DUBLIN — A couple days remain before the NCAA tournament tips off in full, but hundreds of members of the Marching Illini are well across the Atlantic Ocean.
They’re making a sprawling trip across Ireland and Northern Ireland, preparing for a performance in Dublin’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Thursday.
Just over 300 student performers and 100 family members and friends departed at 4:30 p.m. Saturday from O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, arriving in the Irish capital at 5:30 a.m. the next day.
“Aer Lingus wanted to bump six to eight of our students from the flight, so once we were able to navigate through that challenge, the flight went great — a little bumpy over the North Atlantic at times, but we landed safely,” Marching Illinois Director Barry Houser told The News-Gazette on Tuesday.
On Sunday, they toured Dublin and visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral. On Monday, a bus trip took them to the Northern Irish capital, Belfast, including a stop at the Titanic Museum.
Tuesday brought a nearly four-hour trip to Galway in western Ireland, visiting the famous Cliffs of Moher in the process.
Today, they’re headed to Kilkenny, about two-and-a-half hours southeast, to attend a parade and perform on the castle grounds.
Thursday marks the big event: the St. Patrick’s Festival Parade, where the band will play on its route through Dublin. The festival’s been hosted virtually the last couple years due to COVID-19.
This tradition is a piece of history. In 1992, the Marching Illini became the first college marching band to perform in Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. In the ensuing 30 years, they’ve returned seven times — in 1995, 1998, 2004, 2008, 2014, 2018, and now, 2022.
Let the record show: The band’s been invited nine times, if you include the initial location of the Illini’s 2021 football season opener against Nebraska. In what was billed as the “Aer Lingus College Football Classic,” the teams were set to play in Dublin before pandemic concerns nixed the trip.
Meanwhile, as you might imagine, “there is not a lot of downtime,” Houser said.
“When on the buses, most of our students are catching up on sleep or listening to our awesome tour guides on our seven coaches,” he said. “I am working schedules for each day, coordinating details and logistics for each day as well as working on details for our students back home for their trip to Pittsburgh to support our men’s basketball team.”
Important note: Only the Stateside band members will make the trip for the Illini’s NCAA tournament opener against Chattanooga on Friday. The earliest that Houser or the other Marching Illini in Ireland can support the team in person would be Sunday’s potential Sweet 16 match-up.
The students each paid between $3,239 and $3,549 to make this year’s trip, according to trip’s information site.