In spite of the fact that there were St Patrick’s Day Festivals in London, Birmingham, and Manchester and further afield across the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and even Mexico, there were no St Patrick’s Day festivals in Scotland before 2003.
This might be surprising considering the numbers of Irish who landed on these shores from the time of the great Irish Hunger of 1845 until around the outbreak of the First World War in particular.
However, given the hostility faced by the newcomers in their adopted country, public displays of ‘Irishness’ were rare and instead was expressed through Irish clubs, Comhaltas branches, Irish dance classes, Gaelic sports and St Patrick’s Day dances, all of which tended to be localised affairs and kept ‘within’ the Irish communities themselves.
By the turn of the new millennium, however, change was in the offing following the de-escalation of Northern Ireland’s troubles and the rising levels of pride and awareness amongst second-, third- and fourth generation Irish communities in Scotland and elsewhere.
In 2002, a group of individuals in Coatbridge got together with the intention of celebrating the town’s Irish ethnicity (for its size, Coatbridge has the greatest number of people of Irish descent anywhere in the UK).
A festival is born
The original committee – J. Bradley, Jim McCue, Tom Nolan, Fr Eammon Sweeney, Patricia Ferns, James O’Neill, together with Gerry Croal and Janice Sullivan who joined soon after – set out to create a celebration of Irish heritage and culture that could be enjoyed and participated in by as many people as possible. From this, the Coatbridge St Patrick’s Day Festival was born.
The first, one-day festival took place in 2003. In spite of the dire predictions of the small minority who opposed it, the Festival was a huge success for the 5,000 revellers who turned out to enjoy the entertainment provided from two stages in the town centre.
In subsequent years, more and more events were added to the programme which soon grew into a week-long affair. Some events from these early festivals are still popular today and continue to feature including the Irish Quiz Night, The Quiet Man Night and the Annual Lecture. The latter has been a particular success and has featured a range of respected and well-known speakers including Professor Sir Tom Devine, Professor Christine Kineally, George Galloway and journalist and writers, Eammonn McCann and Tim Pat Coogan.
Other visitors welcomed to the Festival have included Ireland’s former President, Mary McAleese, former Irish Ambassador to Britain, Bobby McDonagh, and RTE radio presenter Pascal Mooney.
New name, same values
In 2015, the Festival Committee changed its name the Coatbridge Irish Heritage Committee in order to better reflect the broad range of cultural and social initiatives that it brings to the Irish community in Lanarkshire throughout the year.
From its small beginnings, the Festival has grown to become a welcome fixture on Scotland’s what’s on calendar and in 2009, was included by TripAdvisor in its list of the world’s Top Ten St Patrick’s Day Festivals. The Family Street Festival highlight is regularly enjoyed by up to 20,000 people and has attracted visitors from Ireland, England, Spain, Sweden, Germany, Holland and America, as well as from across Scotland.
Coatbridge's strong ancestral links with Ireland made it an obvious candidate to launch Scotland's first St Patrick's Day Festival in 2003
Former Irish President, Mary McAleese, one of the many distinuished guests to visit the Festival
The Family Street Festival has always been the most popular event in the programme
A local festival with a truly international following!