Cian T. McMahon: The Global Dimensions of Saint Patrick

mcmahon_global_PBWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Cian T. McMahon, author of The Global Dimensions of Irish Identity: Race, Nation, and the Popular Press, 1840-1880. Though Ireland is a relatively small island on the northeastern fringe of the Atlantic, 70 million people worldwide—including some 45 million in the United States—claim it as their ancestral home. In this wide-ranging, ambitious book, McMahon explores the nineteenth-century roots of this transnational identity. Between 1840 and 1880, 4.5 million people left Ireland to start new lives abroad. Using primary sources from Ireland, Australia, and the United States, McMahon demonstrates how this exodus shaped a distinctive sense of nationalism. By doggedly remaining loyal to both their old and new homes, he argues, the Irish helped broaden the modern parameters of citizenship and identity.

In the following post, McMahon talks about Irish transnationalism and identity, how the Irish celebration of “Saint Patrick’s feast day” is observed around the globe, and the festival’s origins.


Energetic celebrations of Saint Patrick’s Day, which are now ubiquitous in many countries around the world, reflect the flexibility and dynamism inherent in Irish diasporic identity. My book, The Global Dimensions of Irish Identity, shows that as millions of people left Ireland to settle abroad in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, their notions of selfhood shifted accordingly. A form of what I call Irish global nationalism emerged, characterized by both ethnic solidarity (which described them as Irish) and civic pluralism (which designated them as American or Australian, depending on their final destination). This new, flexible identity served those seeking to simultaneously maintain ties with home while integrating into host societies around the world.

While writing the book, I often thought about the ways in which Saint Patrick’s Day has reflected this balance of both a transnational sense of “Irishness” as well as local attitudes and concerns. Saint Patrick has always proven an opportunity for people to express themselves and their needs, in part because we know relatively little about him and his life. This paucity of hard facts has allowed people down the centuries to mold his reputation to their own needs and designs. When the see of Armagh in the north of Ireland sought to legitimate its primacy over the Irish church in the seventh century, for example, it did so by claiming Patrick had founded it and been buried there (despite no evidence to prove so). Almost a thousand years later, during the Reformation, Irish Protestants depicted Patrick as a man of the bible, impervious to corruption, while their Catholic opponents saw him as an early servant of Rome.

Since they started celebrating it in the seventeenth century, people have always used Saint Patrick’s feast day (March 17) as an opportunity to combine a transnational sense of “Irishness” with an expression of local concerns and needs. Legend has it that Saint Patrick employed the three-leafed shamrock to symbolize the doctrine of the Trinity (God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). For this reason, the shamrock (and the color green) have served as convenient stand-ins for “Irish” and to this day are stock pieces of any self-respecting celebration.

But while Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations have often brought people together under the banner of “Irishness,” they have also served as bellwethers for deep-rooted concerns. After achieving political independence from Britain in the early 1920s, for example, the Irish government sought to consolidate their claims to respectability by prohibiting the sale of alcohol on the saint’s feast day. Throughout the twentieth century, Saint Patrick’s Day parades in Ireland were dour, formal affairs, often conducted through driving curtains of spring rain.

When the Celtic Tiger economy exploded in the 1990s, however, the Irish government sought to consolidate their new, global reputation. Saint Patrick’s Day was accordingly rebranded as the Saint Patrick’s Festival, designed to draw tourists from all over the world. More recently, the parade in New York City, which has traditionally been the most vibrant and exciting in the world, has been riven by debate over its organizers’ unwillingness to allow members of the LGBT community to openly march under their own banner. When Mayor de Blasio (and a host of corporate sponsors) decided to boycott the parade, organizers announced in September 2014 that members of the LGBT community would be granted full inclusion in 2015.

From alcohol to economics to gay rights, Saint Patrick and his parades have reflected the multidimensional and often contested nature of Irish identity at home and abroad.

Cian T. McMahon is assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His book, The Global Dimensions of Irish Identity: Race, Nation, and the Popular Press, 1840-1880, will be published in April 2015.