Cultural Experience | Ireland

St. Patrick’s Day: The Illini Takeover Ireland

There’s no better way to journey down the streets of Dublin than to march through the crowds during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

During my senior year of high school, when I tried out to become a member of the Illinettes Dance Team, a section of the Marching Illini, I had absolutely no understanding of what it meant to be a member of a marching band. To me, it was an exciting and fun thought to say that I, a girl who has never been able to successfully play an instrument, was now a member of a prestigious college marching band. Sure, I knew and expected to have long hours of dance and band rehearsal, learning and memorizing dance routines and marching drill on a weekly basis. But what I didn’t realize was how large-scale it would be, performing on the football field and in parades at a Big10 school in front of thousands, whether it was in the stadium or on national television screens.

As a member of the Marching Illini, I’ve had the privilege to travel to locations I never imagined visiting, let alone perform in during my time in college. Most recently, the Marching Illini was invited to perform in this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, Ireland, the largest audience of all.

This was the Marching Illini’s 8th Ireland tour—with the first tour taking place in the early 1990’s. The Marching Illini was the first college band to perform in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Ireland, and has set the trend for other universities since.

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Getting There

Transporting 150+ band members overseas is no small feat. Originally divided into 30+ separate flying groups with multiple connecting flights per group itinerary, I was lucky enough to be placed with one of the Marching Illini staff members who worked in the band building’s main office. She became the “mom” of my travel group, keeping us in the loop by sharing travel directions from our band director and travel agent. Most importantly, she helped us negotiate with airline staff to ensure that all instruments would be flown over from the states to the Irish lands.

Note to all students traveling abroad: leave your sousaphone at home.

Two layovers later, my travel group somehow made it to Ireland in one piece, instruments and all. The twenty-four hour time frame of travel from Champaign, Illinois, to Ireland, left Marching Illini members scattered across the globe; some stranded in Time’s Square in New York City and others at Buckingham Palace in London. As cheesy as it sounds, it really was the “luck of the Irish” that the Marching Illini eventually made it to Dublin for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

The Parade

Early morning wakeup calls are no stranger to the Marching Illini. As a dance team member, being “performance ready” by 7 AM is routine—hair extensions, fake eyelashes, white boots and all. My anticipation and wonder of what was to come jolted me awake—never had I been so eager to get out from under the covers and get ready for the day. Unlike most dreary mornings in Dublin, the sun was out as we boarded the buses, ready to make our way into the city.

Stepping out onto the cobblestone streets you could see masses of people journeying down the stretch of the parade, hoping to claim spots along the route. Irish families crowded the surrounding gates of the parade’s starting line where we were lined up, asking us to snap pictures with them like we were true celebrities. The Marching Illini was chosen to be one of the final acts of the parade, meaning, we had to wait about an hour and a half before we could begin marching. As the clouds began to roll in and cool the air around us, a lot of the pre-parade adrenaline faded, especially as a faint mist rained down from above. In an effort to pass the time, band members of the Marching Illini broke out into song, playing popular stand tunes performed during Illini football games to boost the morale.

Soon enough, our band director blew his whistle and we all quickly assembled into formation. The minute we approached the crowds, I was no longer focused on how cold I was or how little insulation my sparkly orange and blue uniform was providing me. Instead, all I could see and think about was the sea of people decorated in green, cheering for the band and celebrating the annual holiday of St. Patrick’s Day.

Making our way down the multi-mile trek, we saw people of all ages and from many different countries, grouped together and covering every inch of the Dublin streets. Parade goers were perched above our path, watching the parade from rooftops, trees, towering statues, and windowsills, shouting out praise and greetings to the “best band in the land.” My favorite was when we would pass American students studying abroad, and they would start the “I-L-L” chant as we walked by, waiting for an “I-N-I” response.

Despite the long distance of the parade and the “break zones” blocked off for 30 seconds of privacy for parade marchers, I felt as though the energy of the MI never died down. As one of the largest student organizations on the U of I campus, the Marching Illini has the most diverse, energetic, and talented array of individuals. When you have a body of students unified by their love of music and spirit for their school, any show put on by the Marching Illini is bound to entertain.

Even as the finale of the parade and reaching the finish area, you could still feel electricity in the air. Little girls from the crowd ran up to us, eagerly asking girls on my dance team to hold a pom-pom or take a picture before we boarded the bus.



Going Home

Once I was able to find Wi-Fi reception again, my phone exploded with messages from my friends and family who stayed up late to watch the video stream of the parade online. Returning home and being able to browse through news coverage from local Irish media was incredible, especially since it allowed me to replay my Ireland experience over and over again.

Check out the video stream here:


Hanna Handler

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign | 9 stories

Hanna is a junior student at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign studying communications, public relations, media sales, and art and design. She is a member of The Illinettes Dance Team, the official dance team of the school, the Vice President of Public Relations for Panhellenic Council, and the Vice President of PRSSA. She is also a sister of Delta Gamma. She will begin her first internship experience at Edelman this summer in Chicago and in the past year, has traveled to Mexico, Ireland, and Israel.

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