Guinness, Riverdance and St. Patrick’s Day: the Irish cultural superpower lives on

OPINION

Ah yes, ‘tis the time of year again that the rivers of the USA are dyed green, Guinness’ marketing team goes to town and Irish politicians fly around the world, shaking hands and kissing babies. It must be St. Patrick’s day. A rather different one this year from the global drinking fests that have characterised the date in recent memory. Last year’s instalment turned out to be one of the early casualties of the pandemic, with few of us anticipating this St Patrick’s day would face a similar fate. Does old ‘rona not know it’s spoiling the craic? This celebration of culture (and I do mean more than just the drinking culture) is just one example of the international and subtle nature of Irish influence on the world stage which is more potent (and needed) than ever in the wake of Brexit.

St. Patrick, for the uninitiated, was a fifth-century missionary in Ireland (he may actually have been Welsh!) who brought Christianity to the isle, as well as apparently ridding us of snakes and numerous other things; all in all a busy guy. The political significance of 17 March for Ireland was highlighted by the furore that erupted when it was announced that Taoiseach Micheál Martin intended to go to the White House for this year’s St. Patrick’s day, as has become the annual custom. His intention to do so, despite the pandemic restrictions and the fact that Ireland is currently in a national lockdown, rightly caused outrage. Needless to say, the Taoiseach’s pipe dream was quickly scrapped. Nonetheless, this gave us a glimpse of the questionable priorities of the Irish government.

While the insensitivity of his American travel plan is patent, one could understand how the Irish government could have deemed this customary trip as “essential travel”. Ireland’s international power play is found in its “soft power”. Coined by Professor Joseph Nye in the 1990s as “the ability for a country to achieve its goals through attraction rather than coercion”, this form of political power differs starkly to the use of economic and military means that characterises “hard power”.

One of soft power’s central tenets is the propagation of one’s culture, and essential to this is the people who propagate it. So, while Irish-born citizens may roll their eyes as yet another American politician claims Irish descent from their great, great, GREAT grandfather, this sense of Irish identity beyond borders is Ireland’s political bread and butter. Over 10 million people have left the Emerald Isle’s shores since 1800, and over a million of these migrations were made during the period of the Great Famine alone (1845-52), spawning an enormous diaspora of 70 million people who now, thanks to globalised travel and technology, can (re)connect with their ancestral homeland and Irish identity like never before.

With this diaspora comes an expanse of Irish culture, visible in the abundance of Irish cultural centres, museums and the >7000 Irish pubs that dot the globe. Moreover, these millions are Ireland’s flag bearer and mouthpiece all over the world. Such is their effect that, by the time Irish politicians take off on their cultural diplomatic trips, the groundwork for success has been laid in the crafted perception other nations’ already have of Ireland, whether that be as the land of welcoming hosts, rolling green landscapes or of increasingly strong business credentials.

Given this expansive network of soft power, the Irish government’s eagerness to return to their accustomed moves of cultural diplomacy reflects an understanding that Ireland’s strength lies within this cultural framework. However, there is no reason for the Taoiseach to fear quite yet. The Irish cultural prowess, as the new inhabitant of the White House makes his Irish lineage clear at every opportunity, is still alive and kicking. Joe Biden is just one example, and a big one at that, of the power of the Irish diaspora, and the national assets that these millions have become to the homeland.

I myself must admit to partaking in this wholesale of Irish culture by taking my friends on a “Paddywagon” tour when they came to visit me a few years ago. I also insisted on dragging them to an Irish pub when in Dublin, only to be aghast that it did not serve Guinness. My friends can also probably attest to the fact that I am one of those diasporic members who refuses to shut up about Ireland (music to the ears of Oireachtas). It would seem you have to leave the motherland to truly appreciate it, chiming with Ben Jennings’ remark that on every St Patrick’s Day ‘ministers partake in a long-held Irish custom: they leave the country.’ 

What other country in the world has the ability to convince other nations to light up monuments in its national colour on its national day? Outside the United States, the Christ the Redeemer, Burj al Arab and the Great Wall of China (to name a few) have all been turned green in years gone by. It is hard to overstate just how absurd this would be outside the context of St. Patrick’s day, especially given that it is not a reciprocal act: Ireland most certainly does not light up in the national colours of other states for their national celebrations.  

In many ways, being a cultural superpower is also a means of facilitating dialogue within our small island long plagued by division. It enables Ireland to refocus its culture to centre on its music, literature, or simply a party and a can of the good stuff. In moving away from divisive discourse, it removes the polemic that can too often overwhelm the conversation between the nationalist and unionist tug-of-war.

I lived these benefits first-hand during a six-month internship in Paris, during which I resided at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, a hub of Irish life in the middle of the Latin Quarter. It may of had some cult-like rules, such as only being permitted to live there if you are Irish and a ban on overnight guests (the Catholic grip ever present), but for a few months I was part of a pan-Irish diaspora community brought together by the shared celebration and enjoyment of Irish culture and history. In the cultural centre, identity no longer needed to be defined by geography, politics or religion.

Cultural power has led to massive political wins for Ireland in recent years. Our small nation beat the likes of Canada to gain a spot on the UN Security Council for two years, starting at the beginning of this year. Last year Irish Paschal Donohoue won the race to become president of the Eurogroup (informal meetings of 19 finance ministers of the Eurozone), and Irish politician Mairead McGuinness became the country’s longest serving MEP and has occupied the role of First Vice-President of the European parliament since 2017.

Most notably, the EU’s position on Brexit has been shaped by Irish diplomats (the whole Article 16 shenanigans aside; crucially, Ursula and co. quickly backed down on this one). Of course, much of Ireland’s influence on this issue came from necessity: the land border with Northern Ireland was a constant thorn in the side of all parties concerned. However, it also highlights the seriousness with which Ireland is taken and considered on the European scene. Now that the American government is headed by diaspora-member Biden, Ireland’s influence can only grow, with the watchful American eye peeled to Irish affairs. Jennings quips, ‘On a per-head basis, Ireland has a good claim to be the world’s most diplomatically powerful country.’

While Ireland may be a European top-dog, and now a net-contributor to the budget, it is also dependent on the EU’s success. ‘Europe is now our political mothership,’ states Howlin, a regular contributor to political debate in the Irish media. The uncertainty that looms over the next decade, with the compounding crises of Brexit and the coronavirus, leaves us all blindly moving forward into a socio-political abyss. The challenges the Irish government face in the post-Brexit world and the work to be done to overcome them will, by necessity, take place abroad with the “soft-power” work of the diaspora. In Howlin’s words, ‘We are small. To succeed we must be nimble, selective, connected, and respected.’ Ireland is going to want to continue to strengthen its connections with its diaspora if their effective soft power is to be sustained. As we all await the day when Irish pubs, Paddywagon tours and literary and music festivals come to life again, raise a glass to St. Patrick, the figurehead of this cultural powerhouse: sláinte.

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