Ireland cancels St Patrick’s Day

As the rest of the world goes Celtic for St Patrick's Day, the Emerald Isle cancels celebrations through fear of foot-and-mouth.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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If you think the UK has overreacted to the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, you should see what is happening in Ireland. Just in time for St Patrick’s Day, the Emerald Isle has gone into national emergency overdrive.

Arriving at Shannon airport in Limerick on 14 March, the traditional Irish welcome was nowhere to be seen. Instead we were greeted by officials from the Department of Agriculture, demanding to know: ‘Are you carrying any meat? Are you carrying any dairy products? Have you been in contact with any breed of farm animal?’. My brother’s response (‘the last time I saw a cow was in this bloody country two years ago’) did not go down well.

Bringing mud into Ireland is also forbidden. All golf-players were taken to a specially set-up Department of Agriculture ‘cleansing room’ to have their golf shoes and golf clubs disinfected. When your travelling party includes five golfers (as mine did) with a total of 70 golf clubs and five pairs of golf shoes, that’s a lot of time waiting around to be disinfected. But the worthy Department of Agriculture officials were unapologetic. ‘Considering the situation’, said one, ‘you could have made an effort to clean your golf shoes, instead of bringing all this British mud into Ireland’.

At least we weren’t as humiliated as mothers arriving with young children, who were questioned about the contents of their babies’ bottles. Human breast milk was okay – anything else had to be disposed of, and the bottle disinfected. Mums who have complained about being stranded at airports with no food for their children – when they often have many more miles to travel – have received short shrift. ‘All designated animal products from the UK are banned’, says the Department of Agriculture. ‘That comes right down to babies’ bottles being taken away’, adds agriculture minister Joe Walsh (1).

The next morning it became clear that Ireland was in the grip of a warlike state of national emergency. At the Allied Irish Bank in Clifden town, Galway, all customers are instructed to wipe their feet on the mat as they enter. ‘Order of the Department of Agriculture: you must wipe your feet’, says a huge notice on the front door. At the library across the road, readers have to dip their shoes into a basin of ominous-looking yellow disinfectant – again on the orders of the Department of Agriculture.

Posters around the town told us that ‘All angling and eel fishing is banned at the present time – order of the minister for marine and natural resources’; that the town’s St Patrick’s Day parade had been cancelled; that trips to the countryside ‘should be avoided’ (despite there being nothing but countryside for miles around); that mountain-climbing and rambling were potentially ‘dangerous’; that hunting is ‘strictly prohibited’; that the National Coast Guards’ dinner and dance had been ‘postponed until further notice’.

Stuck in the west of Ireland with no fishing, no hunting, no walks in the countryside, no St Patrick’s Day parades, no dinner and dance….There really is nothing left to do but drink (though with one newspaper claiming that ‘Drink driving now almost as shameful as sex abuse’ (2), maybe that’s best avoided, too).

It isn’t just the rural, farming west that has been brought to a standstill. As the Irish Times points out, ‘Foot-and-mouth disease – or at least the threat of it – has brought the country’s recreational life to its knees….We face a St Patrick’s Day without any parades’ (3). They’re not joking – St Patrick’s Day in Ireland has effectively been cancelled.

‘The St Patrick’s Festival Board has decided to postpone St Patrick’s Festival’, says the Irish government’s website (4). ‘This is a precautionary measure against an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Ireland, which does not affect humans but does affect agricultural livestock. Here in Ireland, all international outdoor sporting and cultural events have been postponed until the threat of foot-and-mouth abates.’ But don’t worry, you can still ‘celebrate 17 March from the comfort of your PC’ – that should satisfy the Irish desire for drink, revelry and craic.

As Ireland grinds to a spectacular halt, it is easy to forget that there is not one case of foot-and-mouth disease in the country. Ireland is a foot-and-mouth-free zone. But don’t try to argue that the authorities have gone too far in their precautionary measures: you’ll get an even harder time than mothers wanting to feed their babies at airports.

As Harry Browne, one of the few journalists who has challenged the hysteria, points out, ‘Anybody daring to proceed with a mountain hike or a pop concert has been accused of national treachery….If some people are feeling hard done by, they are not likely to come out and say so in the media’ (5). Why? Because it is not only national life and national holidays that have come to a standstill – so has national debate.

Anybody wanting to question the state of national panic has done so anonymously. A nameless sportsman told the Irish Times: ‘To many of those involved in sport, it seems as if they have been hamstrung by the precautions.’ An ‘expert Irish scientist’ argued that ‘Ireland, by cancelling public events and telling people to stay put, was going right over the top’ – but remained nameless ‘because of the likely negative reaction from politicians and the media’ (6).

But then, it’s not surprising that critics of the foot-and-mouth panic want to keep their identities hidden – you get the feeling that otherwise they would get lynched for being unpatriotic. Talking to some of the locals in pubs around Galway, I quickly got a sense that people feel like they’re pulling together against a foreign threat and are doing their bit to ‘protect Ireland’.

Eamon, a small-time farmer in his forties from Spiddal, told me: ‘We’ve got to keep it out. Ireland’s agriculture and wellbeing is at stake here.’ Saiorse, a 20-year-old shop assistant in Galway City, explained: ‘Everybody, especially farmers, are very anxious. We’re willing to put up with the restrictions if it protects the country.’ Newspaper columnist Declan Lynch has said that it is ‘patriotic’ to put up with cancellation of even kids’ football matches, no matter how irrational such cancellations may be (7), while agriculture minister Joe Walsh has threatened ‘the full rigours of the law…to protect the wellbeing of the nation’ (8).

This must be the ‘unprecedented outbreak of civic duty’ that Irish Examiner columnist Karl Brophy writes about (9).

‘Patriotism’, ‘wellbeing of the nation’, ‘pulling together’, ‘civic duty’, ‘protecting Ireland’.…Sitting here in the west of Ireland with not very much to do but read papers and talk to locals (though not in crowded pubs, as we’re all told to ‘Avoid large gatherings of people’ (10)), I can’t help feeling that the emergency measures have more to do with creating a sense of national togetherness than with keeping out an animal disease. As Harry Browne writes, ‘The inconvenience caused by precautions has an element of adventure, of folks pulling together in a crisis’.

Which is all very nice – except that in the process, people are being disinfected, told to stay indoors, to avoid large groups of people, to cancel their kids’ football matches, and generally keep their heads down until ‘the worst is over’.

Happy St Patrick’s Day.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:
We’re all Irish now, by Brendan O’Neill
St Patrick’s Day, USA, by David Nolan
Read more on the Foot-and-mouth issue
(1) ‘They’re even taking food from babies in bid to keep disease out’, Irish Independent, 15 March 2001
(2) Irish Times, 14 March 2001
(3) Irish Times, 14 March 2001
(4) St Patrick’s Festival Board website
(5) ‘An artificial dissemination?’, Harry Browne, Irish Times, 14 March 2001
(6) ‘Going over the top?’, Irish Times, 14 March 2001
(7) See the Irish Times, 14 March 2001
(8) ‘Huge fines and confiscation in clampdown on animal scams’, Irish Independent, 15 March 2001
(9) Irish Examiner, 14 March 2001
(10) See Foot-and-mouth dos and don’ts, RTE (Ireland’s national TV station)

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