Thousands of people in stupid green hats, living up to the national caricature of alcoholic mayhem.
We're good at extremes in Ireland, applying the same logic to our property market as to how much we drink on St Patrick's Day. Indulge now, worry about the ruinous consequences later.
The theme of this year's St Patrick's Day parade in Dublin fit that remit: "Celebrate Now". Which, aside from its government-endorsed blandness, had a vaguely apocalyptic ring to it. Celebrate now, because by morning you'll be hungover. Celebrate Now, because tomorrow the streets will be spattered with vomit and blood and you'll still have to go to work.
But it's Paddy's Night now, rather than Paddy's Day, and the streets are oddly silent. A grey mist hangs over them and there are sirens in the distance. It's only at Harcourt Street that the first harbinger of a messy night appears: a girl dances out of a club into the path of an oncoming Luas (Dublin's slow-moving purple tram system) and it grinds to a halt until she moves on. She's wearing the first of many thousands of green velour stovepipe hats I'll see tonight. The signature Paddy's Day hat, sewn from shiny flammable-looking fabric often with a fake red beard attached.
The hat is troubling me, raising questions of national identity that cannot be drowned out by drinking. Is it made here, or China, or Bangladesh? Do jet-lagged tourists line up and purchase them, or are they passed out with the headphones on the flight over? Is it sweaty and uncomfortable to wear? And does nobody, Irish or otherwise, realise that by putting on the hat they instantly transform into an absolute gobshite in the eyes of any onlooker?
Nearer Stephen's Green shopping centre there's another omen: a man wearing the Irish flag as a cloak. He is pissing through the park gate into a shrubbery. I meet Sarah, the photographer, at Bruxelles, a bar where we chat to a pleasant Bavarian couple – "It's amazing, such culture!" the man tells me in the kind of English that doge speaks – and a French guy who's deemed this the perfect night to go out wearing explicitly tight cycling shorts.
At the end of the street we run into an assembly of Gardai (Irish police), who are happy to smile and pose for photos with tourists. They list pickpocketing and being drunk and disorderly as the day's most common offences. "At least taxi drivers get paid more if they work today," one quips. "We just get paid the same as usual."
Night closes in. Our landmarks have been lit a bilious green shade in honour of the occasion. Dame Lane, the back street full of bars that we head to next, is greener still: its denizens have lit up en masse and the smell of weed almost overwhelms that of kebabs and stale beer.
I speak to two brothers from Kingston, Ontario. They're all white teeth and healthy tans, taller and better looking than us, the potato people. "In Ontario they celebrate St Patrick's Day, but nowhere near on this level," one tells me. He is interrupted by a horde of cackling teenage girls, sitting on bins left out by restaurants nearby and drinking WKD blue. One of their number appears to have passed out.
We turn onto Dame Street, orbiting closer to Temple Bar, the city's biggest tourist trap. But first we must cross the piss lake forming outside Rick's Burgers, a fabled late-night spot for hungry drunks. People will pee on the streets behind Rick's on any standard night, but tonight such is the volume of human urine that it has seeped out onto the footpath, bursting its banks.
We stand for a while in front of the piss lake, reluctantly taking in its smell. Around us, things are beginning to get weirder. We're passed by more fake auburn beards, tangled and coarse like ungroomed pubic hair. Apparently a man kicked in the toilet door at Abrakebabra and a couple were found having sex in the cubicle next door. A very loud, very drunk lady with fake eyelashes hanging off her face tries to start on Sarah, but she manages to talk her down.
Our feet finally on Temple Bar's cobblestones, we meet a man from Brazil wearing a tutu and novelty glasses. "My father was a leprechaun and my mother was a fairy," he tells us. "I'm sort of inter-species."
The crowd is changing, becoming more outlandish and urgent. That same green hat appears over and over, toppling from groggy heads, obscuring the faces of wearers who KO in the street or maul each other against walls. It seems to inspire its wearers to mimic the worst historical caricatures of Irish people: deranged, engaging in animalistic behaviour.
Surprisingly it's not just tourists who are enjoying Irish ethnic kitsch. Before tonight it had never occurred to me that actual Irish people listen to Dropkick Murphys, but we encounter a trio of fans from Balbriggan who have come straight from their Vicar Street show. I ask where they're off to next, whether they'd consider a trip to the infamous Copper Face Jacks, a club beloved of off-duty Gardai and nurses. "I would rather shit in my hands and clap than go to Coppers," one replies.
"The skanger kids were running wild earlier," another guy tells me ("skanger" is a pejorative word for working-class Dubliners). "They were carrying eggs in their pockets and throwing them. I asked who the targets were and they told me 'the posh people'."
These kids keep coming up in conversation, mentioned with a kind of fear by many I speak to. It's possibly the loss of innocence that disturbs people, that Paddy's Day is intended to appeal to children in a simpler way with its parade and its funfair. Evidently the minute they're old enough, Irish children evade their parents' clutches in favour of Smirnoff Ice, bummed cigarettes and eggs as projectile weapons.
Smoke from falafel shops spirals into the night sky, leading us down a street of takeaway shops. A father and son wearing matching face paint, from Yorkshire with Irish blood, sing " Grace" by the Dubliners about the 1916 martyr Joseph Plunkett. "They'll take me out at dawn and I will die..."
Glass crunches underfoot, and this place begins to feel like the end of the earth. There are trenches of cans and empty chip boxes stacked in the street, groups of tourists sitting on the footpath among them. Their costumes speak of competitive self-humiliation: men in spandex and tinsel wigs, women in heels and " sexy Leprechaun" ensembles. A kind of Irish drag that's more Ibiza than Emerald Isle.
Some are lost, beer goggle zombies following the green light. They lead us towards Temple Bar Square, where the streets are so packed we can't move, and are drawn into a slow collective mosh.
In hell green beams of light criss-cross the sky. In hell they chant "Seven Nation Army" like it never went away. In hell everyone has a vuvuzela.
The absurdity of this night becomes clear: the emptiness of surrounding streets, the pressure-cooker chaos of Temple Bar. The abundantly clear fact that nobody hear is actually Irish, that they – and the Irish themselves, for that matter – must know fuck-all about Irish culture apart from drink.
What is the point of all this? No one even looks like they're having fun: they look like this is an exercise in masochism via cirrhosis of the liver. As though they are drinking only to want not to drink again in the morning. To prove to themselves that they are capable of living up to an inflated ideal of Irishry.
And we Irish didn't even invent it: before 1961, the 17th of March was a genuine saint's day, meaning that drink was not commercially available except for, curiously, at a dog show in central south Dublin. The first parades were in Boston and New York: it was emigration that turned St Patrick's Day into Paddy's Day, then later "Patty's Day"; Irish-Americans who dyed pints and rivers in Chicago the colour of chlorophyll.
And it was a certain postcolonial instinct which drove us to embrace all this back here in Ireland, seeing the national caricature of alcoholic mayhem reflected back and deciding to capitalise on it through tourism. Trivialise us, make potato jokes, take irreverent selfies at the Famine memorial. We'll charge you €7.45 for a pint in revenge: you can drink our culture at an inflated cost.
In this sense, St Patrick's Day is a collective illusion, one as flimsy as a synthetic red beard attached to a hat. All we're doing is clawing at the facsimile of Irishness, but it helps us to make peace with all the absurd things we cannot change. With being Angela Merkel's bitch. With a national leader who mugs in pictures with Hulk Hogan. With no longer being able to leave the Catholic church by writing a letter (in 2010 the Canon Law was changed). At least we can still take a saint's day and turn it into a worldwide piss-up.
Though the chaos never lasts long. Not long after midnight, everywhere but the middle of Temple Bar empties out. Tomorrow is a working day: the tourists will leave, the Dubliners will return and the bank holiday will be over.
I say my goodbyes and walk home through the mist that still hangs over Dublin, out into the suburbs. On the way I keep stepping on little clumps of red fabric beard that were once attached to hats, beer-soaked and abandoned on the footpath.
They'll hang around only a few more hours, until the street cleaners come collecting empty bottles and cans, and the rest of the discarded Irish drag.
More stories from Ireland: