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I used to sneer at the celebrations on St Patrick's Day - until I celebrated it with diaspora in Uganda

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A racegoer in St Patrick's Day fancy dress during the Cheltenham Festival. Photo: Reuters

A racegoer in St Patrick's Day fancy dress during the Cheltenham Festival. Photo: Reuters

REUTERS

A racegoer in St Patrick's Day fancy dress during the Cheltenham Festival. Photo: Reuters

I used to be that cynic who sneered at the sight of green wigs and leprechauns on St Patrick's Day. And I looked down on the shenanigans of the Irish living abroad at this time of the year.

I also questioned the value of sending practically the entire Cabinet to far-flung places around the globe. This was nothing more than a good old ministerial "jolly', and an excuse to party at taxpayers' expense.

But having had a taste of living in Africa for eight months last year, and being there for St Patrick's week, my view on how we celebrate our national day abroad has changed.

I am back in Uganda this week for a short stint volunteering with an amazing charity, Hospice Africa Uganda - and I confess I will be in the thick of the lively St Patrick's Day celebrations here.

Yesterday we had the annual St Patrick's Day reception hosted by the Irish Ambassador to Uganda, Donal Cronin, and his wife Susan, in their residence. That was preceded by a lunch for Irish missionary nuns and priests who have served here for generations. It was a delightful, special gathering.

Tonight there will a seisiún in Uganda's only Irish bar, Bubbles O'Leary's.

And tomorrow there is the social event of the year in Kampala - the Irish Ball - which will be attended not only by Irish and Ugandans, but nationalities from all over the world. I am privileged to have been given the job as MC this year.

It is when you live abroad and meet Irish and see their contribution that you really understand our place in the world. And you feel so proud.

Here in Uganda, the Irish community of approximately 400 is making its mark in many ways.

For example, Irish company Devenish Nutrition Ltd is teaching Ugandans how to be efficient pig farmers. This week it officially opened a model pig farm and feed mill in Hoima District in western Uganda. This project is being led by a dynamic young Meath man, Adam Sweetman, who is only 25 years old. And he is doing a fantastic job.

At the other end of the generational scale 91-year-od Franciscan missionary nun, Sr Cosmas Cullen from Churchtown in Dublin, is the oldest Irish person in Uganda, having lived here for 68 years. She has made a huge contribution to education in this country.

In recent years, despite her great age, Sr Cosmas has been helping destitute young people prepare for their O and A Level exams at the Sharing Youth Centre in Kampala. She was also helping in two nursery schools until a year ago. Another Irish nun who has lived here for many years is Sr Maura Lynch, a medical missionary of Mary. In her mid 70s she is a surgeon working at Kitovu repairing vesico-vaginal fistulae, a condition resulting from prolonged obstructed labour which leaves a woman incontinent.

The Irish diaspora is estimated at 70 million. And St Patrick's Day is a time when links between Ireland and the global Irish is strengthened. It is a time when the Irish in Africa and Asia, the Americas and Australia, and Europe come together to share in our heritage. It is right and fitting that our ministers of state travel abroad this week to reinforce this connection and to remind the world that we are still a force to be reckoned with.

This year more than ever, it is important that St Patrick's Day is used as a platform to highlight Ireland's priorities post-Brexit, and to remind world leaders that Ireland is remaining in the EU, and is still a very attractive investment and trade destination. It is also a top tourist centre and an excellent place to come and study.

It was fitting that Taoiseach Enda Kenny took the opportunity during his St Patrick's week visit to the US to confirm the Government will hold a referendum to allow Irish citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in Irish presidential elections. This is recognition that the Irish abroad do matter, that they have a voice and that voice needs to be heard at home.

Of course, all is not perfect, and the fact the shameful Tuam babies case is making headlines all over the world at the moment is not casting Ireland in a good light. It is right that the ills of the past are highlighted and acknowledged - but we must also reassure the world that this was an old Ireland, and a new progressive Ireland is now in place.

So tonight I will be wearing the goofy green hat and the shamrock T-shirt as I join in the craic with people from all over the world in Bubble's O'Leary's bar. And I will be proud to say I am Irish.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh.

Irish Independent