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Happy St Patrick’s Day whose Centre is Nowhere and whose Periphery is Everywhere

March 17, 2014



If you want to insult all things Irish, everything that ever has come, does come, or will come from the island if Ireland, everything that with a Hiberno-prefix that has ever lived or breathed or even just sat there and existed, then the best thing you can do is produce a banner saying “Happy St Patty’s Day” and hang it over the main entrance to your bar or restaurant.  If you want six million Irishmen, women and children to hate you, then you should definitely do this.  If you’ve already done it, then they already do.

Yelling at North Americans for saying “Happy St Patty’s Day” is a great annual ritual in Ireland.   Trying to make green beer is another.   People in Ireland have too much respect for beer to want to dye it any colour than the colour God has decreed it, and Ireland’s most storied beer is almost impossible to dye in any case.  But then, St Patrick’s Day in Ireland is a strange and slightly uneasy holiday that does and doesn’t belong to the Island of Ireland.

The pivotal presidency of Mary Robinson in the 1990s coincided with a critical phase in the Northern Irish peace process.  The Irish Presidency has an adequate mandate to exercise considerable aesthetic patronage and representational autonomy.  A keynote of the Robinson presidency was “concern for the Irish Diaspora”.  The timing of this diasporic presidential leitmotif was carefully calculated.  It proved a way of acknowledging and yet transcending the trauma of partition.  It was a means of declaring that “yes I am a president for the people of Derry and West Belfast, but I am also a president to the people of Melbourne and Montreal, of Boston and Birmingham and Kilburn.  It recognised that Ireland was more than twenty six counties but softened the demand for reunification by insinuating that Ireland was more than thirty two counties also.

The strategy has reinforced and tried to celebrate the paradox of the nation with perhaps the most unambiguous frontier of any European state enjoying/suffering the most contested of frontiers.  The 1990s created an Ireland that was both expansive and porous – celebrating its diasporic reach while tempting greater and greater inward investment.

With the collapse of the economy in 2008, diasporic rhetoric then attempted to re-activate the language of the aisling tradition – the Jacobite chivalric register that looks for a saviour from abroad.  A version of this aisling tradition has recently culminated in The Gathering endeavour, an attempt to “bring it all back home”, to harness a “greater Ireland over the sea” that can come and visit and stay and reinvest.  Of course, this “greater Ireland” itself re-evokes a Fenian inheritance that developed in the mid nineteenth-century in the wake of the failure of the 1848 rising.  Historically, this essentially Jacobite tendency to look outwards for a rescuer, whether that rescuer be an exiled Stuart or Irish-American political and economic influence, is usually the prelude to a more Jacobin recognition that salvation, political and/or economic, lies in a democratic reassertion of sovereignty.  After Jacobitism always comes Jacobinism, and sometimes it’s hard to see the join.

St Patrick’s Day is the great national opportunity for Ireland’s political leadership to leave the country.  Its centre is nowhere and its periphery is everywhere.  Happy St Patrick’s Day and God Bless Us Everyone


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