Ireland's 'pint diplomacy' goes digital for pandemic St Patrick's Day

Part influence operation, part branding exercise, diplomatic parties are key to Irish soft power

This week should be the high point of the Irish diplomatic calendar, a time when every minister departs the island to celebrate the national day in a different country and flex the soft power that St Patrick’s Day has come to represent around the globe.

Though then-taoiseach Leo Varadkar did make it to Washington last year to present the bowl of shamrock to Donald Trump, across Europe the embassy receptions that typically gather the Irish diaspora and an influential network of local politicians, businesspeople, and cultural figures were abruptly called off in March 2020 in one of the earlier signs of how life was about to change.

One year on, the diplomatic network was more prepared and the Department of Foreign Affairs co-ordinated the production of more than 80 “virtual reception” videos for Irish embassies and consulates across the world, featuring messages from local ambassadors and Taoiseach Micheál Martin, and a mix of Irish dance, music and poetry.

The choices were locally tailored. For the Brussels crowd, a montage of children of the Áirc Damhsa group dancing in scenic outdoor spots was chosen along with a reading of Lady Gregory's Heart of the Wood by poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa. For Japan, a rendition of Sí Do Mhamó Í by the Hothouse Flowers in a decoratively empty Temple Bar was picked, followed by a performance by local musicians who play Irish music, including virtuoso flautist Kozo Toyota.

Diplomats concede that the videos can’t replace the usual in-person events: invites are coveted far beyond the Irish community for these, as they are renowned as good parties.

There was therefore something sorrowful in itself about the concept of the virtual receptions, and the recorded greetings had no choice but to reflect the circumstances. “The pandemic has isolated us to family and friends,” the Taoiseach said in one video, acknowledging the pandemic’s role in splitting families apart. “You have missed Christmas, birthdays, weddings, and sadly even funerals.”

Ambassador Tom Hanney, the permanent representative to the European Union, recorded a message somewhere in the vacated heart of Brussels' institutional quarter. "Normally today this space would be buzzing with officials coming backwards and forwards from meetings. But today, it's empty," he observed.

And yet, many of the featured music and performances chimed surprisingly well with the moment, a reminder that this is a cultural heritage born of adversity. They were also of noticeably high quality, a testament to how much our cultural sector rewards investment.

Serious matter

The evident efforts that went into the production reflect that St Patrick's Day is a serious matter when it comes to Irish foreign policy. No other nation, certainly one so small, has the ear of the US president and Capitol Hill annually on their national day, and it is not customary for countries to offer up their iconic monuments to be lit up in celebration of an overseas festival, as they are in the annual "greening" of landmarks from Egypt's pyramids to Rome's Colosseum. Ireland has inherited a mighty brand: the power of green alone to evoke a particular nationality is rare in itself.

"It's arguably the best-known national day in the world," said Bobby McDonagh, former ambassador to the EU, UK and Italy.

“It’s to do with our diaspora – we’re a rare country that has a smaller population now than in the 19th century – but there’s also a sense of fun associated with being Irish,” Mr McDonagh said. “People think of Ireland as a source of joy.”

In some places, the local diaspora is small enough that the entire community can attend a single St Patrick’s Day reception, while in places like London multiple events must be held for different coteries, even then only including a tiny fraction of the local Irish population. The inevitable live Irish music at the events is often played by performers who are not Irish themselves, reflecting its global fandom.

Ireland has still been afforded the ear of Washington this year, even at a distance. The Taoiseach has had meetings with President Joe Biden, vice-president Kamala Harris, and House speaker Nancy Pelosi, which could hardly come at a more welcome time after Britain once again announced its willingness to break with agreements over Northern Ireland made in the post-Brexit protocol.

This reflects that the St Patrick’s Day events are far more than just parties. They are part branding exercise, part soft-power influence operation, part practical way of networking and forging links that help the diplomatic network in other tasks.

“Lobbying, reporting back, helping citizens,” McDonagh summarised. “The outreach is important in its own way, but it also helps the other objectives.”