Half a million revelers thronged Dublin for the main St Patrick’s Day parade on Thursday in a bid to banish their austerity gloom as US President Barack Obama announced he would visit Ireland in May.
The parade of floats stretched through the capital for three kilometers in bright sunshine with Irish people and overseas visitors packing the streets in a much-needed boost for the battered economy.
Dublin festival chief Susan Kirby hailed a "fantastic day" for the capital, just one of the celebrations taking place in more than 100 cities and towns which are expected to bring in 50 million euros.
"We have a lot to celebrate and the crowds are making it a very special day," she said.
The feast day for the patron saint has become one of the world’s most recognized national holidays with parades around the globe, based on "craic," or fun, music, green-colored beer and fancy dress evoking the country’s favorite mythical creature — leprechauns.
The government uses St Patrick’s Day to showcase the country’s tourism, business, trade and cultural attractions.
Last November Ireland’s economic problems forced it to accept a 67.5 billion euro ($94 billion) EU-IMF rescue package, triggering swinging public spending cuts and hiked taxes.
It also sparked a political crisis that saw the traditional party of government, Fianna Fail, ejected from power in a general election last month to be replaced by a coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour.
With the celebrations lifting gloomy spirits, Ireland received a further boost as Obama announced he would visit the country in May, following talks at the White House with new Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
"I wanted to say today that I intend to come to Ireland in May, and I’m expecting to go not only to all the famous sites, but also to Donegal where my great, great, great, great, great, grandfather hails from," Obama said.
Obama has links with Ireland through an ancestor who emigrated from a small town in 1849.
The US president is also due to travel on a state visit to Britain in May and is expected to attend the G8 summit in France.
During the White House visit, Kenny made the customary presentation of a bowl of shamrock — Ireland’s three-leafed floral emblem — to Obama.
The prime minister has sharply reined in spending on what were seen as St Patrick’s Day junkets around the world in the past by ministers.
In their St Patrick’s Day message Catholic bishops lamented that the economic crisis was forcing Ireland to return to its former status as a country of emigration.
"The plight of Patrick, himself a migrant, has been faced by many Irish people who have struggled to live and integrate into new cultures."
They called for prayers for "those who are suffering at this time."