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 Mayor of London's
St. Patrick's Festival  2001-2009

Norah Casey was Chair of the The Mayor of London's St. Patrick's Festival Advisory Forum from 2001 - 2009 and played a pivotal leadership role in turning the dream of an annual, official St. Patrick's Festival in central London, into reality.

Following are Norah's responses to a 'Brief Questionnaire: St Patrick’s Day Festival, London 2002-2008' that she was asked to complete when Boris Johnson became Mayor of London. We thank her for sharing this with us. 

 

The context: Boris Johnson served as mayor of London from 1 May 2008 until 5 May 2016, being elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2012. There were significant questions being raised in the early months of his election in 2008 over the funding and necessity for the St Patrick’s Day Festival in London. In 2001 the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, invited me (Norah Casey) to bring together significant Irish groups, community representatives and notable Irish figures to discuss the formation of London’s first every significant St Patrick’s Day Festival. That first year all of the various and disparate activities throughout London were brought together in a festival brochure. In March 2002 the first every central London St Patrick’s Day festival was held with a parade and a concert in Trafalgar Square. I chaired the Festival from the outset in 2002 through to 2009 – the first one under the Mayorship of Boris Johnston.

These questions were in response to queries from the new Mayor’s office on the value and importance of the Festival.

 

1. What do you think is the most important aspect of the St Patrick's Day Festival

since 2002?

 

The most important element of the London festival is that it is non-political, inclusive and fun. It is about Irish people of all generations and backgrounds coming together and welcoming all Londoners and visitors to join them for a weekend (if not longer) of celebration. I also like the fact that it has grown beyond the three venues and the weekend to incorporate other activities throughout the month of March. It is very important that the festival promotes the arts, traditional music, Irish food, crafts, film and many other elements that make up modern Ireland.

It was amazing in year one (all the way back in 2002) to see people take to the streets for the parade and flock to the festival in Trafalgar square but the really important element of that first year was the celebratory focus – there was no question of Irish people ‘marching the streets’ it was a really great expression of Irishness and Irish culture which allowed others to join in and to celebrate alongside us.

 

2. What do you enjoy most about the Festival?

 

That in brings together all sides of the Irish community in London while being inclusive of other cultures and Londoners. I like the fact that it’s a celebration and that it encourages people to see being Irish in a positive light which has nothing to do with the troubles or any of the old clichéd stereotypes of the Irish as drinkers etc. I especially like the focus being on ‘the family’, which allows the next generation to enjoy the event.

 

3. What do you think is the Festival's significance for the place of the Irish in London?

I think it is hugely important and I would go so far as to say it was a watershed in how the Irish felt about their capital city and their engagement with that city. The ability to openly celebrate Irish culture – music, art, theatre - in such an overt manner was very significant and it was especially important that it had the stamp of approval from the Mayor. This was a first for London and a first for Irish people who lived there. That first year was very emotional for many of the Irish who turned up - most said they never believed that it could be possible for them to be able to celebrate so publicly in such an iconic London venue. It was very symbolic that the first festival was held in the heart of London – we had fought hard against various authorities to ensure that it was held in Trafalgar Square. I believe that it was the first time that Irish people felt they had been accepted as a valued and important community of people in London.

 

4. What do you think is the value of ethnic/national festivals in general?

 

When they work well, they can be a powerful medium in raising the profile of that group/community and educating the general population about cultural diversity. The St Patrick’s Day Festival is fortunate in that it brings together the community of Irish people in London while not alienating the population at large. 

 

5. How well do you think the Advisory Forum works as representative of the Irish in London?

 

It is a very inclusive Forum with representatives from a wide range of backgrounds particularly in culture, music, the arts, Irish community groups and significant leaders within the Irish in London. The Parade group meets in tandem with the Mayor’s St Patrick’s Day Festival Advisory Forum and is made up primarily of representatives of the Council of Irish County Associations (CICA). We decided to keep the two separate to ensure that the parade received a strong community focus and built on the excellent work that CICA had begun all those years ago in running the parade in London.

6. How would you compare the St Patrick’s Day Festival in London to others you have attended (if you have) in Ireland or elsewhere in the world?

 

Irish Festivals globally reflect the community of that city or country and its relationship with Ireland. Because of the shared history between our two countries the London-based festival had to be very different and inclusive. The event is progressive, positive and family focused. Over time it has spread across a wide range or locations and activities to reflect the huge numbers of first-generation Irish in London and subsequent generations who have made the city their home. That brings a very different perspective to the Festival and is unique in the Irish diaspora festival experience.

 

7. Is there anything you would change about or add to the Festival?

 

More street theatre, a bigger budget for theatre and film and generally a greater focus on the arts. A stronger provision for schools to get involved through an arts-based grants system perhaps. And given the questions being raised about funding we need a bigger buy-in from business and commercial sponsorship to allow it to grow.

 

8. Is there any further comment you would like to make that may have been sparked by thinking back on the past six years of the Festival?

 

It is very hard for people who are new to the festival in 2008 to imagine just how difficult it was to establish the St Patrick’s Day Festival initially. Even with the Mayor’s support there were significant difficulties in getting the various stakeholders and authorities on board – even simple things like getting insurance in place for Trafalgar Square was tremendously hard when we had no track record. Getting all of the various factions of the community to come together and convincing (primarily) Irish businesses to help fund the costs. The CICA were naturally very nervous about the festival and what it would mean for them and all the years they had put in to running a parade in London – especially during the very difficult years. It took time and patience on both sides to learn how to work together and I am really glad that we did make the effort to understand one another because the festival is all the better for having the CICA’s invaluable input.

Overcoming the anxieties among the police, Westminster Council and others about the potential for security alerts and violence (and among the more conservative authorities who believed the streets would be filled with drunken Irish people causing mayhem for the day). I think that most of us at that time took a big deep breath and ploughed on because we had the support of Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone and his team. Central among them was Redmond O’Neill and I do think that its important in the context of what happens next to pay tribute to people who took some brave decisions at that time.

Thankfully our problem now is how to build and grow the festival. I also think that it is important that it has core funding from the Mayor’s office and that it retains its ‘official status’ as a festival in the city’s programme of events.

 

Norah Casey

September, 2008


This account has been published on this site with the permission of Norah Casey.  

Photos from the 2002 Festival

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