Little did the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade committee members realize that their vision and hard work in 1999 would result in over 5,000 supporters flocking to Millennium Square fifteen years later before taking part in a colourful convoy of banners, bands, floats in a Parade that ensured to the delighted citizens that ‘Leeds Going’ Irish’ was a day to enjoy and remember.
The first Parade was led by the Foxford Brass Band from County Mayo; the James Larkin Flute Band from Liverpool also took part. It started in Wellington Street and then took a route via East Parade, The Headrow, Briggate and Kirkgate to St Mary’s High School playing fields. Here there were short speeches and thanks before the participants went onto the Irish Centre where there was entertainment.
The same format was adopted for the next Parade but this started in the West Yorkshire Playhouse car park and ended in Millennium Square. All recent Parades up to the one in 2008 continued this tradition but started and ended in Millennium Square returning via Briggate. Here there were speeches from distinguished guests, followed by an hours display Irish music and dancing, before the participants went onto the Irish Centre where there was more entertainment.
Following the comment by a Leeds City Council official that although the St Patrick’s Day Parade had the use of Millennium Square for the whole afternoon it was just used at the end of the event as a finale, one member of the Parade committee suggested radical and audacious changes to 2008 Parade with the ambition of utilizing the talents of the organisations in the Irish community to reach out to the citizens of Leeds and make the Parade one of the city’s calendar events. The slogan ‘Leeds Going’ Irish’ was adopted as the Parade theme and the societies and GAA clubs that made up the Parade were invited to enter floats depicting Irish scenes accompanied by Irish music and dancing to embellish the pipe and brass bands that have always been the backbone of the spectacle; the makeover was competed by accepting a squadron of Harley Davison motor bikes to bring up the rear. A stage and a marquee and tents were erected in Millennium Square to provide a whole afternoon of entertainment, together with bar and catering facilities and exhibits of Irish activities in Leeds. With the help of good weather, a small number of volunteers, the contractors that generously provide the drivers and vehicles, and the Great Irish community, it was a resounding success, winning praises from Leeds City Council and the police.
Funding the Parade has always been a problem as it has no direct membership arrangement and is dependent on grants from the Council and Irish government that need to be augmented by fund raising activities. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Parade in 2009, it was decided to further develop the activities in Millennium Square. However, the transformation of the Parade in 2008 had pushed the finances into the red. Cut backs had to be made. However, the author of the new Parade sought ideas from the Irish business community on how to resolve the predicament. Despite the recession these people were very generous in their advice and their donations and provided a lifeline to the Parade which contributed to the outstanding success of the 2009 event.
There have been fifteen Parades up to this year with the stalwarts braving all kinds of problems and weather to keep it going. It is very apparent from the turnout that the Irish in Leeds want a St Patrick’s Day Parade, but our Achilles heels are helpers and funding. The Parade committee is very small, more volunteers would help formulate ideas to develop the Parade and ease the work load. We need ingenious ideas to generate funds and we need great support for our fund raising activities. We say to the Irish in Leeds this is your Parade, if you want it to continue and if you want it to develop further your presence in the organizing and running the event and your money is needed to achieve this.
The Irish Community is an important element in the ethnic make up of the city. We now have a mechanism through the Parade for providing a window to the citizen of Leeds of our culture and some of our activities. The Parade committee is very grateful for the assistance of Leeds City Council and of the many individuals and organisations that make this possible; one that has a colossal stature in this is the Leeds Irish Centre which was established 45 years ago.
Contributed by the Members of the Leeds Saint Patrick’s Day Parade Committee