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Come March 17, the Irish don't seem to mind a two-bit pint that their patron Saint Patrick was born Patricius, a Romanized Brit kidnapped into servitude by roving Irish bandits in the early 5th century. No possession of the Irish, the slave-turned-missionary deserves veneration throughout the world for inspiring the wandering monks who would transcribe and salvage what remained of Latin literature after the Barbarians laid waste to Roman civilization. But why not celebrate St. Patrick's Day in the land that loved him most -- and, some would say, knows how to party best? You'll have to act fast to reserve a hotel during this peak travel holiday, but cheap deals on rooms and airfare are still to be had throughout the island.

If the measure of a St. Paddy's Day party is the difficulty of getting through the door for a Guinness, then the pubs in Dublin's Temple Bar district take top prize. The revelry moves from one jam-packed place to the next, with a core foundation of local regulars, beyond the Irish and foreign tourists who descend upon the city at this time of year. From March 16 to 20, the St. Patrick's Festival (www.stpatricksday.ie) hosts concerts, street theater, step dancing, literary readings, and fireworks in the streets, as well as the original St. Patrick's Day Parade, which Dublin claims is the world's largest.

Galway, the inviting, walled medieval town on the west coast is the Irish favorite. Its winning combination of genuine, hometown hospitality, coupled with cultural sophistication, as the home of many artists and writers, is rare. It's also the threshold to Connemara, Ireland's largest Irish-speaking region. Galway's more intimate St. Patrick's Day parade (www.galwaycity.ie) moves through the narrow, cobbled streets of the Old City.

Cork's parties, in the south, are also worth a stop. Ireland's second largest city is its own place, with a sense of superiority over Dublin, and its own idiom, so fast and original other native Irish have trouble following it. If you're a Guinness fan, party elsewhere, as locally brewed Murphy's or Beamish are the stouts of choice in this town of stalwarts.

Wherever you land, you'll find a pub that's celebrating, with plenty of patrons to tip a glass with you. And wherever you look these days, deals are popping up for cheap fares. Mid-March is peak blackout time in Ireland -- in every sense of the term -- so forget about package deals. You may even want to secure a room before you book your flight. In Dublin, Mobissimo (www1.mobissimo.com/travel/search_airfare.php) is posting a bevy of three- and four-star hotels for less than $150. Prices are similar in Galway, though slightly less expensive for higher quality; the Westwood Hotel, a four star, is as low as $117 a night. Accommodation prices in Cork are somewhere between those of Dublin and Galway.

Airfares are extremely low right now, which helps offset the fact that Ireland is no longer a budget destination since its recent economic boom of the late 1990s. From the U.S., flights are cheapest from Chicago, on Mobissimo. Using Tuesday March 15 to Tuesday March 22 as sample dates, Chicago is $341 round-trip, on American. The great Irish city of Boston, home to the first New World St. Patrick's Day party in 1737, is only $376 to Dublin, on multiple carriers. New York to Dublin is $427, and Washington, D.C. is $458, both on Lufthansa. Even Los Angeles is only $485 on United. All Mobissimo fare quotes include taxes.

If you're celebrating in Galway, it's best to fly into Shannon, 57 miles south. For the same sample dates on Mobissimo, it's $425 from New York on multiple carriers, $364 from Chicago on American, and $561 from Los Angeles on multiple carriers.

Cork has its own airport. The best Mobissimo fares there, for the same dates, are all on American: $355 from New York, $362 from Chicago, and $472 from Los Angeles.

If you'd like to see the countryside and sample a number of celebrations, take advantage of Auto Europe's (tel. 888/223-5555; www.autoeurope.com) great Irish car rental special, advertised on the home page: starting at $17.99 a day for pickups through March 20. Roads in and out of all three cities are good and plentiful.

For more information, contact Tourism Ireland (www.tourismireland.com). They're based overseas, but if you send them questions via e-mail, they respond quickly and informatively within 24 hours.

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