Everything was set for the Marching Illini's trip to Ireland's annual St. Patrick's Day Parade — until Aer Lingus workers decided to strike.
An employee union called a strike at the Irish airline for Thursday, the long-awaited travel day for the UI delegation.
It was averted at the last minute, but the 280 UI students, 45 staff and guests and hundreds of musical instruments had already been rescheduled on 28 different flights.
"I can laugh about it — I think — right now. The past several days not so much," band director Barry Houser said Wednesday.
"Where they end up, I don't know, but everyone has a flight," he said. "No. 1, we're hoping that everyone gets over there OK, and No. 2, making sure the instruments show up as well."
This will be the Marching Illini's seventh appearance in Dublin's St. Patrick's Day Parade, a tradition that started in 1992 with former band director Gary Smith, who wanted to expand the band's international reach.
The UI band was the first college band to march in the parade and returned every three or four years, though not since 2008, because of conflicts at this end.
Now in his third year as the band's director, Houser is making his first trip to Ireland.
"It's going to be a great trip once we get everyone there," Houser said. "For many of our students this is the first time out of the country. This experience is just fantastic."
Band members will spend the first two nights in Limerick doing some sightseeing, including the famed Cliffs of Moher. They'll head to Dublin on Sunday to prepare for Monday's parade, then fly home Tuesday.
The parade lasts two hours and typically draws a million spectators as it winds through the quaint, narrow streets of the city, past Trinity College, old Parliament buildings and the Lord Mayor of Dublin. The U.S. ambassador to Ireland will also be on hand, Houser said.
The UI band will be the final entry, a coveted spot because the crowd typically falls in behind the end of the parade and "the party continues," Houser said.
"They have a great celebratory sound and are very professional," said Laura Larkin, program manager for the Dublin parade, who is already working on plans for 2015. "The interest from overseas is always significant."
The UI band will wear traditional orange and blue uniforms and play some of its standards, including John Philip Sousa's "Illinois March" and "Stars and Stripes Forever," as well as a Bruno Mars tune, "Runaway Baby." No Irish music on the playlist.
"If we had an Irish band coming to the states, what would we want to hear? We'd want to hear them playing Irish music," Houser said. "We wouldn't want to hear them playing American music. We want to show them what we can do."
Added UI senior Amy Bischoff, a trumpet section leader: "We want to bring a little bit of us to Ireland."
After the parade comes another highlight of the trip: a tour and performance at the Guinness brewery, a top tourist spot. The band will play on three different levels of balconies — and get a free pint.
"Everybody's excited about that," Houser said.
The six-day trip involved some challenging logistics. On a charter flight, the band and instruments would all be together on one plane, as with the trip to the 2008 Rose Bowl. But that also costs upward of $1 million. Flying commercially involves more risks but is significantly cheaper, he said.
Students, parents and alumni are paying their own way ($1,800 to $2,000 apiece). No university money is being spent on the trip, Houser said.
Aside from exploring a new country, Bischoff is looking forward to hearing Celtic music, seeing a historic organ in St. Patrick's Cathedral and watching other bands perform. A music major, she's only been abroad one other time, when her high school jazz band went to Italy and Switzerland.
Any fears of flying after the disappearance of the Malaysian airliner?
"I think it's making parents more nervous than it is students," Bischoff said. "My mom called me today and said, 'I just want to hear your voice before you go.'"
Band members are hoping for a strong turnout of UI alumni along the parade route in Dublin. There's no official UI alumni group there, but the Alumni Association sent emails to known graduates in the area, and Houser said several have contacted him about the performance.
The Marching Illini have built up a strong reputation there after so many visits — more than any other college band, including Notre Dame, he said.
"They go over for their own football games" but not this parade, he said.
Houser was a graduate student the last time the band went to Ireland in 2008 but was asked to lead a small band at the men's and women's Big Ten tournaments, which were scheduled the same weekend. This year, "one of my grad students will be serving in that role," he said.
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