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Being Irish in New Zealand on St Patrick's Day

As the Irish and those 'Irish for a day' celebrate Ireland's national day on March 17, four Irish Kiwis talk about what St Patrick's Day means to them. 

Sky Tower glows green on St Patrick's Day.  Photo/ Shaun Jeffers Photography

Noelle McCarthy

On St Patrick’s Day, everybody gets a go at being Irish; you need a bit more fortitude to do it all year long.

I used to say I was Welsh. Basically rugby, Tom Jones, coal mines and male voice choirs; done. I no longer deny my nationality, but the wholesale idealisation of Ireland still spins me out. It occupies a particular imaginative space: home of the craic and birthplace of blarney, friendly and earthy, poetic and probably a bit pissed. We know the rest of the world sees us this way and we’re OK with it, mostly. There is a truth to all that, but it’s a cartoon of a more complex character.

When I think about Ireland, I think about darkness – not just the crepuscular gloom that takes hold from September to April, but the darkness of our art, our literature, our history. For every Marion Keyes there’s a Samuel Beckett, for every Bono there’s a Francis Bacon. Not for nothing was it an Irishman who came up with Count Dracula. Bram Stoker’s vampire is the embodiment of a past that won’t stay dead.

Lately Irish papers are full of the horrors of Tuam, where an unmarked mass grave of hundreds of babies and children was recently unearthed. They were buried in a sewage pit by a religious order who preferred to cover them up. We’re not talking about murky prehistory - this was happening in the 1950s.

It’s not the first atrocity of its kind to come to light and it probably won’t be the last. This Ireland-shameful, backwards, silent, oppressed- has always lived alongside the jokers lowering pints of the black stuff.

Still, provided you keep your sense of humour, grimness presents unexpected opportunities for a laugh, albeit unintentional. Consider the Irish 'mam text' messages, sent to my best friend by her mother. “How are you? Freezing cold here and pissing rain. Bridie Casey has stopped eating. Poor woman is going to die. Any news?” Blacker than black, I know, but this is the kind of thing that makes me homesick. It’s the 'any news?” that kills me. In the end, it’s both in spite of, and because of the way we live that we have the craic. Sure, as the man said, life is short, you might as well.


Noelle McCarthy is a broadcaster and writer who has lived in New Zealand since 2002. She is currently working on a new podcast series on immigration for RNZ. She is a native of Cork.


Rodney Walshe

Having always been Irish on St Patrick’s Day, I could simply illustrate what it means in one word... Proud.

However, no true Irishman could ever restrict himself to one word, so here’s a few more.

The longer I have lived the greater the meaning has matured to be Irish on March 17.

My earliest memory of Paddy’s Day is my mother advising me that St Patrick ‘turned the stone’, meaning that as spring approached our patron saint would change the weather for the better.

St Patrick’s Day in the 1940s and late 50s, being a religious holiday, meant everything was closed. We went to church, we acquired a small bunch of real shamrock (not to be confused with clover with the white bit in the leaf). That was it, unless you went for a hike or a cycle for the good of your health.

I do remember that going to the Dog Show at the RDS in Dublin, had become a ritual. Not because of any interest in dogs but simply because it was the only place where you could legally get a drink, all the pubs being closed.

I emigrated to New Zealand in early 1960, and on my first St Patrick’s Day, my work associates bedecked my desk in green, white and orange ribbons. I must confess for the first time ever, I felt homesick. I bought them all drinks after work. We had to rush as the pubs closed at 6pm, but at least they were open.

It was when I became the representative of Bord Fáilte in New Zealand and later being appointed the Honorary Consul for Ireland, my awareness grew of the significance of the great day and its importance to all of Irish heritage.

It became apparent that St Patrick’s Day was not simply a religious event, it was also a celebration of being of Irish heritage and a catalyst for the Irish community to gather. Each St Patrick’s Day, my awareness of being Irish increased and my desire grew to openly share and embrace my heritage with others.

In early history, the Irish as immigrants tended to be looked down upon. St Patrick’s Day gave us the opportunity to demonstrate the positives of our heritage, the music, the song, the dance and the humour of Ireland and the Irish.

It was in 2009 that I succeeded in having the Sky Tower turn green for St Patrick’s Day. Never before had the Sky Tower adopted the colour of a country celebrating its National Day. I also arranged for the tricolour to fly on the Auckland Harbour bridge.

Photos were sent to Dublin and thus was born the concept of the Global Greening. This St Patrick’s Day, close to 300 iconic buildings and sites around the world will go green, including Niagara Falls, the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, The Pyramids and for the first time, Eden Park!

It may be difficult to comprehend that so many countries throughout the world are recognising Ireland’s National Day and by participating in the Global Greening are joining in our celebrations. But it’s true!

So, what does it mean to me, to be Irish on St Patrick’s Day? Simply to be blessed to be Irish and to hail from a small, proud nation, which is recognised, respected and so highly regarded throughout the world.

Rodney Walshe served as Ireland's Honorary Consul General to New Zealand for almost 40 years. In 2013 he was awarded the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for his services to the Irish community in New Zealand. He is a native of Dublin.


Cathy O'Sullivan

St Patrick’s Day is of particular significance to me this year. It marks my first anniversary of being a New Zealand citizen.

March 17 brings up many memories of my childhood in Cork: listening to mass being said in Irish, eating soda bread and sausages, going to the St Patrick's Day parade in the soft rain and hoping I might get a Club Orange and Taytos on the visit to the pub on the way home.  

In my adult years, the day has become much more about my identity and being part of the global Irish community. But I haven't always felt that way.

When I arrived in New Zealand from Ireland more than a decade ago as a backpacker, I intended to stay for just 12 months. One year turned into three and I fell in love with this country and a Kiwi.

Initially, I made a point of not engaging with the Irish community in New Zealand. I had travelled to the other side of the world on my own. Why would I want to hang out in Irish pubs and clubs in Wellington? I had come to New Zealand for an adventure, to experience new cultures and meet new people.  Yes, I made some Irish friends here but I didn’t go out of my way to meet people from home.

I didn’t really celebrate St Patrick’s Day in my first few years here. I cringed seeing people with no understanding of Irish history using the day as an excuse to tell lame Irish jokes (Ah fiddeley dee, tis grand to be Oirish ta be shure, potatoes...) and drink to excess. 

It was only in recent years, particularly after moving to Auckland and going through some tough times, that I felt the need to be more connected to Ireland. Being so far away from my family and childhood friends, it was the familiarity I missed; the warm embrace of those with a shared history. The laughs about ridiculous Irish weddings and chats about the 'banjaxed' economy (although not so banjaxed any more).

And so over the last few years I have become involved in Irish organisations and learned more about the Irish legacy in New Zealand. That has been its own adventure, meeting those who have been here for decades and the new generation of Irish New Zealanders.

There’s comfort in sharing moments with those who know what it’s like to love the life you have on this side of the world while your heart often aches for home. 

So on St Patrick’s Day this Irish Kiwi will raise a glass to those who have left Ireland for lives elsewhere. For no matter where in the world you live it’s your day to feel at home.

Cathy O’Sullivan is chair of the Irish Business Network of New Zealand and a trustee for the St Patrick’s Festival Trust. She was born in Galway but is a proud Rebel.

Russell O'Brien

As I walk out my front door on March 17 I have an extra spring in my step, my head is held higher than normal, shoulders further back and my chest is extending out ever so slightly. 

St Patrick’s Day is a day for an Irishman to be proud and although I have not lived in Ireland for 25 years, it is still a day to fully embrace the culture of my birth as if I had never left it.

I will meet many fellow Irish men and women, young and old we will nod and wink at each other as we share stories over a pint and for the most part it will feel just like being back home in Ireland.

This, I’m sure, will be a familiar experience for many expat Irish around the globe, but what makes this day an extraordinary experience in New Zealand is that so many of the locals will make a special effort to celebrate the day too.

Whether they belong to the nearly 17 per cent of New Zealand’s population with Irish ancestry or the remaining 83 per cent that do not, many New Zealanders will embrace the day and become a little more Irish for few hours.  This is what makes me so proud each year on this day, the fact that New Zealanders have such an affinity with Irish people and place such value on our unique culture that they are prepared to celebrate it with us in earnest and en masse.

I have often wondered why this is. Why do many people who have never been to Ireland, who have no Irish roots or obvious connection with the country, make such an effort to participate in celebrating our national day? It’s an extraordinary phenomenon, one which no other culture comes close to replicating.

Perhaps the answer lies in an encounter I had with my boss not long after I arrived in New Zealand, he pulled me aside one day and with a confused look on his face and said “O’Brien why are you always so bloody happy”? “I don’t know” I replied “maybe it’s because I’m Irish”.

Maybe St Patrick’s Day is so popular around the globe because it’s a universal license to be happy, to let your hair down, to sing, to dance, to forget, to remember and to sing some more - for a day at least.

Russell O'Brien is chairman of the St Patrick's Festival Trust. A native of Dublin, he has lived in Auckland since 1989.