Ireland's National Braai Day

International braais

With a little convincing – and it really doesn’t take too much – you can almost make yourself believe that they’re all cheering for you; that a couple of hundred thousand people have left home to line the streets in cheering throngs, raising the roof in an emerald chorus assembled entirely for your benefit. After all, you’re regally perched on an open-topped bus that’s meandering its way through a seething crowd, and you’re clearly the centre of attention. Evidently Dublin’s turned out en masse to pay tribute to the visiting South Africans, emissaries of National Braai Day…
The truth, sadly, doesn’t quite match the flippant daydream, for much as the entire city of Dublin has braved the grey skies and light drizzle to be out in the streets (rather nice weather for Dublin, it turns out), there’s a little more to the buzz of celebration in the Celtic air than Jan Braai and Dan Nicholl touching down in the heart of Ireland. No, the real reason for the massed crowds and public jubilation strikes a chord far closer to home: it’s March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. Or as Jan and I like to think, Ireland’s National Braai Day.
Of all the national days around the world from which National Braai Day takes it cue, few embody the spirit of total celebration like St. Patrick’s Day – to the extent that across the planet, people of all nations suddenly discover their inner Irishmen, raiding their wardrobe for anything green, and discovering an hitherto unrealised appetite for Guinness. Orange wigs, leprechaun outfits, atrocious attempts at Irish accents: on March 17 absolutely everywhere, the world becomes enthusiastically Irish.
But for all St. Patrick’s Day’s global reach, its spiritual home remains unequivocally Irish, and so a trip to Ireland on the country’s national day – and the opportunity to join in the celebrations, learn from them, and look at where they could be applied to National Braai Day – seemed an important cultural pilgrimage for the Braai Day team. The prospect of a weekend drinking Guinness in Dublin all weekend did add a little to the appeal…
…and so, after a dizzying exchange of emails with the wonderful Helen at Tourism Ireland, we were off to Dublin for a grand Celtic pilgrimage, which began in dazzling style: prime positions on the open-topped bus that led the official parade through the streets of the city to mark the celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day. An eclectic crowd (including a crew from Ellen Degeneres’s American talk show) joined us on board, and for two hours we weaved through the streets, cheered on by locals in full cry, and followed by street performers, floats, and more marching bands than have ever been assembled in one place. A riot of colour, noise, and Irish bonhomie, this was the carnival come to Dublin, and an electrifying celebration of Ireland to be part of.
The festivities weren’t confined to the streets, though; a mad taxi dash from the centre of town, and we were at Croke Park, the 85 000-seater stadium that’s home to the traditional Irish sports of hurling and Gaelic football. And we’d picked a good day for our debut viewing of both codes: the All Ireland club finals, with the national titles being decided. Violent, high-octane clashes of surprisingly deft and skilled athletes, the two games gave a crash course in the rules and strategy of each sport, from the swinging sticks and accurate passing of hurling, to the Australian Rules ancestor that is Gaelic football. Addictive viewing, and some sporting salve to the wound of Ireland losing to England at Twickenham on the same day…
From sport to culture, and after a fleeting visit to the Dawson Lounge, reputedly Dublin’s smallest bar (Andries Bekker, this is not the place for you), a visit to a traditional Irish concert at the National Concert Hall. Old Irish instruments combine for a haunting, passionate musical embrace of Ireland’s culture and history, and the blurred feet that Michael Flatley introduced to the world are still kicking furiously back home.
Several hours later, and Stefanus was attempting something similar on a Temple Bar dancefloor, having passed his pronounced Afrikaans accent off as rural Irish in an attempt to seduce a couple of Swedish tourists, who seemed rather concerned that Stefanus was having a fit of some sorts… Irish culture’s infectious, though, and Stefanus wasn’t the only one discovering his inner Flatley in a whirlwind of Guinness, music, and unrestrained delight, as the city of Dublin saw out the end of its biggest Saturday night of the year.
The next day, a slightly subdued trio emerged from the Wynn’s Hotel, a warm, welcoming spot in the heart of the city, for a cruise along the Liffey, beneath uncharacteristically blue skies. Lungs full of fresh Dublin air, we then settled in at the Guinness Factory, part brewery, part museum, part near-religious experience, to reflect on St. Patrick’s Day. In the company of Rory Mathews, an ex-rugby player from the Irish club that counts one Gary Teichmann amongst its alumni, we came to some simple conclusions.
Firstly, St. Patrick’s Day is marginally bigger than National Braai Day – but as they don’t braai as part of the Irish celebration, both days have scope for improvement. Secondly, the inclusive spirit of national celebration in Ireland is exactly what we’re trying to achieve in South Africa. And thirdly, Dublin over St. Patrick’s Day weekend makes for a quite unforgettable experience. Three South Africans had a magical visit to Ireland on the 17th of March this year; here’s hoping that in years to come, there’ll be braai smoke over Ireland on the 24th of September, and a similarly global zest for celebration when National Braai Day comes around.
Dan, Jan and Stefanus travelled to Dublin with Tourism Ireland. Visit www.discoverireland.com to learn more about travelling to Ireland, or call 011 442 0822 or e-mail: tourismireland@dpgsa.co.za.