Ciara Kenny

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How the world sees Ireland on St Patrick’s Day

We should use the opportunity to show the world the country’s diversity, writes David Burns

Irish gays in New York have been battling unsuccessfully for two decades to be allowed to join the parade as an official contingent. Photograph: Getty Images

Tue, Feb 25, 2014, 15:08


David Burns

Last week at La Sorbonne, the French students I teach rated St Patrick’s Day along with the Chinese New Year and the Hindu day of celebration, Holi, as their favourite world festivals. To them, above all else, St Patrick’s Day was a colourful party and an easily accessible celebration of Irishness and Ireland in general. They were rather disparaging about their own day of national festivity, Bastille Day, which they believed belonged more to the French government and French history than the ordinary people.

It is heart-warming to think of St Paddy’s Day as widely accessible. It’s true, in my experience, that Europeans and people of different nationalities tend to associate the Irish with potatoes and “the craic” more than the bailout and economic instability. In their eyes, we are an uncomplicated and largely cheerful people. Our international image has none of the divisions of our society. The Irish are all fun-loving (boozy) rebels to them— all clad and claddaghed in green.

This charming image coupled with our long history of emigration has ensured that countries across the world celebrate St Patrick’s Day. Our political representatives have always capitalised on this fact to promote our interests abroad. This year the only senior minister who will remain in Ireland on March 17th is Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn. The Taoiseach will be visiting three different US cities (Washington DC, New York and Boston), while his ministers will range from Western Australia to the United Arab Emirates. There are those who criticise this annual exodus from Ireland on the day we celebrate Irishness but maintaining contact with Irish communities overseas is important. It is important for foreign investment, tourism and exports.

It is also important because Ireland is, in truth, not so simple a nation. Emigration is one of a range of issues that currently split us as a community. I would like to believe it is in recognition of this division that State officials are celebrating St Patrick’s Day abroad, for these days there is a gulf growing in many countries around the world between the people within it.

The current public debate in the media over gay marriage has highlighted one of the fault lines in our own nation; Enda Kenny’s decision to participate in the New York St Patrick’s Day parade being the latest in a line of controversies. Telling the Dáil last Tuesday that he would attend the NYC parade, in which Irish LGBT groups are not allowed to represent their community, the Taoiseach justified his position by declaring St Patrick’s Day was about “our Irishness and not our sexuality”. But for many people sexuality and identity are inextricably linked and for those people, of which I am one, the Taoiseach’s response was highly disappointing. People are not hetero-homo-bi or transexual and then— somewhere else, in a different part of themselves— Irish. They are Irish and they are hetero-homo-bi or transsexual together.

There may be a conventional colour for Ireland but the truth is that Ireland is not all one colour, but a rainbow. As an island it holds a plethora of people of different creeds, from different backgrounds. We don’t all share the same skin colour and we don’t all share the same sexuality, so it is vital to recognise on March 17th what we do share. What exactly that is, what exactly Irishness means in a modern context, is a tough question to answer. However, in the context of public debate today, it is one that the Taoiseach should meet rather than avoid.

The truth is that even though 27 ministers will celebrate their Irishness overseas on March 17th, the only Irish abroad entitled to any vote back home are those with third level qualifications. And despite the fact that Enda will say a cúpla focal for the American crowds, his party’s indifference to the decline of the Irish language saw more than 5,000 people protesting on Dublin city streets two weeks ago. And despite the fact that Ireland currently holds the highest average rate of emigration in the EU, according to Immigrant Council reports our immigrants are generally met with more hostility than before.

These contradictions run like cracks through the “craic” loving, uncomplicated image of St Patrick’s Day but there is a way to prevent them shattering it and us— and that way is by including more people in our conception of Irishness and by widening the definition of Ireland.

The weekend of March 14th We’re Coming Back — the movement for emigrant voting rights— will launch the #misefreisin as a social media St Patrick’s Day parade. In conjunction with other interested parties, WCB aims to celebrate each and every facet of the Emerald Isle during St Patrick’s Day and the days preceding it. Using the hashtag and title #misefreisin, the youth organisation and participant groups will post photos and tweets and stories with the intention of including all Irish people in the celebration of Ireland and Irishness.

The aim is to use the internet to share a real image of Ireland with the rest of the world. I participate in the hope of ensuring that the idyll my students have of Paddy’s Day and of Ireland in general is true to life. We can all share the hope that St Paddy’s Day remains one of the top rated and one of the most accessible of world festivals and that Ireland continues to be seen as the land of a thousand welcomes.

David Burns is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration, who teaches at La Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. Read his previous articles here.