03/16/2012 02:41 pm ET Updated May 16, 2012

Why St. Patrick's Day Is An American Holiday

Green can be a difficult color to wear - yet this month, the United States will green it up with enthusiasm to honor Ireland. Niagara Falls, the White House fountain and the Chicago River will all be flowing green, and the Empire State Building will be green-lit too above the streets of New York - all part of a clever Tourism Ireland global marketing initiative. Here in Ireland, we'll watch as the world turns an instantly recognizable hue before our very eyes - and in the midst of our ongoing economic Armageddon, it will be difficult not to feel a pulse of relief and satisfaction. It's proof that we Irish can still do images well, when we put our collective mind to it. And St. Patrick's Day marks the apotheosis of our efforts - especially in the United States.

St. Patrick's Day is deeply rooted in American soil. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, lavish and elaborate S.t Patrick's parades were an annual fixture - not only in Boston and New York, but in cities as diverse as Milwaukee and Savannah. These parades tended to be not only Irish but emphatically Catholic - and were embraced by a range of muscle-flexing Tammany Hall municipal officials and wheeler-dealers. St. Patrick's Day was Catholic Irish America en fête, displaying potent political and religious assertiveness to a watching nation.

Fast forward a century and more. The St. Patrick's parades in New York and elsewhere remain gargantuan: an impressive sight on the TV news, I remember, growing up in the Ireland of the 1970s and 1980s. Even more impressive when compared with our home-grown attempts at celebrating our national saint: I have distinct memories of huddling under dripping umbrellas as a succession of damp home-made floats wound their way through the streets. The high point was the occasional sight of a visiting group of glamorous flute-playing Americans who had joined the parade: how I admired their threads, enthusiasm and straight, white-gleaming teeth. Then, festivities over, I would splash my way home to watch the pictures of the New York parade beamed in on TV. The grass was always greener on the other side of the ocean.

With the arrival of the Celtic Tiger in the 1990s, the Irish set out to model their national day along American lines: now we had a St. Patrick's festival, spanning five or more days and complete with fireworks and actual modern floats. I remember the first year of this new space-age extravaganza: standing on the roof of my apartment building in Dublin, watching the fireworks light the sky - and thinking that Ireland just might have a future after all. I think we all felt the rush of energy that characterized those years - even if we simultaneously knew that, in our self-conscious modernity, we were merely striving to match the efforts made by another country. Our anxiety to sustain links with America was best expressed by another St. Patrick's tradition: one which saw the Taoiseach of the day granted an audience with the U.S. President. This, we were told with glee, was a mark of an eternal American love of Ireland - and besides, such annual access to the White House was an advantage other small nations craved.

Today, I feel another tentative change, one that measures the distance between some stereotypes of Ireland and the texture of life in the country itself. Gay groups have long been banned from marching in the official St. Patrick's parade in New York - the reasoning being that homosexuality is somehow antithetical to Irishness. And to be sure, it once was: there is a long tradition of cultural, religious and sexual conservatism in Ireland - and as late as 1990, homosexual acts were illegal here. In recent years, however, profound changes have taken place with relative ease: same-sex civil partnerships are now legal; and gay marriage will most likely follow in due course. The old definitions no longer stand up to scrutiny - and the annual quarrel in New York is viewed in Ireland itself as a vexing distraction; an irritating stone in the (emerald) slipper. "Exclusion," said our foreign minister tartly in 2011, "is not Irish."

The Irish will always regard St. Patrick's Day in the United States with pleasure: as tangible evidence that as a nation, we still punch well above our cultural weight. As for the future: the great Irish poet Louis MacNeice spoke of an 'incorrigibly plural' world. This pluralism is both welcome and inevitable; and I look forward to watching it manifest itself - in a million different ways - on both sides of the Atlantic.

Neil Hegarty is the author of The Story of Ireland: A History of the Irish People [St Martin's / Thomas Dunne, $27.99].