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'When Irish eyes are smiling'
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Once a year is St Patrick's Day and "everyone wants to be Irish". Wearing green is in vogue and bar owners dig up shamrocks, made-in-China leprechauns and lure punters with cheap drinks, while playing The Pogues.

This year the annual jamboree has been brought forward a couple of days to Saturday rather than Monday, because the Pope decided "Holy Week" should take precedence over the bacchanalian revelries that commemorate the death of Ireland's patron saint more than 500 years ago.

Beijing's first St Patrick's Day parade is on Sunday. Courtesy of Tourism Ireland

But before the capital's religiously observant Irish Catholic community voluntarily forego meat, drink and sex to mark the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for Holy Week, they have the opportunity to indulge at the 16th annual Irish Ball.

Organized once again by Irish Network China, it will be held tomorrow at the Kerry Center Hotel.

A band will be flown in from the Emerald Isle and there will be "good food, craic (good times) and free flowing porters and whiskey", organizers say. Proceeds go to charity.

There is an Irish saying which goes, "A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures," so hangovers will not prevent the steadfast from attending Beijing's first St Patrick's Day parade on Sunday.

Starting at 2pm on Wangfujing Street, it is the second St Patrick's Day parade in China after the one held last year in Shanghai, according to Embassy of Ireland cultural officer Therese Healy.

What was intended to be a green and orange transformation of Beijing's major shopping precinct, however, has been scaled down so as not to clash with the ongoing National People's Congress.

"The parade is happening but crowd control measures are in place and it is limited to around 200 people," Healy says.

A stage outside the Beijing Department Store will host a variety of cultural events, ending on a high with the Irish rock band Kif at 8 pm.

St Patrick is Ireland's national saint but was ironically, perhaps, from the United Kingdom.

Aged 16 he was captured by raiders and ferried across the Irish Sea as a slave. He's famous for ridding Ireland of snakes, though the evidence suggests there were none in the first place. His sainthood comes from converting pagans into Christians.

Fittingly for a country famous for its diasporas, the first ever St Patrick's Day parade was held in Boston, US, in 1737. There are now hundreds of similar events, predominantly in English-speaking countries. Up to 2 million people attend the New York parade, while the Dublin event bangs the drum for five days of festivities.

Here, the festival will also be a weeklong affair, including traditional and contemporary Irish music and dance, photographic and multimedia art exhibitions, theater shows and literary events.

From Sunday until next Friday the Geantrai Players will be performing on its Wangfujing stage, with fiddles, flutes, tin whistles, a concertina and uilleann pipes. For the uninitiated, geantrai refers to one of three forms of early Irish music and translated means "laughter music".

Three dancers from the McKenna School of Irish Dancing will accompany the band and their jigs will be familiar to most people, thanks to American Michael Flatley, who popularized Irish dancing in the mid 1990s.

Leading a different kind of dance, Fearghus O Conchuir and Matthew Morris will perform a duet on the same stage called Match, which revolves around sporting obsessions. Olympic allusions are everywhere.

The contemporary dance scene in Ireland is resolutely experimental and later this month Rex Levitates will put on a series of shows at the Chaoyang Cultural Center. Bread and Circus equates the dancer with a Roman gladiator, providing entertainment for the masses.

There will also be an Irish-themed photographic exhibition near the Wangfujing stage from 12 pm to 7 pm, Monday to Friday. Information booths nearby will show off the Gaelic-speaking country's educational programs and other products.

If these activities don't inspire, then readings from some of Ireland's literary luminaries, including novelist Hugo Hamilton and poet Desmond Egan, may do the trick.

"The idea is to generally raise awareness of Ireland. Many Chinese know a lot about the country and its culture, such as (Flatley's) Riverdance, but we want to show that it is also cutting edge and multicultural," Healy says.

"Actually, the biggest non-European Community population in Ireland now is the Chinese community, with upward of 50,000 people. They live there very happily and put on various Chinese culture festivals. We are doing the same," in reverse.

A weeklong celebration of Ireland in Beijing will feature traditional and cutting-edge music and dance, photographic and multimedia art exhibitions, theater shows and literary events. Courtesy of Rex Levitates

An art exhibition will also open Sunday (invitation only) at the Beijing Art Museum Imperial City and will include various multi-media works from both established and up-and-coming artists, until March 30.

Through the Lens: New Media Art from Ireland features Declan Clarke, Malcom McClay and Isabel Nolan, among others. Perhaps the most intriguing show will be Varvara Shavrova's Untouched.

The Russian-born photographer and multi-media artist lives half the year in Beijing and the rest of the time in Ireland. It sounds tenuous, but the artist finds links between life in the capital city's hutong and rural County Mayo.

The semi-demolished wall of an old house in Beijing, for example, is juxtaposed with a bible lying near an old fireplace in a ruined farmer's cottage in Ballycastle.

Ireland's ambassador to China, Declan Kelleher, is quoted as saying in a foreword to the show that it reveals "intriguing similarities" between the two countries.

Early next month, Pan Pan Theatre will stage Oedipus Loves You at the Pioneer Oriental Theater. The production combines Freudian psychology, the plays of Sophocles and Seneca, with thrash metal.

While "Paddy's Day" doesn't create the same waves of excitement in China that it does in other parts of the world, the Irish Embassy appears to be pushing the boat out this year.

The cultural programs provide a welcome contrast to the predictable sounds of bars cashing in over the Irish holiday season.

But just in case tradition and a pint of Guinness is your bag (and why not?), a pub-crawl around the capital's Irish-themed pubs will find popular culture on tap.

Among the shamrocks and leprechauns at Paddy O'Sheas, for example, are daily performances from Irish bands. Wearing green and speaking Gaelic could win you free cocktails, while the big screen upstairs features Father Ted, a TV series so archetypically Irish it spawned a tourism industry.

(China Daily March 14, 2008)

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