Facing less-than-ideal conditions, St. Petersburg's Rounders nonetheless brought joy to Dublin on St. Patrick's Day
And the band played on . . .
Despite wind, rain, fire and foot-and-mouth disease, St. Petersburg's Second Time Arounders marching band did its part Saturday to enliven one of the most miserable St. Patrick's Days in Irish history.
The 300 band members didn't get to perform in Dublin's famous parade, which was canceled for fear of spreading the disease that has forced the slaughter of thousands of livestock in other parts of Europe.
Nor did the Rounders get to stage a one-band parade on busy Grafton Street, as city officials had promised. That, too, was killed by foot-and-mouth concerns.
So the band wound up serenading shoppers in Dublin's largest mall, strutting its stuff along a gale-lashed racetrack and surprising hundreds of slightly tipsy tourists at the Guinness Brewery.
Local authorities "have gone out of their way to try to accommo date us and still stay in the limits of what the government will allow," band director Bill Findeison said. "It's not what we wanted, but it's the best we could have done under the circumstances."
The St. Patrick's Day Parade, held in Dublin every year since the 18th century, was to have marked the international debut of the Rounders, one of America's more unusual bands.
Created in 1983, the group is made up of 400 former high school and college band members who range in age from 18 to 93. Though they originally planned to march only in the '83 Festival of States Parade in St. Petersburg, the Rounders proved so popular they have spawned copycat bands across the country and appeared in parades as far away as Oregon and Texas.
Some 300 band members, along with dozens of friends and relatives, paid $1,299 each to come to Ireland, where they had been invited to march in the coveted last position in what Dubliners call the St. Paddy's Day Parade. Even after it was canceled because of foot-and-mouth disease, the Rounders decided to go ahead with their trip on the promise they could march down Grafton Street on Saturday.
But as band members were flying across the Atlantic on Tuesday night, Dublin officials nixed that plan out of concern other bands would ask to join. The city didn't want crowds forming at a time when the Irish government has banned large outdoor gatherings. (Although foot-and-mouth disease does not affect humans, it can easily be transmitted on clothes or shoes to cloven-hooved animals like cows.)
Thus the Rounders arrived in a quandary: What's a marching band to do when it has no place to march?
"We had to get some alternative venues," said Paul Meeker, whose travel agency arranged the trip. "We went to the mall and it turned out the mall manager was an American, an ex-Marine from Pittsburgh. Those creative American juices started flowing and he really came through."
Shortly before 5:30 p.m. Friday, the Rounders began lining up at one end of St. Stephen's Green Mall, where crowds had gathered to see who would win a car being given away by a local radio station. (It went to a teenage girl with no driver's license.)
Many of the observers, clearly surprised by the sight of 300 people carrying tubas, drums and batons, stayed on as the Rounders made a very noticeable Dublin debut.
"It's a big band," marveled Pat Clancy, a computer engineer who watched with his two children. "We came in at that end, walked all the way along the mall and they were still following us."
Indeed, there seemed to be more Rounders than shoppers, although the latter were near unanimous in their praise.
"I was really disappointed the parade was canceled so it is exciting to see this," said Betty Crowley, a teacher. " 'Tis a lovely start to the weekend."
Early Saturday morning, dozens of Rounders were rousted from their beds at Dublin's landmark Gresham Hotel when papers in a computer room burst into flames. The fire was quickly put out but heavy smoke forced many band members _ some in pajamas and hair curlers _ to flee to a hotel across the street.
St. Patrick's Day did not dawn any more promisingly, as the Rounders boarded their buses in a cold rain for the ride to the Leopardstown Racecourse. There, Dublin's Lord Mayor Maurice Ahern, brother of the Irish prime minister, apologized to them and other U.S. bands.
"In Ireland, March is a month of many weathers," said Ahern, an enormous gold chain draped around his neck and a sprig of shamrocks pinned to his tweed coat. "Last year it was sunny and scorching hot, with a temperature in the 70s."
Awaiting their turn, the Rounder flag bearers watched in dismay as their counterparts from another band trooped past outside, struggling to keep their flags from taking flight in the near gale-force winds.
"I think next year we should try a parade in the Bahamas," said Lori Buck, a fourth-year Rounder.
"I'm sitting this one out," said Aileen Chapman, who plays a saxophone at 93.
The sparse audience in the bleachers consisted mostly of Rounder "tag-alongs" _ friends and family _ and members of other bands as the announcer finally boomed out:
"All the way from St. Petersburg, Florida _ it's the Second Time Arounders!"
As the band launched into You Are My Sunshine and Hot, Hot, Hot _ on a day that was anything but _ the audience began to sing and clap along.
"They're great. They look like they're having fun," said Mike McGrath of a Delaware band. "They must be in weather shock."
The Rounders were to play for 20 minutes but the announcer, apparently freezing himself, signaled the concert to a close before they could get to Stars and Stripes Forever.
"That's really the height of American marching band music and they cut us off," lamented Margo Fischer, a flag bearer whose husband, St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer, was among the tag-alongs.
But the disappointment dissolved as the Rounders assembled for a final performance _ comfortably indoors _ at the Guinness Brewery. Those waiting in line to see how Guinness is made cheered and applauded the band members, who then headed upstairs for a party featuring Irish singers and dancers, a hearty lunch and, of course, all the Guinness they could guzzle.
"How many people do you know who can be in Ireland on St. Patrick's Day and have Irish stew at the Guinness Brewery with 400 of their closet friends?" asked Steve Harris, a St. Petersburg firefighter and Rounders percussionist. "It doesn't get any better than this."
_ Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at susansptimes.com