All dressed up in green and nowhere to go

St Patrick's Day revellers are told to scrub beneath their nails and walk in disinfectant
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The Independent Online

The 30ft lobster was nowhere in sight. O'Connell Street was teeming with people in the rain but they had nothing to look at. The annual St Patrick's Day parade, which attracts more than a million people to Dublin, was postponed because of the danger of foot and mouth being brought into the country.

The 30ft lobster was nowhere in sight. O'Connell Street was teeming with people in the rain but they had nothing to look at. The annual St Patrick's Day parade, which attracts more than a million people to Dublin, was postponed because of the danger of foot and mouth being brought into the country.

There should have been enormous crustaceans walking through the streets, trapeze artists swinging from the back of lorries, and stilt walkers in emerald green. The modern parade is a blend of artsy surrealism and old-fashioned marching bands, but yesterday, for the first time since independence, the Dublin crowd was denied the ancient tradition of counting the goose bumps on the majorettes' legs.

There was no Lord Mayor in his gilded coach, with tricolour; and no Grand Marshall - last year it was the singer Ronan Keating , flanked by 100 Harley Davidson motorcycles.

There are bigger St Patrick's Day Parades in the world - New York being the chieftain of them all - but Dublin is the spiritual heart of this Celtic festival of belonging. "We are the geographical centre of a global celebration," said the festival's artistic director, Dominic Campbell. "It's like Jerusalem at Christmas."

Yesterday was just a normal damp Saturday. The bright green bunting that should have hung from every lamp-post had been kept folded away. "We haven't dressed the city," said Mr Campbell. "It is naked out there." The party was officially off, although many of the people who had booked for the festival had come to Ireland anyway. The hotels were still full, and the airlines reported that most people had kept their bookings.

"It is frustrating," said Maria Moynahan, chief executive of the festival, which costs £1m to stage and usually lasts four days. "We couldn't give people an excuse to gather. We're not allowed to flirt. We either have to go the whole way or wait and do it later."

This was supposed to have been the start of the tourist season. Radio ads promised that the event would take place later in the year - "Just you wait" - but nobody knows how long the foot and mouth crisis will continue. It will be weeks before Ireland can be sure that nobody has brought in the disease this weekend.

The flight from London on Friday was packed, mostly with young men going over for the weekend. That was business as usual. Dublin likes to think of itself as trendy, but is less fond of its reputation as the stag and hen capital of Europe. Stewardesses who work the weekend shift need to be tough: on the way over the boys are boisterous, and coming back the combination of exhaustion and residual alcohol in the blood makes them volatile.

This time the aircrew had some fierce advice for anyone who had been near a farm: scrub under your nails, wash your hair in the shower, and dry clean your clothes. We walked across disinfected mats at the airport. There were big black bins for any meat or dairy products we might have absent-mindedly brought in. Those who declared that they had been near animals were led off behind screens by officials in fluorescent jackets, for some mysterious disinfectant process.

"Ireland has a population the size of Birmingham," said Seamus, a radio producer, in the Brazen Head, Dublin's oldest pub, at lunchtime. "We're proud of the way the people are taking all these precautions, And, I have to say, there are some in Ireland who look across the water at the chaos and say, 'Well, what do you expect from that shower?'."

The Taoiseach was in Washington, handing out shamrocks to George Bush and trying to persuade him that Ireland should be exempt from the ban on European meat and dairy products. The new-found prosperity, which made the hi-tech city of Dublin and the rural land beyond seem like two separate countries, has been threatened lately by stock market falls and a boom in property prices. Now the foot and mouth crisis has been a reminder that agriculture is still vital to the prosperity of Ireland. "The Celtic Tiger may be our international image but the Celtic Cow is still the economic mainstay," said Seamus.

That's why they banned everything when the threat emerged. Fishing was forbidden in rivers or at sea. Heritage centres were closed. Conferences were called off and some hotels outside Dublin closed down. The restrictions were eased on Friday, but too late for St Patrick's Day.

Despite the crisis, Dubliners did what they always do at this time of year: they headed for the country. Members of the government flew overseas to be guests of honour at Paddy's Day events from Beijing to Boston. "St Patrick once drove the snakes out of Ireland," said Seamus. "Now he drives the ministers out." The rest of the world came to the vacated Dublin, looking for a good time.

From early in the morning the streets were full. Many of the Americans were on the Auld Sod for the first time. They were the ones wearing plastic shamrocks in their hair, carrying green umbrellas and waiting to be told where - and indeed what - the craic was.

The English lads didn't give a stuff about cultural heritage, not having any to claim in this city. One group wore kilts; another had added floppy, felt leprechaun hats to the more usual uniform of jeans, shirts untucked and leather jackets. "We had a monster Chinese last night," said Barry from Chester, who had not realised the festival was off until he got here. "They're going over the top about this sheep shit." His group's cultural experience seemed to have gone on all night. He and his mates were heading for the packed pubs at Temple Bar - or, as it is known to Dubliners who avoid the place, "Ibiza in the rain".