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Alan O’Reilly is a political activist based in London.
As we head into March, many across Ireland and the world will start looking forward to St Patrick’s day celebrations.
While the traditional view of St Patrick’s Day is one of celebration and pageantry, for the Irish Government, at least, it also provides a unique and important opportunity for Ireland to showcase its economic offering and strengthen its political relationships across the globe.
While St Patrick has been the patron saint of Ireland for centuries, the actual celebration started in 1631 when the Church established a Feast Day.
The first parade took place not in Dublin but, perhaps predictably, in the United States, specifically Florida. It was then adopted across New York, Boston, and Chicago (major centres of the Irish Diaspora in the US) over the following centuries.
Today, Ireland sends out representatives across the globe to mark the event. This year 36 government ministers and other representatives will bring Ireland’s message to 74 cities in 44 countries.
Highlights will include the annual visit to the White House and Congress by the Taoiseach, as well as visits to London, Boston, and Sydney. But ministers will travel as far afield as Malaysia, New Zealand, Japan, UAE, Thailand, Kenya, and Tanzania.
These trips combine a range of opportunities, first and foremost of which is to connect with Ireland’s diaspora around the world.
Today it is estimated there are about 70 million people claim Irish heritage or ancestry worldwide – despite that the entire population of the island of Ireland is only about six million.
Building and sustaining these relationships has been a key part of overseas strategy for decades. The centrepiece of most of these celebrations is to remind people of Irish culture and to build on Ireland’s historical, and indeed current, contribution to global culture.
Across the world Gaelic Games will be played, poetry will be recited, songs sung, and Irish dancing competitions will take place. It is a time to celebrate all that is great about Irish culture and bind the current and future generations to Ireland.
Yet at the same time there is an economic element to this. Ministers will seek to build trade and economic relationships with key countries and businesses investing in Ireland. As well as visits to parades and cultural events, they meet business groups and investors to promote Ireland as a place to do business.
And of course, there is the political aspect too. Few countries, especially of the relative size of Ireland, have the once-a-year opportunity to put on a global spectacle placing the focus on themselves and their people.
Its easy to see this whole thing as something that gained ground over time, or simply a function of having a large diaspora.
But in truth it took more than just the luck of the Irish; ongoing work from successive Irish governments over many decades is what turned St Patrick’s Day into an invaluable, annual opportunity to build, develop, and reinforce political and economic relationships overseas.
Few other countries have so painstakingly built an outreach programme around their national day.
But there are indeed lessons to be learned, not least in London, on the importance of sustained diplomatic effort, and how historic and cultural links can, with work, be turned into useful alliances and inroads with other nations today.