St Patrick’s Day: from the Fighting Irish to the society of the spectacle

March 17th is now a global phenomenon thanks to a boisterous sense of carnival and a fiercely determined self-assertion that other ethnic groups can relate to

St Patrick’s Day is one of the seven wonders of the 21st century. Like climate change, the rise of China, the decline of the US, the misrule of the 1 per cent, the spread of English, and the smartphone, the Irish saint’s day has gone global and become wholly unavoidable.

Donald Trump may be able to deny climate change, and he can do his utmost to stave off for now the rise of China, but one way or another that bowl of shamrock will be edging its way into the White House come March 17th and, whether he likes it or not, the American President will have to offer the usual plámás for the occasion. So far, Li Xinping has evaded this obligatory homage to Irlandia, but little legions of exiles are probably working somewhere right now to correct that temporary breakdown in transmission.

The extraordinary success of the St Patrick’s Day phenomenon has inevitably provoked a good deal of head-scratching on the part of cultural historians and other savants of the society of the spectacle.

How did an event, once largely associated with a rowdy rabble of ghetto-Micks in the United States, the Devotional Revolution in Ireland, and the austere Ancient Order of Hibernians, an organisation with its roots in dourest Victorian Belfast, manage to become so fantastically successful? Why is it that the Great Wall of China, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Chicago River, and the London Eye, to name but a few of the trophies already taken, will turn forty shades of green on March 17th when other ethnic-American days, like Columbus Day, named after the so-called “Discoverer of America”, have almost no purchase on the wider American imagination?


Who wouldn't want to be "Irish for a day" and be part of a feel-good festival that mixes ethnic solidarity and carnival knockabout, full-chested triumphalism and shameless self-parody?

The Irish were undoubtedly hodcarriers in almost every Anglophone country to which they were dispersed before and after the Famine, and the parades in most places still reflect some sense of a long historical struggle against oppression and slight. Nevertheless the emigrant Irish always had sharp elbows, to put it mildly, which they were never reluctant to use in the scramble for upward mobility. So why is that many of those who have no particular reason to humour the Irish typically treat the occasion with such tolerant indulgence? The American parades attract large crowds of people with no Irish heritage and the mood is typically good humoured and festive. The African-descended people of Montserrat even mark St Patrick’s Day as a national holiday, this despite the fact that some of the slave-owners on that small island were Irish.

One answer to the popularity of the event is that there may be a degree of mimetic desire at work, that other ethnic or national groups in the US, Australia, Canada and elsewhere, recognise – perhaps in a way that the Irish themselves have mostly forgotten – that the Catholic Irish in the world-governing Anglo-Protestant societies of England and the US were not so very long ago plebeians at the bottom of the social heap, and that if the Hibernian hodcarriers could eventually break through the ethnic glass ceiling, then so might anyone, possibly.

A second, not unrelated, explanation may be that the Irish, divested at home by centuries of colonial oppression of almost everything that might substantiate a “culture”, and forced to strip themselves of any residual markers of national distinction (such as the Irish language) in order to assimilate in the Anglophone countries to which they were scattered, had little left by the end of the 19th century with which to distinguish themselves and were thus thrown back upon remarkably limited resource.

In other words, even if they had not quite been reduced to that sheer nullity of identity that Malcolm X’s adoptive non-name so brilliantly signified as the real legacy of African-American slavery, the Irish still had little left with which to work but the vaudeville to which Irishness had been reduced – the chapel, the territory-claiming parade, the blackthorn stick or shillelagh, the shamrock, the drinking binge, the emigrant songs, the corned beef that had been the fare of the American poor generally before it was commandeered as “Irish”.

Compared to Italian or German opera, French wines, cuisine, fashion or novels, Chinese poetry, print or porcelain, Japanese calligraphy or haiku, not to mention the technological wonders which the Victorian British and Americans were boasting in their “Great World Exhibitions”, the shamrock and the shillelagh were thin fare. But out of this makeshift confection a rather plastic, in every sense, version of Irishness was created. When the marches were mixed with a dash of holy water, a boisterous sense of carnival, and a fiercely determined self-assertion, the latter especially something with which other subaltern ethnicities could identify, something like the modern template of the saint’s day took shape.

However, it was probably the fact that Irishness could be both plebeian or working-class and white, in a way Blackness never could, that allowed the Hibernian feast day to become “universal” and conferred on St Patrick’s Day its American potency.

Those who lament the fact that the St Patrick’s Day event became so intimately associated with Catholicism, and that the parade routes typically begin or end at a chapel or cathedral – the annual devotion followed by the annual debauch – might remember that well into the 20th century the Orange Order had its own parades not only in Ireland but across the Empire, and that that Order, designed to make the Croppies lie down at home and abroad, offered exemplary tutelage in bigotry and sectarianism.

At any rate, what was decidedly low culture in the age of the Pax Britannica would, paradoxically, become ideally equipped in the age of the Pax Americana to “go global”. In short, thanks to one of history’s many cunning passages the semiotic leanness of this version of Irish culture was readymade to travel light in the society of the spectacle.

High cultures are reasonably mobile, but, before the internet at least, they required galleries, museums, opera houses, publishing companies and libraries, circuits of expensive institutional infrastructure. Low cultures, by contrast, veer more towards orality and personal transmission; it was no accident that it was through music, song, dance, theatre and, later, cinema, that both Irish-American and African-American ethnicities would first make their cultural mark in the United States.

Nothing travels lighter and faster than highly-standardised and commoditised low culture: think American “French Fries” now available at a local McDonald’s everywhere from Milwaukee to Macao or Chinese takeaways even more readily available in almost every hamlet on every continent. Who wouldn’t want to be “Irish for a day” and become part of a feel-good festival that mixes springtime ethnic solidarity and carnival knockabout, full-chested triumphalism and shameless self-parody? Even the great chain-smoking Russian connoisseur of carnival, Mikhail Bakhtin, might have been reduced to some head-scratching on March 17th.

Like some of the most transformational things in modern Irish culture, from Ulysses to the Pogues, St Patrick's Day is testimony to the verve and inventiveness of the Irish abroad

None of this is to make light of the long histories of subaltern struggle in Ireland and across the other diasporas that have gone into the making of the modern or postmodern St Patrick’s Day. The county associations, community organisations, schools, cultural societies, sports bodies, pipe bands, and other groups that keep St Patrick’s Day events going all across the larger and smaller towns of the US put a lot of sweat and pride and passion into what they do.

However, in the bigger events at least, what was once a plebeian affair has now, like most things Irish, been transformed into some combination of state or corporate spectacle (though the capacity of state or corporation to control the event may be no more total than that of the clerical or city fathers of yore).

What was once the property of the ghetto-Irish claiming mainstreet public space in Anglo-Protestant America, Scotland, New Zealand or Australia, has become in the Republic of Ireland at least a day of fevered international diplomacy and corporate networking. Indeed, in the mid-1990s the Dublin parade was prised from the weakening clutches of the Devotional Revolution and Dublin Tourism, and remade, under the aegis of a committee chaired by the Gate Theatre’s Michael Colgan, into a multiday St Patrick’s Day Festival. The purpose of this makeover was to allow the Irish capital to compete with the altogether grander-scale New York parade and to renovate the image of the Republic as it shook off the Age of De Valera and the long war we called the Troubles.

Like some of the most transformational things in modern Irish culture, from Ulysses to the Pogues, from Waiting for Godot to The Country Girls, St Patrick’s Day is in large measure a testimony to the verve and inventiveness of the Irish abroad, an émigré confection reclaimed and remade at home to be resold as authentic “Irishness”.

Still, there is little point in reviewing the St Patrick’s Day shenanigans down the slope of the long nose. Instead of bemoaning the commoditised or other excesses of the slave-saint’s day, the more radical or imaginative elements of Irish civic society ought perhaps to do more to reclaim the event from the corporate and state image-managers.

St Patrick’s Day may have been transmogrified in recent times but the coverage of the Irish media remains static – tediously-rehearsed radio debates about which ministers are flying here, which there, which little piggy went to market, which little piggy was left at home; the same old six o’clock news-clips of bagpipers and banners on Fifth Avenue and Macnas giants on O’Connell Street; lord mayors in gold chains here, lady mayors in gold chains there – all so much visual groundhog day.

Well beyond the parades’ end and bars’ din, there is a whole other world of small-scale Irishness that rarely if ever captures the attention of journalist or ethnographer. In the small town of Newtown, Connecticut, for example, the Cyrenius H Booth Library is currently hosting a display of modern Irish literature featuring works by Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Edna O’Brien, Colm Tóibín and Tana French alongside histories of Irish revolution, anthologies of poetry, and collections of music. The curator of this little exhibition will attract no cameras nor look for any corporate paybacks. But will any small-town Irish library feature an equivalent exhibit of Irish-American literature?

The Connecticut Academy of Irish Music has been running music classes for five years and offers lessons in fiddle, flute, bodhrán and other instruments this spring. In US universities, classes of modern Irish literature have always enrolled well and are taken not just by students of Irish heritage. But is there a single university in Ireland that offers a well-resourced course on Irish-American literature or in the literature of any of the other Irish diasporas? Or is there a music department that offers a course on Irish-American or Irish diasporic music?

It is perhaps the fate of national centres to be complacent about the peripheries from which they borrow even as it has often been the role of the peripheries of Irishness to shake up the centre

It is perhaps the fate of national centres to be complacent about the peripheries from which they borrow even as it has often been the role of the peripheries of Irishness to shake up the centre. What is true culturally may also be true politically. The Irish love affair with the Clintons and Barack Obama has left in its wake one curious midland shrine in the Obama Plaza in Moneygall, Co Offaly, and another in the Clinton Institute in UCD. But to what extent have Irish TDs reciprocated Obama’s attention to his ancestral Ireland by interesting themselves in their ancestors’ involvements, whitened but not always enlightened, in African-American culture? African-American mayors have been hospitable to Irish parades, but how many Irish politicians have looked beyond corporate America to interest themselves in Black Lives Matter or in the intersection of Irish-American and African-American histories?

We now have fine historical studies by David Roediger, Theodore Allen, Noel Ignatiev, Kevin Kenny, Marion Casey, Joe Lee, and others, on the long, hard march by which “the Irish became white” in the United States and Irish histories in the farther fields of the British Empire have also been covered. But how much interest do such histories command in Ireland itself? Does EPIC, the Irish Emigration Museum, opened in Dublin in 2016, finally mark a turning-point in this respect? Or will it be just another tourist-oriented heritage centre with little impact on the wider society?

Mary Robinson did not invent the idea of the Irish diaspora, but she breathed new life into it when she became Ireland’s first woman president in December 1990. The candles lit for emigrants in Áras an Uachtaráin in the Phoenix Park expressed something intangible at a time when emigration was for many a hard living reality and not a historical memory.

What might it mean to claim a diaspora? Is it simply a narcissistic instrument of national self-aggrandisement, a tourism strategy to project Ireland globally, a marketing racket?

But at some stage Irish society, political and civil, must ask itself what it might really mean to claim a diaspora. Is it simply a narcissistic instrument of national self-aggrandisement, a tourism strategy to project Ireland globally, a brand image, a marketing racket? What obligations come with the claim to be the affective epicentre of such a far-flung scattering of peoples and histories?

Whatever one might say of them, the politicians at least make the trips, press the flesh, face the overseas media, seal the deals. What about the rest of society? In many ways ILGO, the Irish Gay and Lesbian Organisation, which campaigned defiantly for 25 years in the teeth of adversity to march in the New York parade, has shown the way forward. Refusing to accept the idea that the AOH had some monopoly on Irishness, ILGO displayed the same won’t-lie-down determination to claim public space and recognition that had once motivated Irish-American St Patrick’s Day parades in an earlier era.

Perhaps with a little more sustained civic republican imagination and energy and a little less corporate marketing from the homeland, the 21st-century St Patrick’s Day parades and festivals might yet become a rallying-point for another long and perhaps equally arduous march into the future, this time out of whiteness and into some as-yet-unimagined dispensation. A first step on the long march towards a rejuvenation not only of Irishness but of an authentically radical civic-minded republicanism.

It's a long, long way to that particular Tipperary, but the pipes, the pipes are calling….
Joe Cleary is a professor of English at Yale University and author of Outrageous Fortune: Capital and Culture in Modern Ireland (Field Day, 2007)