and hip hop, told The Irish World straight after coming off stage: “It was amazing.
“It was my first time in Trafalgar Square so it was a great experience and I got to do it with the people I love so much. It’s great.
“I just love the craic. I love everyone coming out and being a community, it’ s a great experience.”
Mick O’Beirne of The Craicheads said: “It was good. It was very lively, fantastic crowd, proud to be Irish in London today. You seen it, it was rocking. It was brilliant. It was brilliant, quality, what can I say? That was a lot of fun.
“We were on the stage a few years ago but I can’t tell you proud I am to be here and be part of this today. People from all over the world here today, it’s fantastic so thank you to everybody for having us along, it means an awful lot to us, very proud.”
Ais told us: “It was amazing. The crowd were amazing and it was just great vibes.
“It’s just amazing to be celebrating what being Irish is, everyone belongs and it’s just a joyous occasion.
“I’m delighted to be here and just to be part of an amazing event.
“There’s so much diversity in Ireland. Ireland has so much different vibes going on and I just want to give light to people who are mixed race in Ireland and everywhere around the world.
“We’re all created through God’s hands and everyone can enjoy St Patrick’s Day because it’s for everybody.”
Sharon Shannon, who delighted the crowd with hits like Galway Girl, told us: “I loved it. Amazing atmosphere out there: Lovely, lovely people and they’re all dancing and all in great form and excited for Paddy’s Day.
“People love St Patrick’s Day even more outside of Ireland, I think, because it’s just a great excuse to celebrate being Irish, isn’t it?
“I love it, it just makes me proud to be Irish when I see how much St Patrick’s Day is celebrated all over the world, it’s just amazing. It’s phenomenal how much love and respect people have for Ireland, it’s lovely.”
Roxanna Nic Liam, who read her Irish language poetry, told us: “It was absolutely mad, a very weird experience getting to see so many Irish and Irish loving people in London in Trafalgar Square cheering the Irish language.
“When you think of being in London but being able to celebrate your culture and your roots and your ancestors, it’s such a nice mix of song and poetry, just to see people cheering that and really supporting that: Irish, second generation Irish, third generation Irish and then just people who just love Irish people and Irish culture.
“I lived here for three years and when you’re living over here as an actor half the time you’re struggling and you’re trying to make ends meet. It can be a difficult city as well as an amazing city but when you’re here for something so joyous and celebratory it really warms your heart and it’s a gorgeous city so it’s gorgeous to be back.”
The day’s host Riyadh Khalaf told us after the whole show had come to a close: “Honestly (it was) probably one of the best days of my life: Such an honour to host Paddy’s Day here in London. I’ve been here seven years and I think that this is probably one of the most amazing things that I’ve had the opportunity to do.
“The line up was amazing. We had food, dance, singing, poetry, it was all there.
Modern music, traditional music, there was something for everyone.
“But also above all of that is the crowd.
“When you host a live event like this, you’re really nervous that they’re just not going to be on your side but everybody arrived today, tens of thousands, just up for the craic and up for a laugh.
“They were all smiling and they were all taking part in this beautiful day so it was perfect.
“I am knackered but I am excited to have a pint of the black stuff now and let it all in.”