Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Weary of the green or proud to be Irish?

For recent Irish emigrants, St Patrick’s Day celebrations are a chance to connect with home, but some may feel little affinity with green beer and orange wigs, writes Ciara Kenny.

Fri, Mar 16, 2012, 07:32


For recent Irish emigrants, St Patrick’s Day celebrations are a chance to connect with home, but some may feel little affinity with green beer and orange wigs, writes Ciara Kenny.

Craic or cliché? A parade in Manchester last weekend

AS ONE OF the most widely celebrated festivals in the world, with parades held in towns and cities from Montreal to Tokyo, St Patrick’s Day is the day for the Irish abroad, and no group of Irish will feel its significance more than those who have recently made another country home.

Tomorrow will the first St Patrick’s Day Sebastian Woods (25) spends abroad. Woods emigrated from Dublin to Boulder, Colorado last year in search of professional experience in energy technology research. He left Ireland alone, but plans to spend the day with two men from Dublin whom he met through the owner of the local Irish pub.

“Ireland v England kicks off at 10am, so we’ll head to the pub for breakfast and settle in for the day,” says Woods, who also plans to attend the local parade. “St Patrick’s Day was always a big day back home for me and my friends. The lifestyle is amazing out here, but in the way that only the Irish can, I still enjoy putting on the rose-tinted glasses and thinking of home. St Patrick’s Day will make me feel ever so slightly closer to home for a day, as I think of friends and family.”

On the Generation Emigration blog this week, responses to a thread about the meaning of St Patrick’s Day for the Irish abroad were divided. Some emigrants said they wholly embrace the day as a chance to recognise and celebrate their Irish heritage, but others view parades, shamrocks and green beer as a commercialisation of Irishness that should be avoided at all costs.

According to Mike Cronin, academic director of Boston College in Dublin and co-author of The Wearing of the Green: A History of St Patrick’s Day, whether or not recent emigrants take part in the festivities largely depends on where they are in the world.

A parade in Omaha, Nebraska last weekend

“In Boston, New York and Chicago, the history of St Patrick’s Day stretches back hundreds of years, and there is a very ritualistic, Irish-American tradition of celebrating the day, with an emphasis on local politics and corned beef,” says Cronin. “The parades themselves are quite dull, with no floats, no carnival. If you are a 21-year-old who has just stepped off the plane and are used to dancing in a Dublin nightclub on March 17th, you are not going to connect with that.”

In these places, Irish bars and house parties can provide a more popular alternative to the formal celebrations, he says. “New emigrants fashion the day around their sense of how the day is celebrated in Ireland, by watching a match, listening to music and having a few drinks with friends.”

The parades in Sydney and San Francisco are much more popular with recent emigrants, because they have a similar carnival atmosphere to the Dublin parade. Catherine Crosse, an emigrant from Co Clare and president of the Sydney parade, which takes place on Sunday, says the event is particularly important for young families who have recently settled in the city. “It is one of the few opportunities that families and community organisations have to meet in one place, get to know new Irish people, or catch up with old friends they may have known from Ireland,” she says. “Some Irish-Australian families have been bringing their kids and grandkids to the same event every year for generations.”

Attracting crowds of about 100,000-strong, the Sydney parade is one of the largest in the world. Hyde Park in the centre of the city hosts a post-parade family day, with live entertainment, food stalls, a bar and a marquee where a ceremony is held for selected Irish people who are granted Australian citizenship on the day. The backpacker crowd are more likely to head for one of the city’s 10 Irish bars once the parade is over, where the celebrations stretch out over the whole weekend.

Seoul parade 2009. Photo by Tom Coyner

Seoul parade 2009. Photo by Tom Coyner

In countries across Asia and the Middle East, the tradition of celebrating St Patrick’s Day is relatively young. Most parades were initiated during the boom by successful Irish business communities who wanted to sell Ireland abroad, but the numbers of Irish settling in these places over the past few years has dramatically increased, bringing new life to festivities and helping to bridge cultural divides between locals and new arrivals.

Amounting to fewer than 1,000 people, the Irish community in South Korea is still relatively small, but the popularity of the St Patrick’s Day celebrations has swelled year-on-year since the first event was held to mark the day in 2000. Organisers expect this year’s festival to attract close to 10,000 people.

“The majority of Irish living in Seoul are young English teachers in their 20s and 30s, and St Patrick’s Day is a popular day for them all to get together,” says Shauna Browne, who helps to organise the event as a member of the Irish Association of Korea. “But the main aim of the day is to promote Ireland and share its sporting and cultural traditions with the Korean community.”

Tomorrow’s line-up in Seoul includes traditional Irish dance classes, a sports demonstration by the Seoul Gaels GAA team, and free tasters of famous Irish dishes. “Koreans of all ages are now very aware of Ireland,” says Browne. “You would be surprised how popular Roy Keane and Robbie Keane are here, and everybody knows of Riverdance . St Patrick’s Day helps the Irish community to integrate with local Korean people by sharing their heritage with them.”

In London, observers of the parade aren’t expecting to see a massive increase in the crowds of Irish at this year’s events. “We would have seen plenty of young people coming to London all through the years, regardless of the economic circumstances,” says Dr Marc Scully, a social psychologist in the University of Leicester, who has studied how St Patrick’s Day is celebrated in the UK. Recent Irish immigrants are no longer the primary audience for St Patrick’s Day celebrations in the UK, according to Scully. Festivals in cities outside of London are diasporic events which focus on the established Irish community, while the London parade has become a multinational and multicultural tourist attraction.

Seoul parade 2009. Photo by Tom Coyner

Scully believes that the majority of recent Irish arrivals in London feel detached from the cliched representation of Irishness put forward by the ginger wigs and green foam hats that dominate the parade, but it is important for the Irish to recognise that the popularity of the event, which attracted more than 100,000 people last year, is a welcome turnaround from the anti-Irish sentiment that pervaded Britain in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Because the parade has become such an all-inclusive event, owned by everyone who comes out and drinks Guinness and wears a green hat, there is an emphasis among more recent emigrants on their county affiliations, which is their way of inserting authenticity into the events,” Scully says. “We will see plenty of GAA jerseys and county flags at the London parade, which show others that they know exactly where they come from in Ireland.”

For the majority of Irish emigrants, however, whether they choose to don a green hat and celebrate the day or avoid it altogether, the prevalence of St Patrick’s Day events will force them to reflect on what it means to be Irish. For recent emigrants, it is a chance to put aside their reasons for emigrating and be proud that Ireland has a national day that the whole world takes notice of.

“It is very sad that all of these people are now living overseas because Ireland’s economy has failed them, but if you look at it from an international perspective, most people will look at the Irish and think, fair play to them,” says Cronin. “In the midst of all this chaos, of being forced to emigrate, they are still celebrating their heritage, still proud of their country and national identity.”

Will you be celebrating St Patrick’s Day abroad? Email your photos or videos of the events around the world to