Connect to share and comment

Erin goin' nowhere

In the economic crisis, Irish ministers have to cancel their St. Patrick's Day junkets.

A man sits down during St. Patrick's day celebrations in Trafalgar Square in central London in 2008. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

DUBLIN — “Oh Paddy dear, an’ did ye hear, the news that’s goin’ round? ... No more St. Patrick’s Day we’ll keep … ”

It hasn’t quite come to that, as foretold in the old Irish ballad, "The Wearing o’ the Green," but several Irish government ministers are having to change their plans.

The number of cabinet members being dispatched to foreign parts to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with the diaspora has been cut this year from 30 to 17, in the face of public anger over taxpayers’ money being used for "junkets" in these recessionary times.

So, sorry Mexico, Argentina, Malaysia, China and South Africa — you are not to be honored this year with the presence of even a junior member of the Irish government.

Of all the annual St. Patrick’s Day outings, which are promoted by the government as a way to showcase Ireland abroad, one has the country’s full support: The visit of Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen to Washington.

For several decades it has been the practice that every March 17 the taoiseach presents the U.S. president with a bowl of shamrock to mark the close ties between America and the "Old Country."

This guaranteed annual access to the White House is the envy of other small countries. It became the occasion for big parties during the presidency of Bill Clinton, and the tradition was carried on by George W. Bush, though on a more modest scale.

At one famous St. Patrick’s Day reception in 1994, Clinton served Blarney cheese, chocolate bowler hats and Irish coffee cake for several hundred celebrity guests, and ended up singing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" with then-Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and Irish politician John Hume.

There was some concern this year that President Obama might break with tradition, and considerable relief when the White House confirmed — with just a month to go — that not only would he receive Cowen but would stage a bit of a hooley himself, complete with traditional musicians, such as Margaret McCarthy from Cork who plays the fiddle and performs Irish dancing at the same time.

The unique Irish access in Washington extends to top lawmakers in Congress, many of whom don green ties on St. Patrick’s Day for a lunch in honor of the visiting Irish delegation.

It will, however, be a rather somber series of visits abroad this year, given the economic catastrophe in Ireland that has stripped public services, created long unemployment lines and left thousands of people with home loans they cannot repay.