Of leprechauns, Guinness and all things Irish

“There are only two kinds of people in the world: the Irish and those who wish they were.” So goes one Irish adage.

And on Friday millions will get a wish come true, with parades and parties marking St Patrick’s Day which, just like Irish immigrant communities, have spread to become a global excuse for a bit of craic, or fun.

But the March 17 parades celebrating Ireland’s national day and its patron saint, credited according to legend with driving all snakes out of the country, are but one example of Irish cultural exports which have swept the globe.

Writers such as William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett revolutionised the world of literature and theatre in the early 20th century, while more latterly musicians such as U2, Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison and The Corrs have dominated the global pop scene.

Guinness, the black beer with the distinctive creamy top that the makers proclaimed was “Good for you” is now drunk the world over, brewed in 50 countries and sold in 150.

But sup too much and you might end up seeing another uniquely Irish product, those little green men known as leprechauns, who guard the pots of gold found at the foot of every rainbow.

Irish dancers following in the footsteps of Riverdance have been packing theatres. And of course, everyone has their own favourite Irish joke, with the Irish just as capable of turning humour on themselves.

But what explains this outpouring of talent from a nation of just five-million people, even if some 40-million Americans do claim Irish roots?

“There are obviously umpteen answers. But maybe it is something to do with the centuries of history that forged our nation,” Ireland’s ambassador to France, Anne Anderson, told Agence France-Presse.
“Probably a nation’s sense of itself as it has struggled to assert its identity, that kind of intense consciousness probably does lead to a creativity in a nation.”

Helen Carey, director of the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, agreed, highlighting the great Celtic traditions of storytelling and music.

“There’s the Irish imagination which is able, in the same way as in South America, of transforming the mundane into something that is more magical. And if you give people a kind of common cause, a pivotal cause such as freedom, then it stirs them in a huge way.”

Thus Saint Patrick’s Day is not only an excuse to let your hair down, but also a celebration of Irish tenacity.

“I think people are attached to the story of Ireland. It was an outpost of Europe, an island within an island. A country that was poor,” said Anderson, explaining why so many people today celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day.

“We were small, and we were oppressed, and through it all we held onto our sense of ourselves. And people love the underdog, the small guy.”

Now having left behind the past centuries marked by oppression and famine, and with Ireland’s tiger economy now booming, Irish artists are entering the 21st century with a new-found confidence and exuberance.

The country’s creativity, forged out of a duty and a will to keep alive a traditional culture, now faces new missions.

“There is a challenge to represent today’s Ireland,” said Carey. “Ireland today is a society in transition, and its cities are changing so furiously.”

As the Irish community in Paris geared up for its annual celebrations and an embassy party on Thursday, complete with Guinness, Galway oysters and salmon, Anderson added that in a new era of globalisation Ireland remained unique.

“There is still something different about Ireland. It can never be confused with any other patch of earth,” she said.—AFP

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