Cracking a smile on St Patrick’s Day is only half the battle of being Irish

Many associate the green colours with fun and frivolity, but behind the banter there’s a new mentality seriously trying to assert itself

On March 17, the city of Copenhagen will once again be awash with green as the St Patrick’s Day three-legged race and annual parade take over the streets, with the party continuing long into the night at the numerous Irish pubs.

For the capital’s millennials, the Irish colours are a familiar sight they’ve grown up with. The pubs have now been part of the city’s landscape for three decades, and when the Irish visit in large numbers – like for the recent 2018 World Cup qualifier – it’s talked about for years.

With similar climates and population sizes, there’s a strong affinity between the countries based on mutual respect and interests. But how well do the Danes really know the Irish – particularly given the nation’s ever-evolving identity?

With Paddy’s Day again approaching, long-time Irish residents in Denmark talked to CPH POST about how they think perceptions have changed. Never mind bad Irish and good Irish, is the key differentiation today old Irish and young Irish?

Before the Tiger roared
Economically, modern Ireland can be broken down into three periods: 70 years of being regarded as a poor European country following its independence from Britain in 1922; the economic boom in the 1990s and 2000s, which is generally referred to as the Celtic Tiger; and the aftermath of the worldwide financial crisis that led to Ireland seeking a bailout from the IMF in 2010.

But many Danes, concur Irish people living in Copenhagen, are often unaware the Celtic Tiger ever took place, even though many might have noticed Irish behemoths like Ryanair taking flight, and Ireland developing a reputation for charging minimal corporation tax to global giants such as Google.

The minimal interaction Danes have with Gaelic culture tends to take place in the pubs and on special occasions with men dressed in green wigs and leprechaun suits, often with impenetrable accents and a twinkle in their eye, perpetually on the craic.

It is perhaps a product of the popular wisdom that diaspora tend to hold onto the characteristics of the country they left in the decade they departed, clinging to a fiction of the past as being the present.

The Danes are accordingly left with the notion that the Irish are the funniest nation in the world, but that their country is disorganised – a place where the pubs are open 24-7 and the livestock roam the country mostly unfettered.

No longer inferior
The truth is that the Celtic Tiger changed the country forever, producing a generation of more serious-minded, business-like individuals, whose euro was as strong as any of their continental counterparts.

From the start of the 1990s well into the 2000s, Ireland experienced a period of rapid economic growth that brought an end to high levels of poverty, unemployment and inflation, as well as low growth.

And while the crash hit the country hard, it is the legacy of the Tiger that is stronger. Last year, the country enjoyed economic growth more than double what was predicted for the EU and the eurozone in 2018.

The country is considerably more inclusive, progressive and safer, while the power of the church has been cut dramatically. Ireland was the first country in the world to approve gay marriage by popular vote, and last year it also voted to legalise abortions.

“Ireland has thrown off the shroud of being an inferior race,” contended Patrick Sheridan, a management consultant originally from County Dublin who has been living in Denmark for 32 years.

“But after years of repression by England and the Catholic Church, we are still struggling with what defines us now as a nation.”

The exodus continues
Ireland’s average earnings are amongst the highest in the OECD, and 80 percent of Irish adults have attained at least an upper-secondary education, which is again higher than the OECD average.

Additionally, perceived social support is a clear area of comparative strength with almost 96 percent of the Irish population reporting to have friends of relatives whom they can count on in times of trouble.

Nevertheless, despite all this, more Irish people are emigrating than moving back home. A total of 295,400 Irish nationals emigrated between 2011 and 2017, while just 166,600 moved back – a net outflow of 128,800.

And it is not just manual workers, as the number of departing graduates is reportedly 500 a week, according to The Irish Times. Many are medical and nursing graduates desperately needed by the Irish health service.

Infrastructure issues
Ireland’s overall infrastructure should be better given their Celtic Tiger period, contends Sheridan, and he has no doubt about who is to blame.

“Years ago public investment in infrastructure was stained by a brown envelope culture,” he explained.

“Today we are building a new children’s hospital that has gone so over budget it will be the most expensive hospital per bed in the world.”

Patrick Kelly, a musician originally from County Waterford who has been in Copenhagen since 2008, agrees that health is an important issue.

“We need to come out of the 20th century and join our neighbours in building a healthcare system, and better public services all around. We are seriously lagging behind in most areas,” he said.

Learning nothing
One of them is equality and the difficulty young people face trying to buy their first home. The average rent across Dublin has hit a new record high of around 2,000 euros per month – and it is a problem identified by Irish PM Leo Varadkar as easily the biggest challenge facing the government.

Additionally, a government report released last year concluded the housing crises would likely persist for the foreseeable future, and Marie-Claire McAleer, the head of research and policy at the National Youth Council of Ireland, draws a parallel between the crisis and the emigration.

“The issue of housing is a significant challenge, as soaring rental costs are extremely prohibitive for young people on low incomes,” she said. “They struggle to secure a job that has a decent salary and career progression options.”

Hillary Kiernan, a resident in Copenhagen since 2013 who is originally from County Kildare, agrees with McAleer.

“We seem to have learned nothing from the recession because it appears to be creeping its way back,” she said.

“House prices are beginning to soar again, homelessness is a huge problem and hardcore drug addiction is also a big issue. Overall, there are still pretty integral institutional problems to be addressed.”

Ireland could learn a lot from Denmark, suggests Kiernan. “I have no plans to move back, and I think I would find it very difficult to readjust,” she said.

“Living in Copenhagen has spoiled me by setting the bar so high! For example, the infrastructure, the quality of life and acceptance that employees work to live and not live to work. Things just work here!”

Staunchly proud
Nevertheless, the Irish residents who spoke to CPH POST remain fiercely proud of their country.

“I love our unique identity and our endless abundance of talent – particularly in the arts, sports and entertainment business,” concluded Sheridan.

“And how we can turn any mundane event into a party at the drop of a hat – and that ability goes across all ages and social classes.”