This St Patrick’s Day, my Facebook news feed was flooded with friends posting the video of Enda Kenny’s speech directed at Donald Trump. Kenny is on a State visit to the US, and took part in the traditional St Patrick’s Day Taoiseach’s visit to the American president in Washington. I have to admit, it was a good speech. Kenny’s speechwriters drew on their best emotive language, with a green-tinted story about St Patrick, and appealed to the nostalgia and national pride that they knew so many Irish people succumb to on St Patrick’s Day. Well played.
In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the speech:
Kenny refers to St Patrick as an immigrant (more on that in a moment), and asserts that he is in fact the patron of immigrants, while also celebrating Irish immigrants in America during the country’s early years. These are obviously references to Trump’s recent racist immigration policies, and it plays out as a vague attempt on Kenny’s part to challenge those policies. News outlets in Ireland, America and elsewhere caught on and ran with stories of how the Irish Taoiseach had put Donald Trump in his place. The UK’s Independent said that he used his visit to “take Donald Trump to task on immigration“, and Fox News reported that he “pushed” Trump on illgeal immigrants.
Firstly, St Patrick was a kidnapped slave who was brought to Ireland against his will. He was no more an immigrant than the people who arrived in America tied up like cattle in the bowels of slave ships from Africa.
But more importantly, before celebrating this cleverly written speech and sharing it all over social media, we need to look a little more critically at the person making it. Enda Kenny has led Ireland through many years while the direct provision system has remained in place. Refugees in Ireland languish in direct provision, without the right to work, to contribute to society, to cook for themselves, to form communities, or generally to live with any dignity. People have been kept within the direct provision system for years on end. In addition to this, Kenny has led successive governments that have refused to take Ireland’s fair share of refugees fleeing war and terror from abroad. These things completely disqualify him from speaking for immigrants. For him to stand and represent us in America while attempting to appear as a paragon of tolerance is sickening.
This is the man whose governments have crippled Ireland’s poorest with austerity and presided over the worst homelessness problem the country has seen since the great famine. Who, only two years before our marriage equality referendum, tripped over a flower pot in his haste to evade a journalist asking him about LGBT rights, and who sanctions one delay tactic after another to avoid giving women autonomy over their reproductive healthcare. But the nostalgia for a vague sense of ‘Irishness’ that enraptures so many Irish people on St Patrick’s Day temporarily blinded many of us to his gross failure lead effectively, and suddenly people were crying “Well done, Enda!” and “You did us proud!”. This green-tinted view of Kenny is exactly what his speechwriters banked on.
But this nostalgia for Irishness on St Patrick’s Day is nothing new, and the vague notion that so many call Ireland actually has nothing to do with the country we live in. Ireland is Ireland’s people, Ireland’s streets and roads and boreens and the people on them and how they live. Ireland is not a metaphysical idea of greenness, of shamrocks and welcome and flowing Guinness and joviality. James Connolly said in 1900:
Ireland, as distinct from her people, is nothing to me: and the man who is bubbling over with love and enthusiasm for Ireland, and can yet pass unmoved through our streets and witness all the wrong and the suffering, the shame and the degradation brought upon the people of Ireland – aye, brought by Irishmen upon Irishmen and women, without burning to end it, is in my opinion, a fraud and a liar in his heart, no matter how he loves that combination of chemical elements he is pleased to call Ireland.
This is as relevant now as it was 117 years ago. Homelessness in Ireland, and particularly in Dublin, has more than doubled since the early days of our last government. There are now more people homeless than there have been since the famine of the 1840s. A Garda whistleblower was bullied and harassed for years by senior members of the force, who tried to ruin his life by accusing him of molesting a child. Our mental health service is in crisis and vulnerable people are being left to fend for themselves. Only two weeks ago the story broke of the remains of 800 people found in the septic tank of a former mother and baby home in Tuam. Many of those incarcerated in these homes or in Magdalene laundries have yet to see any justice. The 8th amendment continues to constrain the welfare of pregnant people in Ireland. This country is so riddled with reasons to feel utterly ashamed of it, but instead on St Patrick’s Day, a day when national pride is celebrated despite all the reasons not to do so, our streets heave with green hats, shamrocks and laughter, and the drink flows like the Liffey.
The reality of Ireland is much bleaker than this green-tinted nationalism. There is nothing to celebrate, but we do it anyway. I would suggest that those who spent their time and money on drink and parties yesterday should consider also spending an equal amount of time educating themselves on what’s happening in Irish society, or an equal amount of money donating to causes that are fighting to change things in Ireland today. Good places to start are Abortion Rights Campaign, Irish Housing Network and Migrant Rights Centre. The irony and inappropriateness of Enda Kenny gaining our praise simply by appealing to nostalgia is sickening. There is a better way than this, and we can be a better Ireland for all of our citizens.