I'm celebrating St Patrick's Day with a green army. . . in Cambodia
It can be a lonely life far from home but these Irish volunteers will still mark the day, writes John Costello
The shamrocks, shillelaghs and shenanigans will be in full swing as the world turns Irish today.
But while cities and towns around the globe become engulfed in a sea of Guinness, a large number of Irish people working in some of the world's poorest countries will be celebrating St Patrick's Day in their own unique way.
Mary Knox, 67, will be toasting Ireland in the small city of Sisophon, Cambodia, where she works as a teaching adviser for the international charity, Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).
She arrived there 17 months ago, and was soon feeling "lonely, scared, missing my family and friends, thinking I must be insane to leave my comfortable home for this back-of-no-place, one-horse town".
Mary's husband died of cancer two years ago and shortly afterwards her mother passed away, leaving Mary thinking what she would do.
'My kids are all raised, so the question was, 'Do I go to seed or do I do something?' she says. "So I saw an advert for the VSO and decided to go for it."
However, it can be lonely being Irish in a place where St Patrick and, indeed, Ireland are largely unknown.
"I cried last St Patrick's Day," says Mary. "I wasn't here long and I didn't really know anybody. Being here if you didn't look at the calendar you wouldn't know it was St Patrick's Day.
"So it is a very, very sad day to spend by yourself when you are Irish and there is no one to wish you happy St Patrick's Day. I got emails from the kids, but by the time they had come in from work I had long gone to bed and the day was over."
Thankfully, Mary has used the last 12 months to educate the children and teachers at the school she works in about Ireland and its national saint.
"It takes a lot of explaining that Ireland is not Iceland," she laughs. "Yes, I tell them it's cold, but not actually that cold! Then they think we are part of England so I have to explain to them they are pretty near Thailand but are not Thai.
"They understand that because there is no love lost between them even though they are only a couple of miles away.
"This year I can explain that this is my celebration," she says. "I told them the story of St Patrick and they even managed to say 'Happy St Patrick's Day'.
"With what happened here with the Khmer Rouge, the children were very taken aback with the story of how he was kidnapped and taken as a slave."
To celebrate St Patrick's Day, Mary has twinned her local school with the Grade Three class of Holy Cross School in Tramore, Co Waterford.
"The kids sent a package of shamrocks, an Irish flag and other things, so we did a project on Ireland," Mary says.
"They are as poor as church mice but they always have a smile and are so happy for the smallest thing you give them or can do for them. And they appreciate such little things. They have a lot of what we lost."
This year, thankfully, Mary won't be celebrating alone.
"There are two other Irish people here now so we will go out for dinner and maybe open a bottle of wine," she says. "And that is unusual here because wine is very expensive. So we will be pushing out the boat!"
Tanzania is not a place renowned for its Paddy's Day celebrations, but this year Tom O'Donoghue will be celebrating at the Irish embassy in Dar es Salaam while looking forward to the Irish Tanzania Society's ball on Saturday night.
"Few people know much about Ireland here. I am constantly saying to people, 'No I am not English, I am from Ireland'. The English language seems to brand us," he laughs.
Tom, a former school principal from Ferrybank in Co Wexford, arrived in October 2010 to work as a VSO volunteer on the island of Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania.
'I'm dealing with schools with over 3,000 pupils and 20 classrooms," he says. "Some classes have over 120 children.
"The classrooms have blackboards and chalk but little else. We are pretty good at grumbling about Irish conditions but the poverty here bears no relation to Ireland."
Zanzibar's population is 97% Muslim with only a tiny Christian population, so few give much pause for thought for St Patrick and the Irish.
"It does seem to bring the Irish community together very strongly," says Tom.
"I'm slightly removed from it on the island but I am really looking forward to the celebrations. We are invited to a reception at the Irish Embassy and on Saturday we have a day planned for Irish dancing, music and swigging some porter. But we will start the day watching Ireland beat England in rugby!
"All the Irish citizens are given first refusal and then there's a massive waiting list for the celebrations. It is one of the most important social events on the year in Dar es Salam. It's a love of the kind of party the Irish can put on."
For more information on being a VSO volunteer visit www.vso.ie.