What to make of Irishness, especially as seen in the United States?
Today, the Irish Taoiseach met with the US President as part of the annual St. Patrick’s day celebrations at the White House. It is a rare thing for a country as small as Ireland to meet yearly with the leader of the richest country in the world. Yet, such is the power of American identification with Ireland that politicians on both sides line up for the yearly photo opportunity.
Of course, there is a fine history of Irish contribution to America (not least Francis O’Neill) but there are many other countries that can lay similar claims. What is it about Ireland’s history that persists? Certainly there is the legacy of famine and strife that brought so many to America which lingers in popular imagination. Add to that the fact that Ireland tends to punch above its weight on the cultural stage. But will this last forever?
This Irishness is a flexible commodity. It will sell sugary cereal as well as lots of beer. The crass commercialism of much of St. Patrick’s day is a stark contrast every year to the sober “Holy Day of Obligation” of my youth in Ireland. Likewise, the truly tragic history of many immigrants that left the Green Groves of Erin is glossed over by the speeches of politicians eager to play to a certain audience. I don’t mean to sound like a killjoy. I appreciate a good party as much as anyone else. It is also important to celebrate the less commercial elements of Irishness.