DUBLIN (AP) — An estimated 500,000 people crowded Saturday into central Dublin for the St. Patrick's Day parade, a focal point for Irish celebrations worldwide and the start of the tourist season in debt-battered Ireland.
Bands from Britain, the United States and Russia joined thousands of Irish volunteers in the two-hour procession through Ireland's capital of 1.3 million. It was the biggest of more than 50 parades and street festivals across the island.
Overseas, more than a dozen landmarks — including the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Empire State Building, the London Eye and Table Mountain in South Africa — were floodlit green in keeping with a holiday that highlights Ireland's emigrant footprint worldwide.
But the holiday didn't pass without trouble in the British territory of Northern Ireland, where extremists in the Protestant majority resist Irish celebrations.
The parade in Armagh, the island's ecclesiastical capital for both Catholics and Protestants, had to be diverted and cut short when Protestant extremists claimed to have left a bomb in the town center. British Army experts using a remote-controlled robot dismantled a suspicious package but deemed it a hoax.
The threat overshadowed a special celebration of Ireland's patron saint at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh, where Cardinal Sean Brady welcomed the Vatican's new diplomat to Ireland, New York-born Archbishop Charles Brown. The two men marched at the head of the threat-disrupted parade.
"You come to our country at a critical time," Brady told Brown during the service.
"Our island, north and south, continues to recover from dramatic economic setbacks after the years of the Celtic Tiger," he said, referring to the Republic of Ireland's 1994-2007 economic boom that ended in a property market crash and crippling bank-bailout program.
"At the same time we search for another, more important recovery ... the recovery of our Christian memory," Brady said. He expressed concern that St. Patrick's Day celebrations at home and abroad were too focused on partying in green clothes, not in celebrating Patrick's Christian commitment as "a man on fire with the truth and hope of the Gospel."
Earlier, Brady offered prayers for the estimated 50,000 citizens who have emigrated in the past year to escape Ireland's 14.4 percent unemployment. The Catholic Church in Ireland also launched an online information pack for emigrants.
Ireland has been forced to raise taxes and slash spending for four straight years and since 2011 has been dependent on bailout loans to pay its government bills.
Seventeen government ministers left Ireland this week to lobby 15 countries for increased investment and tourism. Prime Minister Enda Kenny served as grand marshal of Saturday's parade in Chicago.
But Dublin showed few signs of economic anxiety Saturday. Locals and tourists alike donned fuzzy hats and red beards, children painted their faces the green, white and orange of the Irish flag, and troupes of elaborately costumed dancers and performers strutted their way down the capital's major thoroughfare, O'Connell Street.
"It's the pope!" shouted several young boys as an actor portraying Ireland's patron saint — in green robes, a papal-style hat and unseasonal sunglasses — worked his way past the crowd exchanging high-fives and irreverent comments.
The Dublin parade is just part of a four-day St. Patrick's Festival running through Monday that features live performances and amusement park rides in several parts of the city center. But the fireworks show has been canceled, another casualty of government austerity measures.
The city's two most popular tourist attractions, the Guinness brewery and Dublin Zoo, both offered nods to the day's mix of patriotism and partying. Many zoo animals were fed special mixes of oranges and vegetables, mimicking the green and orange of the Irish flag, while Guinness offered free admission to any visitors named Patrick.
Elsewhere, two towns — Bandon in County Cork and Glenties in County Donegal — competed to beat the Guinness world record for most people in one place dressed as leprechauns.
They filled out "leprechaun registration" forms under the watchful eye of Guinness officials; donned red beards, green vests, buckled hats and buckled shoes; and filled their respective town squares with zaniness.
Glenties in Ireland's extreme northwest recorded 1,024 leprechauns. But Bandon in the southwest managed 1,263. Guinness said it would take six weeks to confirm the precise winner, with those who failed to observe a strict uniform excluded. The only fact certain was that the old record of 414, set by a school in South Africa, had been shattered.
"We are absolutely ecstatic, over the moon," said Carmel Doherty, who helped organize the Glenties event.
St. Patrick's Festival in Dublin, http://bit.ly/zjX52N
Catholic Church service from Armagh, www.churchservices.tv/armagh
Catholic Church's information pack for emigrants, http://bit.ly/xuMdhO