Selling ‘Ireland’ and Forgetting the ‘Irish’? Some Thoughts on the Taoiseach’s St. Patrick’s Day Speech

This week Ireland’s Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, visited America for St. Patrick’s Day. Each March, our small country enjoys exceptional treatment on the other side of the Atlantic, treatment which includes a meeting with the President of the United States at The White House. Ireland’s relationship with the U.S. is the envy of other small countries. That relationship is almost entirely based on the affinity that many Americans hold for Ireland as a result of their own ancestry. In other words, Ireland has its past emigrants to thank for the extraordinary access and coverage we enjoy annually in one the world’s largest nations. It seems to me, however, that in our eagerness to use these opportunities to sell ‘Ireland’, we are consistently forgetting to remember the ‘Irish.’

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny with President Barack Obama in The White House (Wikipedia)

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny with President Barack Obama in The White House (Wikipedia)

As might be expected, Ireland uses the opportunity presented every March to ‘sell Ireland’ as a country to the United States and to Irish-Americans. There is nothing wrong with this. However, I am increasingly concerned that ‘selling Ireland’ is now in danger of becoming the driver behind nearly all our interactions with the diaspora. Official Government visits abroad make constant efforts to tell everyone why they should visit Ireland, and remind them of events (or anniversaries) which are being promoted and highlighted in order to encourage tourism. However, all too often the concentration on ‘Ireland’ is myopic in its intensity. Rarely in our engagement with the diaspora do we seek to include or remember the ‘Irish.’

To remember the ‘Irish’ as opposed to simply ‘Ireland’ is to include all those Irish who made new homes around the globe- the very genesis of the diaspora itself. We can count ourselves somewhat fortunate that the desire for many among the diaspora to support our country is so strong that this focus on ‘Ireland’ rather than the ‘Irish’ tends to go largely unnoticed. However, it remains to be seen if this is something that will hold true in the future. It is my view that the speech delivered by the Taoiseach at The White House is a clear demonstration of this focus on ‘Ireland’ over the ‘Irish.’

On Tuesday, the Taoiseach took the opportunity to reference three anniversaries– two centenaries and a sesquicentennial:

‘In Ireland, we are in a decade of commemorations, marking the hundredth anniversary of the tumultuous events that resulted in our independence. Next year we will commemorate the anniversary of the 1916 Rising in Ireland and around the globe, including a major festival here in Washington at the Kennedy Center. This year is also the 150th anniversary of the birth of the great poet WB Yeats. We will be marking that in many events throughout the year in Ireland, here in the US and around the world.’

The Irish Times coverage of the event noted that the poems chosen by Ireland for the presentation to President Obama were selected to acknowledge the first World War and next year’s centenary of the 1916 Rising, as well as Yeats 2015, the year-long celebration of the poet’s 150th anniversary.’ All three of these anniversaries are strongly ‘Ireland’ focused. One could ask, was there any other anniversaries that it might have been appropriate to mention?

The Taoiseach’s speech was delivered in the United States, in the year of the 150th anniversary of the conclusion of the American Civil War. This is a conflict in which tens of thousands of Irish emigrants lost their lives; many of them being part of the emigrant wave who were among those who laid the foundations for the development of that special relationship which the Taoiseach was in Washington to celebrate. But our focus was on the 150th anniversary of the birth of one our (admittedly greatest) poets.

As regular readers are painfully aware, I (and others) have spent many years attempting to get the Irish Government to do something to acknowledge the impact of the American Civil War on Irish emigrants. After many disappointments, finally, last November, the Minister for Arts, Heritage & the Gaeltacht made specific reference to the impact of the American Civil War on the Irish at a speech in Tulane University, New Orleans. With renewed encouragement, a number of highly respected historians and I wrote a letter to the Department in the hopes that some small event might now be possible. After all, here is a conflict that impacted Irish people at a similar scale to World War One. Unfortunately, after almost three months, we have yet to receive a response (you can read more about these efforts at Professor David Gleeson’s blog here), though we remain hopeful something positive may yet come from it.

That the 150th anniversary of a war that led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Irishmen once again fails to draw a mention from the Irish Government does not surprise me quite so much as the decision to specifically mention the 150th anniversary of the birth of W.B.Yeats in this setting. It is difficult not to draw the conclusion that the anniversaries chosen for mention were done so explicitly to ‘sell Ireland.’ The 150th anniversary of the birth of W.B. Yeats has thus far received significant financial support from Government, and is the focus of considerable attention from a number of State bodies. Yeats was indeed one of our greatest poets, and deserves attention. In contrast, the 150th anniversary of one of the biggest tragedy’s in the history of the Irish diaspora (and indeed the Famine diaspora) has thus far received no financial support and no acknowledgement beyond the Minister’s reference in New Orleans. To mention one to the exclusion of the other in the United States, on the final occasion in which the anniversary could be marked by the Taoiseach in America, was for me disappointing. If Ireland really does have a genuine affection for the history, heritage and experiences of our global diaspora, perhaps it is time we begin to mix our efforts to promote Ireland with a more keen awareness of the global experiences of the Irish people. What do you think?

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Categories: Discussion and Debate

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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29 Comments on “Selling ‘Ireland’ and Forgetting the ‘Irish’? Some Thoughts on the Taoiseach’s St. Patrick’s Day Speech”

  1. March 18, 2015 at 7:31 pm #

    Simply put, it does seem to me to be very much one-way. Hopefully, the efforts of you and others may some day change that and the diaspora will be remembered with the respect they deserve.

    Kind Regards,
    Mary

    • March 23, 2015 at 10:16 am #

      Hi Mary,

      Thanks for the comment- hopefully we can finally make some progress in 2015 :-)

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. Ruadhán
    March 18, 2015 at 8:13 pm #

    Very well reasoned and considered observations, thanks for sharing – and please keep it up! :)

  3. Kat
    March 18, 2015 at 9:15 pm #

    Thank you, this is so true, little honor is given to those whose sacrifice shaped the future of the US

  4. March 18, 2015 at 9:26 pm #

    Damian, sadly the growing number of diasporas (we now have one in the North http://www.niconnections.com) are all about the international marketing of the host countries and as such will stick to the softer elements of history that fit comfortably with the welcoming picture they want to portray. That’s not to say we should give up on pushing a more complete view of a nation’s history but it’s always going to be a struggle to be heard.

    • March 23, 2015 at 10:16 am #

      Hi Brian,

      I agree with you on this 100%. Thanks for the comment.

      Damian.

  5. March 18, 2015 at 10:01 pm #

    It has been through following your posts the last few years that I’ve come to see the glaring difference between who the diaspora (I hate that word) are and who the Irish government want them to be. They are in general economic migrants who when to attempt a better life away from these shores as the government then (as now) fail to support people in staying in Ireland (I digress).
    The way the government see the Irish abroad is as walking dollar bills, no more no less, so those who still cannot afford to come back after one or six generations are still treated with the same disregard from the motherland.
    How to rectify this? I have no idea.

    • March 23, 2015 at 10:09 am #

      Hi Sharon,

      Thanks I appreciate that. I have to agree with you- I used to think it was matter of education, that something would be done when politicians knew about it. I am not so sure anymore. Having written to every political party, the President, two Ministers, tourism boards, An Post etc. etc. etc. it just seems that there is a fundamental lack of interest in the history and heritage of the Irish diaspora. I can only imagine this is due to a perceived lack of economic advantage in it.

  6. March 19, 2015 at 12:14 pm #

    Reblogged this on A SILVER VOICE FROM IRELAND and commented:
    A fascinating and factual view of the relationship between Ireland and America which is honoured in Washington D.C. and other U.S cities in March each year. The thousands of Irish emigrants, many Famine emigrants, who gave their lives for America in the American Civil War and who helped shape that nation are apparently forgotten. It seems altogether astonishing that the Irish government considers that they are irrelevant in what is Irish American heritage month in the United States of America.

  7. March 19, 2015 at 3:02 pm #

    Once again, your post is right on target. It was a lost opportunity – especially since he had his family here. I just returned from visiting Gettysburg and Antietum – and was reminded again of my own Irish g-grandfather’s experience in the war. It does seem that some recognition in Ireland of those (largely famine) Irish who fought and lived through America’s civil war is long overdue. I’m surprised that the Universities haven’t raised the issue – there must be courses that cover it? I continue to be so grateful that you are caring this concern. Just wish you had more company on Irish soil.

    • March 23, 2015 at 10:05 am #

      Hi Lois,

      Many thanks for the comment. There is precious little in Irish Universities regarding the Irish and the American Civil War- quite a stark contrast to the Irish and World War One. ALthough we have some good academics who focus on the diaspora I am always surprised at how many of the leading Irish diaspora scholars are in foreign universities. I think you can certainly make an argument that more needs to be done in Irish Universities around these type of topics.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  8. March 19, 2015 at 5:10 pm #

    Damien,

    Unfortunately, unless there is a way the government of Ireland can use it to get money from gullible Americans it isn’t going to happen. I’m amazed at how eagerly the average Irish man is so quick to distance himself and his country from those whose ancestors came to America, fought for its independence, love it, yet yearn for the shores of the homeland as if it is in our very genetics. Being a part of a family who fought in rebellions against repression dating back to 1608 and earlier, the American War of Independence, The Civil War, and every American conflict thereafter, I am ashamed of the attitude of those who call themselves the “Irish,” simply because they were born on the Island.

    • March 23, 2015 at 10:03 am #

      I would like to see something from Government that suggested that getting money in wasn’t their only concern when it comes to this, but it hasn’t materialised yet. I hope that is a policy they change. I think you can certainly argue that many people in Ireland do view themselves as the only true representation of Irishness, which I think is incorrect. Of course many people in Ireland don’t share that view. Still, it is difficult to get away from the fact that as a nation we seem to have precious little interest in what happened (or indeed happens) to Irish people once they leave these shores.

  9. March 20, 2015 at 12:42 pm #

    What I find especially tragic about the Irish deaths in the American Civil War is the fact that they were treated as inferiors yet they died en-mass for a country that still discriminated against them. Check out the story (referenced in an earlier blog of mine :
    https://scotsirishpadreblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/24/san-patricio-and-wounded-warriors/

    That story is oft forgotten on St Patrick’s Day in the US…

    • March 27, 2015 at 5:37 pm #

      For what it’s worth, the Irish weren’t generally looked upon that way in the south. The earlier migration (of Scot-Irish) were thought of as simply Irish and had made a hugely positive impact on Southern culture. So, when the 19th century immigrants came into the ports of Charleston, Wilmington , Savannah and New Orleans they were not deemed undesirables.

  10. March 20, 2015 at 4:49 pm #

    Sharon and Brian (above) hit the nail on the head. While there is no political or financial mileage in the matter it is of no interest to those in power. A well observed post.

    • March 23, 2015 at 10:00 am #

      Thanks Roy- I can’t disagree with you on this, unfortunately that seems to be the be all and end all of everything.

  11. March 20, 2015 at 5:08 pm #

    Selling Ireland and forgetting the Irish is a very ‘sore’ spot for me personally. As some statistics reveal the vast majority of people who visit are more impressed with the people than of the ever increasing tourist destinations.
    I regularly get messages asking for ideas as to where to go that’s not on the map. I sometimes get complaints that Board Fáilte are not answering messages or sharing information on alternative destinations.
    Are our Government more inclined to sell Ireland and ignore the people who have made it possible? In my experience, yes.
    But what is a huge oversight by the ‘PR companies and ‘branders’, without the people, there’s little to sell.
    Well done on all your hard work Damian. I’ve learned loads and gained a great respect for our Irish abroad. You have created a great learning site here and I for one, appreciate all that I’m learning. Thank You.

  12. Paul McKeogh
    March 20, 2015 at 5:26 pm #

    This is a beautifully written piece, and a thoughtful and timely perspective on the contributions of the Irish to their adopted home as opposed to the typical, March 17th sales job of simply being Irish.

    • March 23, 2015 at 9:57 am #

      Hi Paul,

      Many thanks I appreciate that!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

    • March 26, 2015 at 3:55 am #

      Damian

      You’re really becoming an excellent writer. This a fantastic essay. I only wish I’d seen it before now.

      Keep it up.

      • March 31, 2015 at 10:13 am #

        Hi John,

        Many thanks I greatly appreciate that, it meas a lot!

        Kind Regards,

        Damian.

  13. March 20, 2015 at 5:31 pm #

    Reblogged this on The Irish Way (blog) and commented:
    Excellent article here from one of my favourite bloggers.
    Any thoughts you have please do pop over and share them.

  14. March 20, 2015 at 6:06 pm #

    I agree that this single-minded approach to recognition/commemoration is incredibly frustrating, but I also I wonder if there might be ways to play their game (so to speak) in such a manner that leverages Americans’ interest in the Civil War and the tourism potential of the many ACW-related sites in Ireland to push toward greater Irish recognition of the roles of Irish in the ACW overall. I particularly love the concept of the Irish American Civil War Trail (http://irishacwtrail.com) you’ve been involved in. I’m curious–how has this idea been received in Ireland (both by govt and the media)?

    • March 21, 2015 at 2:48 am #

      Brendan, I didn’t realize that there were any Civil War battles fought in Ireland. How about a little reciprocation and have the Irish spend some tourism Dollars/Euros here?

      • March 24, 2015 at 3:21 pm #

        ajmcdavid, while there weren’t Civil War battles in Ireland, there are many sites relevant to the war, like the monument and other sites in Waterford relevant to Thomas Francis Meagher, the Irish rebel leader/commander of the Irish Brigade, or Tait’s Clothing Factory in Limerick, which manufactured uniforms for the Confederate Army. These may not sound all that exciting to most folks, but bring up the subject of Meagher or Peter Tait jackets to a CW geek and brace yourself… There are MANY of us “geeks” in the US who would go crazy over that sort of thing. I mean, people go out of their way (I’m guilty of it myself) to visit the burial site of Stonewall Jackson’s arm! You make a fair point about Irish tourism in the US, but I honestly don’t know enough about that subject to comment. Maybe they already are (for all I know)?

    • March 23, 2015 at 9:56 am #

      Hi Brendan,

      I would have to say we were somewhat surprised with how little interest there has been in it. We have brought that idea to politicians, Irish tourism agencies and many others but there has been no positive responses. We did a lot of this in the lead up to The Gathering, which was aimed at bringing Americans into Ireland, but again there was no interest. Fundamentally I think Ireland is an incredibly insular and inward-looking nation when it comes to history- all we seem to want to do is sell how great it is to visit the Cliffs of Moher as our definition of Irishness.

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