Tim Peake and Bringing a Country Together

British ESA astronaut Tim Peake on his first spacewalk. Image Credit:  NASA  via  Flickr  (Public Domain) - ISS-46 EVA-1

British ESA astronaut Tim Peake on his first spacewalk. Image Credit: NASA via Flickr (Public Domain) - ISS-46 EVA-1

     One of high points for the United Kingdom this year was Major Tim Peake's mission aboard the International Space Station, which began on December 15, 2015 and ended on June 18, 2016. During those six months, Major Peake fascinated and inspired people back home in Britain and throughout the world by carrying out mission objectives alongside his fellow ISS crew members from other countries, such as repairing a failed voltage regulator which made for Peake becoming the first British astronaut to participate in a spacewalk.

      Along the way, he kept everyone up-to-date with his engaging social media posts on Facebook and Twitter, including his participation in the London Marathon on a treadmill – making him the second person to run a marathon in space, various videos highlighting his life aboard the ISS, his support for British sports teams, and remarks for occasions such as New Year’s Day and the Queen’s 90th birthday.

     Perhaps my favorite aspect of Major Peake's journey was when he shared photographs of various locations in the US, UK, and throughout the world from the ISS, including fabulous views of picturesque auroras. It is indeed true that one cannot fully appreciate the world unless it is viewed from that vantage point.

     For Major Peake, it all must have been an incredible experience – one which he appeared to thoroughly enjoy for every minute. Even before he returned home, he was being celebrated as a hero throughout the UK and there was great interest in his mission from the public via several platforms, particularly social media. As the first British ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut and only the second Briton to wear the Union Flag patch in space, Peake was conferred the Freedom of the City by his hometown of Chichester and the Queen made him a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George for his services to research and scientific education – all while he was still aboard the ISS.

     Having returned from space, Major Peake now intends to embark on a tour of the United Kingdom this month, during which he will visit all four capital cities of the country (London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast), as well as Leicester, Manchester, Salford, and Glasgow. According to Principa, Major Peake will be “will be giving presentations at each city, giving his first-hand account about life onboard the ISS and talking about the important science experiments he conducted during his mission.”

     Alongside Major Peake for part of this tour will be our own Colonel Tim Kopra, a NASA astronaut who was a crewmate with Peake aboard the ISS. The two Tim’s (who look quite similar in appearance) will be in Belfast, Edinburgh, and London in what is expected to be an engaging series of events about their time working and living in space, as well as inspiring others to become astronauts, so that they may explore space and make new discoveries for the benefit of mankind. On a wider scale, there is the potential for Britain to develop its own spaceport and having more people interested in space and space travel may well provide additional impetus for such a spaceport to be built. With regard to Tim Peake, there has been an ambitious education and outreach initiative in which the UK Space Agency has invested £3 million to engage over a million young people into his mission and so this tour is also a way for him to thank the British public for their support.

The two Tim's - Britain's Peake and America's Kopra. Major Peake is being given a patch by Colonel Kopra to commemorate his 100th day in space on March 24, 2016. Image Credit:  NASA  via  Flickr  (Public Domain)   - ISS047-E-017191

The two Tim's - Britain's Peake and America's Kopra. Major Peake is being given a patch by Colonel Kopra to commemorate his 100th day in space on March 24, 2016. Image Credit: NASA via Flickr (Public Domain) - ISS047-E-017191

     On that matter, he remarked that he had been “extremely touched” by that support before, during, and after the ISS mission, and made a particular mention about watching the launch parties attended by so many in the four capitals as he ascended into space last December. Having viewed those celebrations, Major Peake now looks forward to the tour allowing him to partake in those celebrations himself and to thank as many people as possible.

     One hopes that he will receive hearty thanks from the people of a United Kingdom - wherever they live and are from - who are grateful for his service to the country. In these uncertain times, Peake shows what people ought to aspire to be, and is therefore an inspiration and an example to follow because of the hard work and dedication that has brought him this far, the grace and humility he has shown along with an uplifting personality, and for his love of country.

     Throughout his mission, Major Peake made it known that he was proud to be British – with his tribute to Her Majesty on her 90th birthday and frequently having the Union Flag nearby in his social media posts – and I do believe that this upcoming tour may be a way to celebrate what is good and decent about being British and sharing in the achievements of a British man which were made possible in part by the UK and its people at large. It may be asking too much for the Peake tour to be anything along the lines of what we have witnessed in the celebrations for Team GB and Paralympics GB following their dynamic performance at Rio 2016, but it ought to at least be something worthy of marking the achievements of Major Peake.

     Between these two – Tim Peake and the British Rio teams – there is a lot to be proud of as a citizen of the United Kingdom and they are examples of what can be achieved when the country comes together to make beautiful and extraordinary things happen and then commemorate them. With the country as divided as it is along several fault lines, it is sometimes a wonder that such things are able to occur, but I believe that this speaks to the enduring strength and resilience of a country that has withstood so much throughout its long existence. When there is a common sense of purpose, differences can be broken down to allow for synergy among different people (for the UK is a union of people as well as a nations) to work together as one, which instills pride in themselves as individuals and as something greater than themselves.

     Going forward, the virtue of working together, achieving together, and celebrating together as a United Kingdom will be invaluable as the country enters into uncharted territory. Perhaps the tour by Major Peake throughout the UK can help serve as a reminder to the British people of who they are and what they can aspire to become, while striving to build a better country, and indeed a better world, along the way.

Belfast and the Exhibition of its Most Famous Legacy

Titanic Belfast - the world's largest attraction dedicated to the ill-fated ocean liner. Image Credit:  William Murphy  via  Flickr   CC

Titanic Belfast - the world's largest attraction dedicated to the ill-fated ocean liner. Image Credit: William Murphy via Flickr CC

     If London was the first UK city I had known about, then Belfast was the second one thanks to its notoriety as the birthplace of the RMS Titanic, which has been a long-time interest of mine and remains a significant part of Belfast’s story.

     That story has been a long and complex one which begins with the settlement of the area in the northeast corner of Ireland during the Bronze and Iron ages, out of which still remain a 5,000 year old henge (older than the more notable Stonehenge in Wiltshire) known as Giant’s Ring and a couple of fort hills. Belfast became substantially established in the 17th Century during the migration of English and Scottish settlers, and the city was granted borough status by James VI & I in 1613. Through the 18th and 19th centuries, Belfast grew rapidly and went through a series of expansions to straddle between County Down and County Antrim as it became a thriving industrialized and commercial city with wealth generated through linen, rope-making, tobacco, heavy engineering, and shipbuilding – most significantly Harland and Wolff’s, which was one of the largest shipyards in the world.

     Belfast gained city status under Queen Victoria in 1888 and continued to prosper, but became politically divided over the issue of Irish Home Rule and eventually became the capital of Northern Ireland when Ireland was partitioned and the six counties of Northern Ireland elected to remain part of the United Kingdom. Within the city, there has been sectarian tension between its unionist/loyalist (usually Protestant) and nationalist/republican (usually Catholic) communities. This grew into a civil conflict known as “the Troubles” from 1969 to 1998 and resulted in the violent deaths of over 1,600 people, which combined with the decline of industry following World War II, saw the city suffer economically.

     The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 provided the political basis for ending the vast majority of the violence and since then, Belfast has largely moved forward in peace. As well as being the capital and largest city of Northern Ireland, Belfast is the second-largest city on the island of Ireland and the 10th-12th largest city in the United Kingdom. It is a center for higher education, business, industry, arts, and tourism, and its central area has undergone expansion and regeneration, so that it has achieved growth and is the economic engine of Northern Ireland.

     Part of that regeneration has come in the form of Titanic Quarter, an area of land located just to the east of the city center on Queen’s Island which once belonged to Harland & Wolff and home to the facilities which produced the Titanic and other vessels of the White Star Line. All but derelict by the end of the 20th Century, it has been transformed over the last decade into a mixed-use development at the center of which is Titanic Belfast. Opened in 2012 and visited by Her Majesty the Queen for the Titanic centennial (and her Diamond Jubilee), it not only stands as the largest Titanic-themed attraction in the world, but also as a monument to Belfast’s maritime heritage. The exterior takes on the appearance of the angled prows of ships in a nod to the great liners built there and is mostly clad in aluminum shards, so that it looks – interestingly enough – like an iceberg.

The expansive Main Atrium of Titanic Belfast. Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   CC

The expansive Main Atrium of Titanic Belfast. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr CC

     Stepping into the main atrium of the structure (which is home to Ireland’s longest freespan escalator at over 80 feet long), this heritage is commemorated with a compass on the floor around which are lines from Thomas Garnduff’s 1924 poem, Songs from the Shipyard. Indeed, it feels as like stepping into another world – when shipbuilding and heavy industry was king, this is also visibly seen with a 60 foot wall of rusted steel plates like the ones used for Titanic, as well as the names of all the vessels built by Harland and Wolff across from it. There's also a platform overlooking the atrium which mimics the Titanic's prow and may therefore provide for a Jack and Rose moment.

     From here, one can start a journey through the main exhibition, which is the Titanic Belfast Experience and features nine interpretive and interactive galleries telling the story of the Titanic, her sister’s Olympic and Britannic (collectively called the Olympic-class ships), and the city and shipyard which built them.

Harland & Wolff gates and White Star Line posters greet visitors as they begin the Titanic Experience with  Boomtown Belfast . Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   CC

Harland & Wolff gates and White Star Line posters greet visitors as they begin the Titanic Experience with Boomtown Belfast. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr CC

     The first gallery is Boomtown Belfast, which gives visitors the atmosphere of Belfast at the turn of the 20th Century as a city of industrial prosperity and political tension. Through an original set of Harland & Wolff gates are interactive maps and scale models of the Titanic, as well as a game to see how many rivets can be “fit” in 30 seconds. This leads to gallery two in the form of The Shipyard, where one is immersed into the sights, sounds, and even smells of the construction of Olympic and Titanic.

Scale replica sections of  Titanic's  bow and rudder, as well as the Arrol Gantry as part of  The Shipyard  gallery. Image Credit: All Titanic Belfast ( Left ,  Top Right , and  Lower Right ) via  Flickr     CC ; Collage by Wesley Hutchins via Photo Collada

Scale replica sections of Titanic's bow and rudder, as well as the Arrol Gantry as part of The Shipyard gallery. Image Credit: All Titanic Belfast (Left, Top Right, and Lower Right) via Flickr CC; Collage by Wesley Hutchins via Photo Collada

     An elevator (or lift, as they were called at the time) carries visitors to the top of a 66-foot scaffold alluding to the Arrol Gantry which aided in the construction of the sister ships, and from here, they are transported via a cart on a ride through other recreated elements of the shipyard, scale replica sections of Titanic’s rudder and bow, as well as photos and motion picture footage depicting what it took to build the biggest ships in the world. Gallery three – The Launch marks the completion of Titanic’s hull and her launching into the River Lagan with a large window showing the finished hull on the slipway before clearing away to show the area as it appears to today.

     With the empty hull in the water, visitors move on to the fourth gallery, called The Fit-Out, which features the great vessel going through her final stages of construction as she is fitted out to become a luxury liner. There are examples of cabins from each class, a scale model of the ship, information panels and large pictures of the interiors, and most impressively, a 360-degree CGI tour of the ship – going through seven levels from the engine room to the navigation bridge (seen in the above video). This leads to experiencing life aboard the ship itself in the fifth gallery – The Maiden Voyage. Here, visitors can walk on the deck, have a seat on a bench, and take in the views of Belfast Harbour while also viewing the famous photos taken by Father Francis Browne aboard the ship during his overnight passage on the first leg of the voyage from Southampton to Queenstown (now Cobh) via Cherbourg, France.

Gallery featuring Father Browne's collection of photos and deck benches with views of the harbor and atrium, as if on  Titanic  herself. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast ( Top Left  and  Bottom Right ) via  Flickr   CC

Gallery featuring Father Browne's collection of photos and deck benches with views of the harbor and atrium, as if on Titanic herself. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast (Top Left and Bottom Right) via Flickr CC

     Of course, the happiness and good feeling doesn’t last as Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks to the bottom of the Atlantic with a great loss of life. For this, galley six – The Sinking features a cold room and simulated water to immerse the visitor into the conditions experienced by the Titanic and the souls aboard her that night in 1912. The beeping Morse Code signals carrying Titanic’s distress call in form of CQD and SOS are heard, as well as audio from survivors giving their gripping accounts of the unfolding disaster, accompanied by the images of the great liner foundering.

Graphic novel-like depiction of the sinking  Titanic . Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   CC

Graphic novel-like depiction of the sinking Titanic. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr CC

     Also depicted is the confusion and contradictory reporting reports in the media during the early hours following the sinking. This leads into the seventh gallery of The Aftermath, where there is a full-sized replica lifeboat on which a large double-sided television screen displays the portrayals of the American and British inquiries into the disaster. There are also interactive tablets allowing people to search a database and see if they had a relative on board, as well as information on Harland and Wolff to the present day and careers of Titanic’s sister ships.

The Aftermath Gallery featuring a replica lifeboat and representation of the present-day Harland and Wolff gantry cranes. Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   CC

The Aftermath Gallery featuring a replica lifeboat and representation of the present-day Harland and Wolff gantry cranes. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr CC

     Following this, the Myths and Legends section in gallery eight deals with Titanic in popular culture, including books, plays, poems, films, songs, and other media that have been inspired by the ship for over a century. Clips and excerpts from these are featured, along with various Titanic memorabilia as Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On plays in the background. There are also more interactive tablets, this time providing answers to long-standing myths surrounding the Titanic.

Myths and Legends meet reality as  Titanic  appears on various Media. Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   CC

Myths and Legends meet reality as Titanic appears on various Media. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr CC

     The ninth and final gallery is Titanic Beneath, which brings Titanic’s story up to the present with the discovery of her wreck by Dr. Robert Ballard, and a video about the discovery and exploration of the wreck is available for viewing in an experience made to feeling as though the visitor is underwater. Further on is a glass floor revealing a mosaic of the Titanic floating underneath as she appears today on the ocean floor, as well as more information of the wreck and the debris around it.

Looking two-and-a-half miles "down" to the  Titanic's  final resting place in the ninth gallery of the Titanic Belfast Experience. Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   CC

Looking two-and-a-half miles "down" to the Titanic's final resting place in the ninth gallery of the Titanic Belfast Experience. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr CC

     Under this is the Ocean Exploration Centre, which features additional experiences with regard to Titanic as well as an educational facility drawing on expertise and resources from local universities, with a marine biologist on hand and a focus on the waters of Northern Ireland and images from Dr. Ballard’s expeditions throughout the world in the hope that Titanic may spawn interest in this area of study for future generations.

The Ocean Exploration Centre. Image Credit: all Titanic Belfast (  Top Left ,  Top Middle ,  Top Right ,  Bottom Left , and  Bottom Right ) Via  Flickr   CC ; Collage by Wesley Hutchins via Photo Collada

The Ocean Exploration Centre. Image Credit: all Titanic Belfast ( Top Left, Top Middle, Top Right, Bottom Left, and Bottom Right) Via Flickr CC; Collage by Wesley Hutchins via Photo Collada

     This whole experience can be done in 2-3 hours, though Titanic aficionados may naturally spend more time. In addition to the main exhibition, the building also features gift shops with Titanic memorabilia (including plates with the White Star Line logo), places to eat, and areas for booking events such as conferences and receptions – including a room featuring a stylized replica of the Grand Staircase. In the greater expanse of Titanic Quarter, there are the slipways on which Titanic and her sister’s were built – which have been turned into a nice walking plaza, the SS Nomadic – the last White Star liner and one of the tenders which serviced Titanic at Cherbourg, the Drawing Offices where the vessels were designed, Titanic Studios (where Game of Thrones is filmed), the Thompson Graving Dock, which was built to accommodate Titanic for dry-docking purposes, and nearby are the modern-day facilities of Harland and Wolff – dominated by the yellow gantry cranes, Samson and Goliath. Furthermore, within the the plaza which surrounds the Titanic Belfast building, there is a large map of the Northern Hemisphere which shows Titanic's maiden voyage track and features benches which form a Morse Code sequence which reads: “DE (this is) MGY MGY MGY (Titanic’s call sign) CQD CQD SOS SOS CQD (the distress calls radioed from the ship)”.

Aerial view of Titanic Belfast, with the slipways ( Olympic's  on the right and  Titanic's  on the left) above it and the Drawing Offices to the Right. Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   CC

Aerial view of Titanic Belfast, with the slipways (Olympic's on the right and Titanic's on the left) above it and the Drawing Offices to the Right. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr CC

     Titanic Belfast is open year-around save for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day (December 24-26) and times vary depending on the season. Tickets can be purchased for the main exhibition experience alone or for the Titanic Discovery Tour, a walking tour of the slipways, Drawing Offices, and other features in the immediate area of Titanic Belfast. Visitors can also join in special events for afternoon tea and Christmas. There's also the White Star Premium Pass to access the main experience, the Discovery Tour, and the Nomadic, which ought to make make for an exciting, educational, and memorable experience.

     For Belfast and its citizens, a memorable experience is exactly what they want visitors to have as the city strives to march forward confidently into the future. What’s remarkable is that until fairly recently, Titanic was not embraced so much by the city, for it was considered a mark of shame to have built a vessel that sank on its only voyage less than a fortnight after leaving her birthplace. With the discovery of the wreck and further confirmation that Titanic was a liner of sound workmanship, the city has done more to promote its connection to her, which has led to a cheeky saying that “she was fine when she left.” The popularity of James Cameron’s 1997 film helped bring Titanic to a new generation, as well as increased interest in Belfast, so that Titanic Belfast is in many ways, the culmination of the city’s reconnection with and pride in its most famous product, as well as sign of its renewal and regeneration. This reached new levels of success this year with the attraction welcoming its three millionth visitors and being named the Leading Visitor Attraction in Europe by the prestigious World Travel Awards – the “Tourism Oscars” – and seeing off competition such as the Eiffel Tower. Through Titanic, Belfast is indeed continuing to build for itself a positive reputation and showing that it is turning a corner in its long and layered history.

Grand View of the River Lagan, Belfast Harbour, the city itself and beyond. At Left are the gantry cranes of Harland & Wolff,  Samson  and  Goliath ; below them is the Thompson Graving Dock, were  Titanic  was partly fitted out; to the right is Titanic Studios in the large brown building, and further over is Titanic Belfast and the slipways. Image Credit:  Titanic Belfast  via  Flickr   cc

Grand View of the River Lagan, Belfast Harbour, the city itself and beyond. At Left are the gantry cranes of Harland & Wolff, Samson and Goliath; below them is the Thompson Graving Dock, were Titanic was partly fitted out; to the right is Titanic Studios in the large brown building, and further over is Titanic Belfast and the slipways. Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr cc

See more photos of Titanic Belfast on its Flickr account here and here.

St. Patrick's Day

     Today is St. Patrick's Day, and it is a day of celebration throughout the island of Ireland (both in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland).

     Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland - one of the four patron saints of the British – or Anglo-Celtic – Isles (with the other ones being St. Andrew for Scotland, St. David for Wales, and St. George for England).

St. Patrick as depicted on a stained-glass window in the Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, California.  Image Credit:  Sicarr  via  Wikimedia Commons   cc

St. Patrick as depicted on a stained-glass window in the Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, California.  Image Credit: Sicarr via Wikimedia Commons cc

     He was born somewhere in Roman Britain (likely Wales) to a wealthy Romano-British family, whose members were strong and faithful Christians. Patrick himself however, was not an active believer in his early years. At the age of sixteen, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates who took him into slavery in Ireland, where he worked as a shepherd for the next six years. It was during Patrick's time in captivity that he experienced a spiritual awakening and developed a true relationship with God, which eventually led him to escape and return home to his family in Britain. There, he studied Christianity, became a priest, and returned to Ireland as a missionary.

     It was in Ireland that Saint Patrick become known for converting the Irish people from polytheistic paganism to monotheistic Christianity, and supposedly used the shamrock to teach the concept of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). It is said that St. Patrick spent several years evangelizing in what is now Northern Ireland and succeeded on converting "thousands" of people. He is also considered the first Bishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland.

The three-leaf clover representing the Holy Trinity. Image Credit:  George McFinnigan  via  Wikimedia Commons   cc

The three-leaf clover representing the Holy Trinity. Image Credit: George McFinnigan via Wikimedia Commons cc

     It is not known what year St. Patrick died, but he is generally considered have died on March 17, which resulted in the day being named in his honor. He may not have been responsible for converting all of Ireland to Christianity, but he is credited for starting the process, and has been Ireland's patron-saint since around the 7th Century.

     St. Patrick's Day has been celebrated for centuries throughout Ireland and Great Britain. It is a celebration of Irish Christianity (in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions), as well as Irish culture and heritage in general. Public parades and festivals, the wearing of green attire and shamrocks, and church services are hallmarks of most St. Patrick's Day celebrations. There is also céilithe (a traditional Gaelic social gathering, which usually involves playing Gaelic folk music and dancing) and the lifting of Lenten restrictions on eating and drinking alcohol for the day, which has resulted in the infamous tradition of consuming alcohol.

Saint Patrick's Saltire

Saint Patrick's Saltire

     However, it was not until the 1903 that St. Patrick's Day became a public holiday in Ireland, thanks to the Bank Holiday (Ireland) Act, which was passed by the UK Parliament when all of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. It remains a holiday in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and large festivities are held in Dublin, Cork, and Galway in the ROI and in Belfast, Downpatrick, and Derry/Londonderry in NI. Outside of Dublin, the largest celebrations on the island of Ireland take place in Downpatrick, the city where the revered patron saint is supposedly buried at Down Cathedral.

     In mainland Britain, Birmingham is home to the largest St. Patrick's Day parade in the country, whilst London has held its own parade since 2002. Manchester hosts a two-week Irish festival leading up to the day itself, and the Irish tricolor flies opposite of the Union Jack above the town hall. Other celebrations take place in Glasgow, Liverpool, and Coatbridge - which have large populations of people with Irish backgrounds.

HRH The Duke of Cambridge and Baron Carrickfergus, Colonel of the Irish Guards. Image Credit:  Carfax2  via  Wikimedia Commons   cc

HRH The Duke of Cambridge and Baron Carrickfergus, Colonel of the Irish Guards. Image Credit: Carfax2 via Wikimedia Commons cc

     The Royal family also does its bit to celebrate one of the patron-saints of the British Isles. Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother used to present bowls of shamrock flown over from Ireland to members of the Irish Guards - a regiment of the British Army - whose members largely hail from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

     In recent years since their marriage, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Baron and Lady Carrickfergus) have attended the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade at Mons Barracks in Aldershot, Hampshire with the Irish Guards, whose Colonel is Prince William. The Duchess of Cambridge continues the royal tradition of having a senior female member of the Royal family present shamrocks to members of the Guards (including their Irish Wolfhound mascot), which was begun by Queen Alexandra - wife of Edward VII - in 1901.

     In the United States, St. Patrick’s Day is not a federal holiday, but there nevertheless is a strong tradition of celebrating it, especially in towns and cities with significant Irish or Irish-descent populations. The first public observance was organized by the Charitable Irish Society of Boston in 1737, and it involved a worship service and a special dinner.

     Since then, such observances have included large festive seasons with parades, feasts, and religious services. New York City is usually home to the largest St. Patrick’s Day parade, not only in America, but in the world, and typically features 150,000 marchers lead by the 69th Infantry Regiment of New York and including police and firefighting departments, bands, social and cultural societies, civic and government associations, and several other groups and individuals (including the Mayor of New York) marching up 5th Avenue for five hours along a mile-and-a-half route with around 2 million spectators.

The United States Coast Guard Band and Pipe Band Proceeding up Fifth Avenue in New York City during a St. Patrick's Day parade. Image Credit: Public Domain ( Wikimedia Commons  and  Pixabay )

The United States Coast Guard Band and Pipe Band Proceeding up Fifth Avenue in New York City during a St. Patrick's Day parade. Image Credit: Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons and Pixabay)

     Elsewhere, there are large celebrations and observances in Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Seattle, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. In Suffolk County, Massachusetts (which includes Boston), the day is officially known by law as Evacuation Day because it commemorates the evacuation of British soldiers from Dorchester Heights following the Siege of Boston during the Revolutionary War, which just happened to fall on St. Patrick’s Day 1776, and the observance of the patron saint’s holiday played a role in the official establishment of the current public holiday.

     In fact, Suffolk County is only one of two places in the United States where St. Patrick’s Day is a legal holiday. The other place is my hometown of Savannah, Georgia.

     The first parade in Savannah is generally recognized as having been organized by the Hibernian Society in 1824. In recent times, the annual parade and celebrations are usually the second largest in the United States after New York and have become globally-recognized – attracting numerous visitors from throughout the country and around the world. In a city with a population of 145,000, anywhere from 500,000 to one million people may participate in the festivities in any given year.

Sailors of the US Navy marching through the streets of Savannah during a St. Patrick's Day parade. Image Credit: Public Domain ( Left ,  Upper Right ,  Lower Right )

Sailors of the US Navy marching through the streets of Savannah during a St. Patrick's Day parade. Image Credit: Public Domain (Left, Upper Right, Lower Right)

     While the day still has a clear ethnic and religious significance, for most of us who live here (including yours truly), it is a cultural holiday for all to enjoy – white and black, Protestant and Catholic, religious and atheist, etc. – and I must say that as both a participant and spectator, I have yet to encounter hatred or disrespect for any group of people from whatever background. The best part is indeed, the parade, which includes various bands from the city and the surrounding region (especially from local schools), military regiments, social and cultural groups, government and civic organizations, the famous Budweiser Clydesdales, and many other unitsand individuals – some from other parts of the country and overseas.

     The crowds can get to be a bit much for our mid-sized city, but we generally welcome them as our neighbors and friends for the festivities which can spread out over several days, especially if the big day itself falls on or near a weekend. Our historic downtown area buzzes with streams of people getting around and enjoying themselves, particularly on the waterfront facing the Savannah River. Pubs of all kinds – Irish, Scottish, English, Welsh, and all-around British – boom with activity as people tend to gather around for a good time. It is – to say the least – a unique experience to remember.

Throngs of people on River Street in Savannah for St. Patrick's Day.

Throngs of people on River Street in Savannah for St. Patrick's Day.

     Understandably, St. Patrick’s Day is not for everyone for a variety of reasons – sometimes relating to the divide between Catholics and Protestants. However, on the BBC’s website, there is a page containing its archives from previous St. Patrick’s Day observances, with a video (the third one) featuring a reporter asking people on the streets of Belfast in 1978 whether they should get the day off on March 17th.

     Opinions were divided, but at the end of the report, there is a elderly woman who did not explicitly state her view on having the day off. Instead, she acknowledged that St. Patrick was the patron saint, and when pressed on whether he was Protestant or Catholic, she said that “he was neither Protestant, or Catholic, or popery, or anything else”, and that he was simply a man sent by God who loved Ireland – all of it.

     If he were alive in this modern day and age, I’d like to believe that he would extend a hand of friendship to the other patron saints of the British Isles, as well as all people living there - Catholic, Protestant, or whatever else they may be.

     So, Happy St. Patrick’s Day!