On St Patrick’s Day, Ireland fights for its image

DUBLIN, Ireland — Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) likes to tell a story about two Irish immigrants who spend their time in Kelly’s Pub in Boston wishing they were back in Ireland. After many years they return to the old country for a holiday. They find their old village is a motorway and it rains every day. Sitting in a pub in Galway, one says to the other, “Jasus, wouldn’t it be great now if we were in Kelly’s wishing we were back in Ireland.”

The story highlights the dilemma of all emigrants, wishing to be in two places but not at home in either. For the millions of native Irish living abroad, this is most keenly felt on St. Patrick’s Day, which is celebrated today in cities as far apart as Boston and Beijing. Niall O’Dowd, Ireland’s best-known Irish-American, tells me that “watching the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York always brings home to me the awareness that I am a man of two countries. One is the land where I was born and which I still hanker after but is utterly changed. The other is my adopted home where I always feel I am from somewhere else, never fully a part.”

The New York-based O’Dowd, the publisher of an Irish-related newspaper, magazine and website, was in Dublin recently for the launch by the Irish prime minister, Brian Cowen, of O’Dowd’s book about the emigrant experience, “An Irish Voice.” Cowen, who spent “carefree days” working in New York in the 1970s, criticized the dismissive attitude of some Dubliners to the way Irishness is celebrated abroad on St. Patrick’s Day.

“I've always felt that there was an element in this country that looked over at the diaspora in a rather patronizing way, as the shillelagh and the Aran jumper brigade,” Cowen said.

There is currently much debate in Ireland about the stereotypes of Irishness that persist in the popular view of the old country in the United States. This is often promoted by Irish-Americans themselves and is bolstered by Hollywood’s vision of a land of leprechauns and fair colleens and quaint characters who love Guinness and fisticuffs.

In contrast, the St. Patrick’s Day message that Cowen and 21 other Irish government ministers are taking abroad this year on their annual jaunts as the nation’s traveling salesmen is that Ireland is a land of business and investment opportunities. Above all they will convey the message that “Ireland is not Greece.”

The Irish economy is in recession and the government has cut public servants' pay, but unlike Greece, there has been no street unrest.

“We are sending out a positive message about Ireland,” said Cowen. “We are tackling our economic problems head-on, we are creating the conditions for economic recovery and we are firmly focused on creating new jobs to tap into the great talents of our people,”

The latest typically Hollywood Irish movie, “Leap Year” featuring Amy Adams and Adam Scott, which tells the story of a young woman going to Ireland to propose to her boyfriend, has particularly irritated the government’s image-makers.

Donald Clarke, film critic for The Irish Times believes that Hollywood “is incapable of seeing the Irish as anything but IRA men or twinkly rural imbeciles,” and dismissed “Leap Year” as “offensive, reactionary, patronizing filth.”

O’Dowd believes Ireland has lost control of its image in the United States, which was more accurately portrayed in the 1990s with movies like “My Left Foot” and “Commitments,” but has been hijacked by Hollywood and the authors of popular chic-lit books set in Ireland.

Contemporary Ireland still has its cliff-top castles and fiddle-playing characters, but it is also a country of modern highways and pharmaceutical factories, with high-end shopping malls and dangerous suburbs where you would not want to start fisticuffs in case the other guy pulls a gun. Here one is just as likely to meet a software engineer as the “broth of a boy” portrayed in the movies.

Ireland's modern identity was underlined by the Oscar won this year by Dublin art college graduate Richie Baneham for his visual effects in “Avatar.” The win will undoubtedly be mentioned by the traveling Irish government ministers at a St. Patrick’s Day parade near you.