Ireland not “Irish” enough for tourists

One topic that is dear to my heart but which hasn’t come up much on this blog is, to use that misnomer and euphemism, Globalization. 

I term it a misnomer because the world is if anything becoming less "international"–one-way cultural exchange is a contradiction in terms, and that’s mostly what happens today–and less cosmopolitan under this baleful process thanks to the relentless drive to homogenize the world in the image of Western and especially American upper-middle class WASP sensibilities.  Euphemistic for the same, and because what we’re really talking about most of the time is basically neocolonial economic development patterns of low-end services and low-end commodity cultivation that ensure the continued dependence of developing countries on outsiders.   

One of the main culprits in this story is tourism–meaning the culture of contemporary travel, not travel itself–and the way in it imposes the values and ignorance of outsiders onto other societies.  The market and "global" popular culture ruthlessly stamp out non-sanctioned forms of diversity or cultural difference.

Anyway, came across an article ("What’s the craic?") that hints at some of the harmful affects of modern tourism for Ireland, a nation whose problems most developing countries would love to have. 

It’s a fairly tame and toothless analysis, I think, but it hints at the forces of external ignorance and stereotype the cultural landscapes of much of the rest of the world.  Especially when you consider how much worse the situation must be for societies which lack Ireland’s towering cultural cachet, warm and fuzzy glow in Western popular culture, and relative prosperity.

If pretigious, beloved Ireland must change itself to avoid disappointing the shallow expectations of tourists, imagine what countries in less known (or appreciated) parts of the world must do to keep their "life blood" of tourist dollars coming.

Here’s a snippet: 

Dr McGovern said tourism had been one of the largest growth areas in the Irish economy in the last decade and was set to become the most prominent sector of the economy in the next three to five years.  A key feature of selling Ireland as a tourist destination has been its unique night-time culture. Tourist policy and literature focuses on Irish dance, music, conviviality and conversation.

But Dr McGovern said that focus, along with the rise of the Irish theme pub, has led to a ‘commodification’ of Irish identity and culture.

He said: "It has an impact on the perceptions of Irish people
in general, but cultural activities are also affected by having to be reproduced to satisfy the tourist market."

Dr McGovern said the traditional Irish session, where people would perform music or dance in a pub setting, has been changed as a result of the demands from tourists.

He said: "Something like 40 per cent of tourist visitors to public houses in Ireland are to ‘singing pubs’, where 
there is entertainment put on for tourists in a very particular  way. Irish traditional musicians and dancers are becoming cultural workers like they never were before.

"I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily a problem – in many ways it has created employment in the performers’ 
home locations. But I am arguing that aspects of the session are being changed by it.

"What was a participatory culture, where everybody would do a turn, is becoming much more of a player-audience situation."

"Also the range of cultural performance has lessened because [clueless foreign --Svend] people don’t recognise the nuances and variety of different styles.


Dr McGovern was inspired to carry out his research by the emergence 
of Irish theme bars in the early 1990s.He said: "The Irish theme bar has been a global phenomenon. I wanted to explore the reasons why that developed, the form it was taking and the relationship  between that and the expectations of people from abroad when they went to

The absurdity of it all is captured in the last line of this paragraph. 

"What has been coming through is because the theme bars portray Ireland as a traditional society, and the people as fun loving and friendly, people expect Irish pubs to look and act like theme bars when they come to Ireland. The result has been a growth of Irish theme bars in Ireland."

Gadzooks.  Even Ireland must contend with the Orientalizing gaze.

Imagine if the exigencies of the global economy required all Americans to not only wear cowboy hats, but don chaps and spurs in order for the American economy to remain on track.  And for large chunk of Americans to study square dancing instead of engineering or other practical disciplines that, unlike most service sector professions, have lead to self-sustaining economic activity because that’s where all the money is.  That’s the dead end that, contrary to the relaxprop of pro-Globalization Pollyanas like Thomas Friedman, much of the rest of the world is mired in.

Like women whose professional and social prospects–and even
self-perceptions–are undermined by the constant, uncompromising gaze
of men (e.g., "The Beauty Myth"), the developing world must constantly change itself to meet the arbitrary ill informed and often inconsistent expectations of outsiders.

Granted to some extent small concessions are inevitable thanks to human psychology.  There’s a reason that food companies add the color orange to orange juice.  Think about that.  They add color to the substance that defines the color itself to make it seem more "authentic" and "pure" to  consumers. 

It needn’t be so extreme, though.  People would still enthusiastically consume orange juice if were not quite so vividly orange. 

Were they not accustomed to Hollywood’s instinctive whitewashing of the universe, they’d be willing to watch movies about other cultures and races without that most odious  of all plot devices, the white hero whose presence in the "jungle" of a non-Western society makes the stories of brown folk suddenly worth hearing (a few recent examples: "Amistad", "The English Patient", "The Last Samurai"). 

And surely people would still travel the world (and enjoy doing so) if every stereotype and irrational expectation arising from ignorance weren’t slavishly catered to and if it were understood that part of traveling is, well, traveling.  And, practically speaking, does having a McDonalds within walking distance on a "world tour" really enhance even the most provincial of traveler’s experience? 

We’re just used to everything being geared to the lowest common denominator. Increasingly, this is the American way, alas.  Call it intellectual and cultural mob rule, actively abetted by megacorporations eager to consolidate their product lines as a means to maximize efficiency and profit (those other sacred values of contemporary American life).

But I digress more than a little.  Back to Finals Week.  Ugh.

  • Abu Sinan

    Great post. I have spent a lot of time in Ireland. Americans, especially, have a really story book idea of what Ireland is all about.
    The tourist thing has gotten so bad that during certain times of the year people actually flee certain towns to avoid it. Paddy’s Day in Dublin is a good example.
    The Irish even have a name for people who play this sort of mythical Irish stereotype, it is called “Plastic Paddy” and the majority of the people labelled this tend to be American, coming to Ireland to look for corned beef and cabbage.
    They tend to have this idea of Ireland based on Hollywood, John Wayne “The Quiet Man” type notions.
    When I was in Ireland I spent most of my time in the nort of the country, namely Belfast and the rural farm borderland areas of South Armagh and Crossmaglen, more known for snipers, bombs and British soldiers than soldiers.
    Although, I can bet even that is starting to change now. For me, this is where they “real” Ireland rests, with the people, the land, the history and the politics.
    If you are looking for picture book Ireland, the Ireland that no longer exists, if it ever did, you can go to the places in Dublin, many now around Temple Bar, for your “bit o’ Ireland” before you come back home.
    The best places in Ireland are those where the local McDonalds is miles away and the only theme in the local pub is getting the cow shite off your boots before you have a sit down and a pint of Guiness.
    Instead of theme bars, get into the local sports, like Gaelic Football and Hurling, go to the non tourist trap areas, go to the small villages.
    The truth is, is that the last place you’ll find a genuine Irish person is in an Irish themed bar.
    Again, good post.

  • Yusuf Smith

    I am half Irish on my mother’s side, and as far as I can tell Ireland is what is between Dublin and Connemara (and possibly other western areas). My folks are from Connemara, and huge numbers of natives left the area over the hundred or so years starting from the great “famine” (actually not a famine, but the failure of one crop – the potatoes – combined with the refusal of the British to let the locals eat the other crops, which were shipped out). My grandparents and others of their generation left, some to England, some to eastern Ireland and some to the USA, in the 1920s or 1930s, I think.
    Now that Connemara is well-connected, lying next to a major city (by Irish standards), i.e. Galway, and fairly close to Shannon, Galway and Knock airports, it has become a big tourist destination, which means that house prices are being pushed through the roof, bringing the holiday-cottagers in and probably pushing many of the last natives out. While I’m sure some traditional industries (farming and fishing) remain, it’s overwhelmingly a tourist trap now. I found it rather sad when I visited; it’s really empty. I expected it to be lively, like Wales is, with a thriving Celtic-speaking culture.

  • Irving

    Ha, a real Irish pub in Chicago or New York or Boston would throw you out if you suggested a theme pub. They sell whiskey and beer. Some have Irish writers and such on the walls, but it’s quiet and you can talk to each other if the spirit moves you.

  • Abu Sinan

    I love going into Irish places here in the USA with the latest GAA jersey on and talking about the latest Gaelic football results or the great Celtic win against Man Utd.
    The talk is the best thing about the Irish. Like the saying goes “the Irish are the greatest people in the world, except when they are trying to kill you.”

  • Basil

    Excellent insights, re: Orientalist Globalization and the American lowest common denominator.
    I do wonder why these cultural activities “[have] to be reproduced to satisfy the tourist market.” I mean…do they really? Is the pressure of the bumbling tourist really so great that it deteriorates and commodifies a culture, or is it the host population’s willingness to sell their splendid nuances for a quick buck?
    I guess the real problem arises when big corporations and wealthy entrepreneurs descend to cash in this commodified narrow band of “culture” and buy up all the local haunts and turn them into theme pubs. This is the real pressure, as local proprietors are then faced with a difficult choice; sell out or possibly get drowned out. This is not an enviable position whatsoever.
    If communities or nations endeavor to preserve their indigenous cultural subtleties, they must stand firm against the steamroller of prosperity. Sadly, in this Globalized world, indigenous culture and economic prosperity are growing more and more mutually exclusive.

  • ayesha

    i only spent four days in ireland – dublin and connemara – but one of the good things about visiting as a practicing muslim is that, if you’re conservative enough, ALL the bars are off limits. so i was stuck with shops and sidewalks and seeking the irish countryside. plus, due to bad planning, my friends and i could not stay in galway when we went there, but had to book a hostel in a small town 20 miles south called kinvarra. the next morning, we were supposed to walk 3 miles from the tiny hostel up to a bus stop to catch a bus back to galway. we only walked about half an hour – three foreign girls on this lonely, semi-coastal stretch of rural land, surrounded by rocky shallows on one side and stonewalled grazing pastures on the other, complete with cows and manure and sheep, all under a gorgeously gray sky. then we ended up hitching a free ride with a nice young man back to galway. that walk and ride were probably the most irish part of our visit… definitely the most memorable.
    but i digress, like svend :) later that day we took a bus tour of the connemara region. i remember feeling SO STUPID as the bus stopped on a slightly deserted road and we all got out of the bus to take pictures of old thatched stone cottages and donkeys and after five minutes got back on. later, at a gift shop, i heard two locals making rude comments about the tourists, while at the same time acknowledging that this peat-farming region could hardly do without the money tourists brought.
    i hated feeling like such a tourist. i would have stayed there for a year if i could have, really tried to get to know the land and the people. that was my dream.
    i know i am totally rambling, but oh well. hubby and i were talking about this last night too, watching snippets of “celtic woman, a new journey” on WETA. i think such sweepingly grand musical presentations (even like riverdance) are part of the commodification of irish culture – don’t get me wrong, i LOVE irish music, but i can’t stand “danny boy” and “when irish eyes are smiling” and blah blah blah. the farther away it gets from the traditional “seisiun” the more distasteful it gets. (that said, i do own the first celtic woman CD. a couple of the songs are very beautiful)
    incidentally, the day we happened to spend in galway, many streets were shut down for a “cultural festival” – traditional music, dancing, the like. i still wonder if this was more for the locals or for tourists (it was cold and windy march at the time), or if that line has just become so blurred now in places like galway?

  • MacRae

    Do not think that particular developments are representative of the whole of life. Life is immense, its wholeness cannot be described; it is dynamic, what is fashionable, trendy, to-day, has gone tomorrow, replaced by something else; but the wants of everyone continue to push human “evolution” along, and so it will always be.

  • fintan keane

    most commentators believe that tradtional irish music would have gone into a dramatic decline without tourism. actually very few irish people consume tradtional irish culture,people are overwhelmingly into dance music ect. as am irish person i can tell you the culture of most irish people revolves around computer games, nightclubs,drink- cocaine-ecstacy-cannabis,shopping trips to new york, holidays in spain,supporting manchester united and local gaa team and watching the best hbo shows,which we get for free on our satellite or cable tv.
    the only aspect of irish culture we all experience is an irish attitude of mind, that is cynicism,indulgance, greed and a very sarcastic wit.we think of foreigners as ,well basically , a bit autistic.having said that we are generous yet very duplicitious. actually duplicity explains the irish cultural product that we sell to naieve tourists