Visitors from Switzerland watch as participants march up Fifth Avenue...

Visitors from Switzerland watch as participants march up Fifth Avenue during New York's annual St. Patrick's Day parade. (March 17, 2011) Credit: AP

The nation’s largest St. Patrick’s Day celebration gave the city’s Irish-Americans a chance to settle a score Thursday with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, still taking heat for disparaging comments about Irish stereotypes, but most parade-goers chose instead to enjoy the spectacle of bands, dancers and dignitaries.

Irish cheer visited cities across the world, including Washington, which hosted an Irish delegation, and otherwise downtrodden Dublin.

In New York, up to 2 million spectators awash in green lined up along Fifth Avenue for the city’s 250th such celebration on a balmy day previewing spring. Best-selling author Mary Higgins Clark served as grand marshal of the parade, whose officials expected about 200,000 marchers.

Among them were Bloomberg, who had gotten a less-than-warm welcome at a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Queens earlier this month. Some parade-goers were angry about the mayor’s joke last month that he usually saw “people that are totally inebriated” at the American Irish Historical Society in Manhattan. Bloomberg apologized shortly after making the comment.

Asked about the matter again before Thursday’s parade, Bloomberg said, “I told a joke some people didn’t find funny. But the reception I got so far puts a smile on my face.”

Roman Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who greeted the mayor in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, waved off a question about whether the joke had offended him.

"On a day like this, forget it," he said.

One spectator couldn’t.

"Bloomberg, you’re a drunk," read a sign held up by Dennis Dunn of suburban Yonkers, who said that his Irish-American family "was not amused" by the mayor’s original comment.

But most greeted the mayor with the glee that usually accompanies the parade, shouting out his name and shaking his hand when he broke away from the marching column and approached crowds behind police barricades.

Michelle Kelly, visiting from Dublin with her husband, Eamon, had tufts of green artificial hair on her head as she waved an Irish flag.

"It’s brilliant," she said. "I’ve never seen anything like this, not even in Dublin. There are so many different cultures together here — just for the Irish.”

At least one person was arrested at the start of the parade when a fight broke out. A police spokeswoman had no immediate information on arrests.

But most of the festivities were as sunny as the brilliant weather, with temperatures in the 60s.

"I love the bands — especially the drummers, who never stop walking or playing," said Oliver Newton, 11, of Floral Park.

In addition to New York’s parade, there were 120 parades across Ireland on Thursday and thousands more featuring Ireland’s worldwide diaspora were taking place from Sydney to San Francisco.

More than 500,000 people packed the heart of Dublin for an unusual parade that pointed out Ireland’s current gloomy mood and sought to sweep it away for a day.

It featured an inventive range of monsters and giant dogs based on a new short story by Dublin author Roddy Doyle, “Brilliant,” that was commissioned especially for the parade.

In the story, two Dublin children overhear their parents speak darkly of the country’s perilous state, take their comment about a “black dog of depression” to heart — and enlist scores of children in a citywide hunt to find that dog and reclaim the city’s lost funny bone.

Doyle, who attended the parade, said he wrote his story against the backdrop of Ireland’s descent last year to the edge of bankruptcy, culminating in November’s rescue deal with the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

Doyle said he wrote some of the story in a British hotel foyer while waiting for his room in November against a depressing din of TV news on Ireland’s bailout.

“It was like the keys of the house were being handed over to someone else. It was just endless bad news, bad news — an insistence on it actually,” Doyle said in an interview.

“So that’s why I wrote the story, to remind ourselves that there is more to life than finance,” he said.

Ireland’s celebration of its patron Saint Patrick, who as legend has it, brought Christianity to the pagan land in the fifth century, continues through the weekend as part of a Dublin-focused four-day festival.

For the first time, dozens of major buildings were floodlit green at night. Newly elected Prime Minister Enda Kenny is in Washington meeting President Barack Obama, but the square near his office has been shut down for bouncy castles and amusement park rides. And the seaside city of Wexford is preparing to host the nation’s main fireworks show Saturday.

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