Saluting St Patrick’s Day in a globalised era
St Patrick is a capacious symbol for this country, incorporating many traditions and appealing to several distinct identities in a common sense of Irish nationality. The shamrock expresses a similar pluralism in the Christian Trinity. That cultural plasticity is worth recalling today as Irishness is celebrated here and around the world in many different states, communities and languages – and in many different ways. A world made smaller by globalised communication, political interdependence and markets provides an appropriate setting for such a diasporic identity. Whatever the maudlin sentimentality it attracts, we have much to learn about how to incorporate such differences in our national self-understanding and political structures.
The story of a child slave who came to Ireland from Roman Britain to tend pigs on Slieve Slemish, and returned as a bishop with a masterful ability to marry older Gaelic and druidic practices with the new religion, continues to inspire Irish Christianity. The missionary effort from Ireland to the rest of Europe in following centuries is remembered there and is justifiably recalled here as a proud period in our early history. Historians tell us the shamrock is first documented as a Patrician symbol in the late 16th century and largely in English, so St Patrick functioned as a religious figure for both the older Catholic and the newer Protestant faiths. Since then he has been fully incorporated in Irish nationalist and British iconography of Irishness, a fitting bridging figure for contemporary reconciliation and closer relations.
Having been an emigrant society for so long, Ireland has a deep imprint around those parts of the world previously dominated by Britain’s empire, which speak its language and to which the present-day Irish still predominantly migrate after the economic crisis. The recent strong surge of immigration to this country has taught us to value other languages, traditions and ethnicities and widened cultural horizons steadily if unevenly. Nevertheless, Ireland coasts lazily on English as a world language, remains slow to learn others becoming more influential and neglects Irish too as a result.
We similarly neglect to develop robust relations with Irish communities abroad through political links like voting rights or by greater reciprocity, rather than expecting economic and cultural traffic to be largely from them to us. Economic recovery will show how short-sighted this is. Just as Irish society has been pluralised by immigration, relaxation of religious puritanism, patriarchy and sexual prejudice has allowed lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual identities to seek greater expression and rights here. This is one way the American diaspora has affected Ireland. That these struggles are being played out in the politics of New York and Boston parades is another example of St Patrick’s continuing appeal.