I have been more and more drawn to question, to explore expressions or representations of Irish identity through my own personal work. Today is festival of St. Patrick and its a great example of what I am interested in. The St Patrick’s day festivities in their modern form are really an importation from America. Up until the 1950’s there was no big public celebration of the saint’s day in Ireland. The custom from the late 19th century on had been to celebrate the day as a holy day, dominated by temperance society’s and religious groups. There was a large scale private gathering and a military parade behind the walls of Dublin castle that was reserved for the Anglo-Irish elite. In the early years of the newly independent state the government sanctioned a military parade through the centre of Dublin. Attendances were sparse and numbers struggled to reach 100,000. In 1950 the first attempt was made to change the celebrations. The parade came under the auspices of the Agriculture and Industrial Development Association and changed from a military parade to an agroindustrial pageant. The NAIDA had two objectives, the first was to create a public spectacle that could be consumed and enjoyed by the public and the second was to showcase domestic industry and agriculture with the aim of encouraging domestic consumption. The parade was a kind of trade show, a procession of Ireland’s major economic concerns at the time rather than an expression of Irish identity or cultural diversity as it is today.
Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s the parade was a visual expression of a country struggling to overcome the problems associated with a predominantly rural economy & high levels of emigration. The show was used to to advertise a country that was modernising and attempting to reinvent itself. It was an expression of what Ireland hoped to become. While the floats stressed the importance of agriculture they also show cased the emerging industrial base through floats from Bord Na Mona, the ESB, Guinness and so on. There is a clear link between the government policy of the day and the parade which became a kind of representation of national policy. The parade seems to have been more inward looking, aimed at an Irish home audience and was a pale shadow of its New York contemporary, perhaps it was saying ‘look how we are changing for the better’ to the voters.
two Icons for the price of one.
In 1969 control of the Dublin parade passed to Dublin Tourism, who had a specific remit to stage a general themed pageant as a way to attract tourists and encouraging American tourists to visit Ireland. The change in emphasis marked the growing importance of tourism to the Irish economy and the aim of the parade was to sell Ireland to the outside world. Companies such as Aer Lingus and CIE were made the centre piece of the parade and marching bands and cheerleaders were imported from the USA. The organiser of the New York Parade was brought to Dublin as an expert to advise on the new make over of the Dublin Parade. To me this shows how important the image of Irishness has been crafted and formed by the Irish diaspora, been made in it’s likeness. The marketing message has grown more and more sophisticated over the years and today the Irish tourist board is expert at picking up and aligning Ireland with the zeitgeist of the day. Take a look at the latest in a long line of viral video clips that was launched just before this years St. Patricks day Ireland Inspires and you will see how expert we have become at marketing ourselves and this small Island. Along with stereotypes such as the red haired Cailleen – a throw back to John Ford’s The Quiet Man perhaps, Katie Taylor is there to represent the place of the modern Irish woman – never mind the Savita Halappanavar debacle that we witnessed in 2013. This is promotion, myth making not reality after all. The English market in Cork is there to represent the new Anglo-Irish detente. We have the usual emphasis on how we punch well above our weight – 24 olympic medal winner despite to poor funding and infra structure for sports and the 9 noble laureates, 24 oscar winners etc and of course we will never forget Italia 90 where we were proud runner’s up again. There is an acknowledgement of the importance of the Irish Diaspora; 5 million people live here but 70 million call it home. The image of the starving millions during the famine is even appropriated in the form of the famine memorial statues on the quays in Dublin, and of course take a good glimpse at the city while your considering their emaciated likenesses. Emigration is mentioned. Interesting that the image of New Grange features as older than Stone henge and the pyramids – here is another use, a reinvention of tradition in the service of the modern. And of course we have the trumpeting of Ireland’s most recent economic ‘miracle’ as being the first of the country to exit the economic bail out…..
Ireland. The economic icon
And so it goes. It shows very well how good we have become at creating and crafting myth, the myth of, as Roland Barthes might say Irishicity. In the 1950’s and 60’s we had the red haired children, the donkey, the turf and son on, Ireland as a rural idyll and a place imbued with oppositional meanings – providing both a remedy for and engaging with modernity while today it is a centre for new technology, software, computer generated graphics, pharmaceuticals, scientific research, the film industry, fresh food etc. I nearly laughed out loud when they include how the 10 largest online companies call us “friends”. It forgets to mention our generous tax regime that allows American companies to be more tax efficient. This type of myth making has a genuine purpose of course, we need tourist to visit, tourism is vital if we are to recover. We need international companies to invest here. The problem as I see it is twofold. The myth seems so different to reality on the ground for many people. The usual response to this narrative is to expect it to be patient and wait. Live horse and eat grass. The second problem is when we ourselves begin to believe in the myth. Witness this week the Irish Taoiseach in Washington, wearing his green tie and sorting the shamrock telling American business men that they can call him, his number is apparently publicly listed in the phone book and “if you have a proposal I want to hear it.” I can’t help but feel that it was the way we all bought into the myth of the Celtic Tiger and the way our politicians all bought into it ids the reason we are where we are today. Speaking about immigrants Enda Kenny mentioned that St. Patrick was himself an immigrant and mentioning the undocumented Irish in America, quite rightly too. This is in stark contrast to how we ourselves deal with immigrants and asylum seekers. I remember the attitude to foreigners, specifically non-white foreigners during the celtic tiger years. In the Irish Times I read this article about the refugee tribunal and it’s unfair and irrational treatment of a sudanese asylum seeker who is a campaigner for human rights, who highlighted the use of rape as a weapon of war in Sudan and who is a victim of torture. It would be great to see that it is possible to make the myth a reality, that we would actually see the what we say we aspire to becoming a reality. We have done it before, look at the Northern Ireland peace process, look at how we have restored and repaired our relationship with England.
I must credit Mike Cronin’s essay ‘Funeral black trucks advertising Guinness: The St Patrick’s Day industrial Pageant in Ireland, Design and Visual Culture: Negiotating Modernity 1922 – 1992 Edited by Linda King and Elaine Sisson.