As St. Patrick’s Day approaches and the whole world becomes Irish, we thought it would be a good time to take a step back and consider what being “Irish” means to the world. We took the views of our resident American and our used-to-be-Scot to get the bottom of the matter.
From the Outside looking In
As an American living in Ireland, I do have a unique perspective as I have had a view from both sides. Where I come from, it seems like everyone is Irish all the time, not just on Paddy’s Day. According to the US Census Bureau data, over 33 million Americans identify as “Irish”, which is over 10% of the US population. As you may know, many Irish Americans are very invested in this identity. While many Irish Americans do visit, not all of the 33 million make it here within their lifetime. Even those who do visit, only gain a superficial impression of what the country is like. So then, what is the idea of Ireland that they are so invested in?
One of the more harmful stereotypes that is perpetuated abroad is obviously that Irish people drink to excess. They think of the culture as rural based, full of rolling hills, thatched cottages, and cows. People also have an impression that Ireland is stuck in the past, not a very progressive culture or technologically advanced. Then there is that one where they think that all Irish people are obsessed with potatoes (to be fair though, that one is not completely unsubstantiated).
So, how are these stereotypes created and perpetuated? Largely the answer is by Irish people themselves. Clearly some of these impressions originate with Irish immigrants. As stories are told and re-told, they change each time. Embellishments are added, details are dropped, and truth becomes adapted to fit a new narrative. Another influence is film and media. Many of the more popular Irish films showcase poverty, abuses of the Catholic Church, rural country towns, pub culture, and violence and/or terrorism. Irish popular media, in fitting with the national character, tends to be somewhat self-deprecating and self-critical as well. And, of course, Irish music, being as prolific as it is, has an enormous influence on Irish American perception. Much of the more popular folk music tends to glorify the heritage of the past and certainly glorifies the perceived drinking culture.
In addition, advertising certainly has an impact on public perception. We also took a look at brands whose mission it is to “sell Ireland” internationally. Specifically, we took a look at Tourism Ireland, Bord Bia, IRFU, and the IDA. Not unlike popular music, Irish advertisement does tend to glorify the heritage of the past. They do capitalise on the green rolling hills, and, especially in the case of Bord Bia, the richness of a rural-based landscape. But, these brands are also seemingly very aware of a need to re-position Ireland to showcase the reality of what Ireland is today; modern, innovative, and forward thinking. Both Tourism Ireland and IDA in particular are actively promoting a “new Ireland” in an attempt to rectify the current misperceptions.
Having seen both sides, it is clear that my shared “Irish American” perception of this country was very different than the reality. In fact, most of my pre-conceived notions have been proven completely wrong, for the most part. Essentially, Ireland is not doing an adequate job of representing itself on the world stage. As seen with some of our more innovative international brands, it is certainly time to begin a campaign to proactively change perceptions to more closely reflects the reality of modern Ireland.
From the Inside Looking Out
Being born and raised in Ireland there are plenty of experiences and memories of St Patrick’s Day to lean on. There’s the childhood anecdotes of parades and visiting family, the begrudging teenage family trips to far flung parts of the island. And of course, there’s the party anecdotes too. After all, it wouldn’t be ‘Paddy’s Day’ without a party!
It took a departure from Ireland, joining the ranks of our ubiquitous Diaspora, to properly understand ‘brand Ireland’ and how it was perceived outside of Ireland. My journey took me only as far as Scotland, but far enough for me to fall in love with home properly and at the same come to dislike how we as a nation had come to be seen.
Scotland doesn’t observe St Patrick’s Day but – like the rest of the world – is happy to celebrate it. In truth, the celebrations felt more like a lampooning. For them, our Scottish neighbours, we are so closely associated with ‘craic agus ceol’. We’re expected to fashion a big red whiskey nose, carry our shillelagh and protect our pot of gold. It was at this point I realised this reputation that had developed in more recent times wasn’t working in our favour. So how did it get to this? And more importantly how can we change it?
When you look a little deeper, Glasgow’s back story isn’t too different to that of Dublin. And there are distinct comparisons between Ireland and Scotland. Both share similar histories, weather and cultural norms. A major difference however is that Glasgow has managed to reshape old perceptions of the city being dangerous and dingy. It was once regarded as ‘the second city of the Empire’ but upon the demise of its shipping industry, Glasgow fell to wrack and ruin. Today it is a highly considered, vibrant and dynamic location for people and business, with a reputation for serious work and play. Glasgow has spent the last two decades rewriting its own story, the narrative of what it means to live, work and play in the city. Its relationship to the world of business and why it’s deserving the moniker of the UK’s second city.
Tara’s conclusion must therefore be pretty much on the nose. If we want to change this maligning perception of Ireland and Irish culture as whimsical, feckless and unfocused, it’s up to us to rewrite the story of Ireland. After all, since the Celtic Tiger, we’re very much a different country compared to the old stories.
According to the EC website, Ireland tops the table for levels of innovation. We’re punching above our weight, again. We attract large multinationals to set up their headquarters (this includes the world’s largest technology companies), to avail of our well educated workforce, great location and attractive taxes. We’re grafting our way out of the recession, with some grievance, but with plenty of determination. New generations of Irish business owners and managers have a very different logic, and a serious desire to be global in their success. With a more adventurous spirit and attitude to suit they are more than capable of changing perceptions of Ireland and Irish business.
We have a fantastic legacy and history as a country of learning and logic. But rather than depend on our past as the defining elements, let’s consider developing a narrative based on who and what we are today. Let’s consider tackling the ill-fitting concepts of ‘craic agus ceol’ and rewrite as we see fit. As a nation it’s our responsibility to control our behaviours, our message and proposition to the world, so that we’re perceived as the new and improved, better version of brand Ireland.
St Patrick is an icon of Ireland. He’s a symbol of who we are as a people and nation. There should be more pride and care taken in the story that goes with the name and it’s up to us to rewrite the story.
Author: Tara and Lee