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patrick's day

St Patrick's Day state visits: How a bowl of shamrocks turned into a global soft power mission

Ireland has leveraged its patron saint into the most important day of its diplomatic calendar.

ST PATRICK’S DAY has come to represent the most important date in the Irish diplomatic calendar, a government-wide exercise in showcasing Ireland’s soft power on the world stage.

This year, a total of 36 Irish government representatives are embarking on state visits in 44 countries across every continent. Notionally, the idea behind these visits is to strengthen relationships with trade and investment partners and improve Ireland’s standing in the international community.

The total cost of these trips in the pre-Covid years tended to be somewhere in the region of €260,000. Last year that figure fell to €175,000, but we can expect it to see it jump again with a fuller roster of globetrotting officials. 

By any estimation, these figures are a drop in the ocean of Ireland’s overall budget. The gross expenditure for the Department of Foreign Affairs alone in 2023 is projected at €1.057 billion, so even if we imagine the total cost of these visits is €300,000, we’d be looking at 0.03% of the DFA budget. 

The expense is also a cutback on what was spent during the Celtic Tiger.

In 2008, as the world hurtled towards financial collapse, the Irish taxpayer footed a €523,621 bill for the exodus, which adjusted for inflation is more like €700,000. Following the recession, the aggressive lavishness of the journeys has been pared back.

Some criticism has also been levelled at this year’s programme, with former Soc Dems co-leader Catherine Murphy noting in particular the visit of Attorney General Rossa Fanning to Chile and Argentina and others questioning the purpose of such a visit.

Each year, the visits provoke conversation about cost, and frustration when the government is perceived to be facing more urgent problems at home.

With that in mind, how did we end up with such a tradition, and how did it become so massive? 


The origins of the ‘shamrock ceremony’ – the presentation of a bowl of shamrocks to the US President on St Patrick’s Day – began during the Harry Truman administration. The Irish Ambassador to the US at the time, John Hearne, sent a small box of shamrock to Truman, who responded with a letter to President Sean T O’Kelly

It was O’Kelly who made the first state visit to the US on St Patrick’s Day, meeting Truman’s successor Dwight D Eisenhower on the tarmac of National Airport, Washington DC and pinning a shamrock to his counterpart’s lapel — yet another shrewd moment of marketing and public relations, it’s fair to say.

In the intervening years – thanks to the influence of Irish-American president John F Kennedy, and as an homage following his an assassination – the tradition of the shamrock ceremony was a role usually performed by the Irish ambassador to the US, but importantly, became an annual fixture of the White House’s calendar. 

Under Richard Nixon, the ceremony began to take on a more substantive significance, and was used to the announcement of a new US ambassador to Ireland and Nixon’s announcement of his intention to make a state visit to Ireland. 

Ronald Reagan, who regularly drew upon his Irish heritage in campaigning for office, expanded the ceremony into the form we know now, building it out to include an evening reception and a speakers’ lunch, where the US President or Vice President and members of Congress would be joined by the Irish head of government. 

In 1986, Taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald visited the White House for St Patrick’s Day, a tradition that has since been carried on by every Taoiseach, with the exception of Micheál Martin, who visited DC last year but missed his official meeting with Biden due to Covid.

Irish-American relations took on a new intensity under the presidency of Bill Clinton, who became personally involved in the Northern Ireland peace process, and made peace in Ireland a core foreign policy position, elevating the importance of all diplomatic events between the two states.

When did it go global?

It’s a relatively recent phenomenon that St Patrick’s Day has turned into an all-out Cabinet globetrotting expedition.

As recently as 1996, the St Patrick’s Day trips remained a relatively contained affair. As Taoiseach, John Bruton only visited the USA and Canada, accompanied by seven other officials.

Just four years later, the event had exploded into one involving 22 ministers, their staff, and in many cases their families, travelling across the continents, costing £300,000 in old money.

It is perhaps best thought of as a unique bit of opportunism on the part of the Irish state, having leveraged its close relationship with the US into what has become a global display of Irish diplomacy.

There is no same strategy in the UK for St George’s Day, for example — last year the Duke of Gloucester visited the St George’s Society of New York, which we can all agree just sounds a little bit sad in comparison.

The Journal’s political reporters Christina Finn and Tadgh McNally are on the ground in both the US and China for this year’s state visits.

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