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250,000 brave chilly, damp Dublin to watch - and join - a special St. Patrick's Day parade

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DUBLIN - Never mind the fickle Irish weather. A chilly, damp Dublin celebrated St. Patrick's Day with artistic flair anyway Sunday as the focal point for a weekend of Irish celebrations worldwide.

More than 250,000 revelers braved the occasionally snowy, sleety skies to line the streets for the traditional holiday parade, a 3-kilometre (2-mile) jaunt through the city's heart involving performers from 46 countries.

Unusually, 8,000 tourists in town for the festivities led this year's procession in a "people's parade." Many donned leprechaun costumes or deployed banners and flags of their home nations or U.S. states, with the Texans making the biggest impression as they sported "Happy St. Paddy's Day, Y'All!" T-shirts.

One marcher, a 22-year-old engineer from Calgary, Canada, defiantly showed it wasn't so nippy at all — by doing the hour-long walk shirtless, with only a painted-on shamrock covering his chest.

"It's not cold!" Oliver Feniak declared as he, like many in the leisurely paced 2 1/2-hour parade, stopped to shake hands with onlookers standing five-deep on O'Connell Bridge spanning the River Liffey.

Sunday's decision to put tourists in the vanguard was connected to a year-long tourism promotion called The Gathering that is organizing hundreds of clan reunions nationwide in hopes of boosting the economy. That's sorely needed in an Ireland struggling with 14 per cent unemployment, heavy emigration and a household-debt crisis following the 2008 collapse of its Celtic Tiger boom.

St. Patrick's Day always marks the start of Ireland's full-court press for tourists. Since 1997 Dublin has expanded the holiday into a multi-day festival featuring special children's playgrounds, street amusement parks, concerts and walking tours. Irish President Michael D. Higgins is hosting a nationally televised TV show Monday night featuring many of Ireland's top artists and musicians, including Bono and Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney.

"We cherish the creativity, community spirit and rich culture for which we, as a nation, are renowned," Higgins said in a speech after the parade. "I have said on many occasions that while the experience of the so-called Celtic Tiger failed to live up to the best versions of Irishness, we have not been failed by our artists. In fact, our artists are a huge moral resource and great reputational asset for Ireland."

St. Patrick's Day is being marked in skylines across the world as part of a global campaign to floodlight landmarks green at night. This year the pyramids of Giza, the leaning tower of Pisa, Niagara Falls, and the Christ the Redeemer statue overlooking Rio are among dozens of iconic spots going green for the occasion.

While tens or thousands of foreigners have made a beeline for Dublin, practically the entire Irish government has gone the other direction, sending 19 ministers to 21 countries to capitalize on a marketing opportunity unique among nations.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny marched in Saturday's biggest U.S. parade in New York and is scheduled to meet President Obama at the White House on Tuesday, when the U.S. political establishment marks the Irish holiday.

It hasn't all gone smoothly. The government deputy leader, Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore, caused diplomatic waves in Atlanta, Georgia, by snubbing the second-biggest American parade in nearby Savannah — because, Gilmore said, he didn't want to attend a dinner hosted by an Irish-American group that bans women from attending.

Most of Irish-America marked the holiday a day early, reflecting the view that such a notoriously boozy holiday shouldn't happen on a Sunday. But the Irish diaspora in most of the rest of the world stuck to marking St. Patrick's Day on March 17 as usual.

Many of Sunday's revelers suggested they were in Dublin specifically to soak up the pub atmosphere.

"We came all the way from Kansas City to drink some Guinness!' declared one banner on the parade route displayed by John Mullen, a 46-year-old lawyer, and his 17-year-old son Jack.

The senior Mullen, whose roots lie in the western county of Mayo, said he and his boy actually were golfing their way through Ireland, not drinking. He said the key to enjoying Ireland was to soak up the locals' exceptionally good conversation regardless of the foul weather.

"Yesterday we got rained on, sleeted on, snowed on as we golfed. There was even some sun here and there. It was four seasons in one round," Mullen said. "People back home say I've got the gift of the gab, but I've got no game here. The conversations here are magnificent. But you sometimes wonder how you're ever going to get out of them!"

In the world's first major St. Patrick's party Sunday, about 30,000 spectators soaked up the sun as Sydney's Irish-Australians paraded through the city. Australia always marks St. Patrick's Day on a Sunday. After the event, partiers rallying at the city's Hyde Park saw 45 Irish men and women receive Australian citizenship. That's increasingly common as tens of thousands of Irish job-seekers have made Australia a favoured new home while Ireland's own economy remains in the doldrums.

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