Can England get out of Ireland, or indeed can Ireland get out of England?
Every 17 March, Kate Middleton dresses in green and travels to outer West London to ceremonially affix a sprig of foliage to a large dog. The canine in question is Domhnall, a wolfhound who serves as the mascot of the Irish Guards, a senior regiment of the British Army. Usually after this gesture is performed she and her husband, who is known as Baron Carrickfergus when in Northern Ireland, ceremonially swig Guinness for the cameras.
On the other side of London, near my house, is a pub named the Marquis of Granby. Like dozens of other pubs with that name in England, it was named for John Manners, an 18th century army commander during the Seven Years’ War. Many of his demobbed soldiers set up on public houses and inns on their retirement and named them after the popular general. But despite its name, my local pub is an Irish pub, with a landlord from Donegal and a loyal core clientele of older Irish migrants, fond of the reliable Guinness and TV coverage of Gaelic games. Today, 17 March, will be one of their busiest days. Countless other “Irish” pubs with English names will be crammed with people celebrating St Patrick’s Day.
Many of these will be either Irish emigrants to Britain or their descendants. But St Patrick himself, the 5th century Christian proselytiser whose works and myths are celebrated on 17 March, migrated in the other direction. He was almost certainly a slave, possibly born in Scotland or Wales, but definitely transported from Britain to Ireland, where he is credited with successfully seeding Christianity in what had previously been a pagan island beyond the reach of the Roman empire.
It is of course anachronistic to apply modern concepts of nationhood to the 5th century, when they did not exist. But in the modern sense of having originated on the island of Britain, St Patrick was a Brit. What’s more, he is buried in the United Kingdom, specifically in the bit of Ireland that remains in the United Kingdom. His claimed resting place is Downpatrick (full disclosure: it’s also my hometown, do visit) in Northern Ireland, in the grounds of a Church of Ireland cathedral. In case you are unaware, the Church of Ireland is a Protestant church. In English cities, descendants of mostly Irish Catholics will be waving the flag of the Irish Republic; inside a Church of Ireland cathedral in Ireland that holds the resting place of Ireland’s patron saint, there is a ceremonial Union flag.
Though it is a reformed, Anglican institution, the Church of Ireland’s members – who include Arlene Foster – have historically been among the most enthusiastic chroniclers and revivers of ancient Irish Christian history. It has been at once an Anglo-Irish institution, borne out of the reformation in England and largely followed in Ireland by the descendants of English migrants to Ireland, and not just in the north east corner now known as Northern Ireland.
Among the other historic members of this reformed church was Arthur Guinness, an 18th century Dublin brewer, whose descendants are among the prime beneficiaries of the desire to perform and commemorate a particular kind of Irishness using alcohol every 17 March. It wasn’t always that way the feast day of St Patrick was originally a holy day and remains so for all the Christian denominations in Ireland. For the shrinking number of practising Catholics in Ireland, it is still formally a “holy day of obligation” requiring fasting and contemplation. Some revellers do fast, but largely by forgetting to eat.
This Guinness-drinking, parading festival of Irishness has much to do with an émigré identity that emerged in North America and was then re-exported back to Ireland. The American construction of St Patrick’s Day is in part why so many Irish politicians of all backgrounds find themselves in the US at this time of year, meeting Presidents and leading parades of emigrant communities.
In New York yesterday, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald was photographed marching behind a banner which bore the slogan: “England Get Out of Ireland”. As with Brexiteers, the desire to simplify and clarify denies not just history but life as it is lived. Whether politically or not, England is in Ireland and Ireland is in England. If you need proof, have a pint.
Matthew O’Toole was chief press officer for European affairs at Downing Street from September 2015 to August 2017. He tweets as @MatthewOToole2