Connect to share and comment

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

Ireland's traveling government ministers hope to counter the Hollywood portrayal of their country.

Thousands of spectators watch as the Chicago River is dyed green prior to the annual St. Patrick's Day parade on March 13, 2010 in Chicago, Ill. The annual St. Patrick's Day celebration has included dying the Chicago River green since 1962. (Frank Polich/Getty Images)

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.”