Taoiseach Enda Kenny presents President Barack Obama with the traditional St. Patrick's Day bowl of shamrocks.Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

Last week Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister), 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.’

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 St. Patrick’s Day, 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 part of the emigrant wave 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 tragedies 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?


* Damian Shiels is an archaeologist and historian who runs the IrishAmericanCivilWar.com website, where this article first appeared. His book 'The Irish in the American Civil War' was published by The History Press in 2013 and is available here.