Economic forum delegates grapple with the importance of being Irish

For the Taoiseach, at least, Irishness is an indefinable chemistry

Delegates mix in the yard at  Dublin Castle during a break at the Global Irish Economic Forum yesterday. Photograph: Frank Miller

Delegates mix in the yard at Dublin Castle during a break at the Global Irish Economic Forum yesterday. Photograph: Frank Miller

Sat, Oct 5, 2013, 01:00

The boys and girls of the Global Irish Economic Forum got back to school yesterday. Their task? To come up with a bright idea like The Gathering, the star project of the Class of 2011.

So far, however, they’ve got bogged down in that familiar Leaving Cert essay title: What does it mean to be Irish?

Mystical air
Author Colum McCann argued it was our ability to “be in more than two places” at once (as an artist, he was speaking figuratively, one assumes), while some hours later Taoiseach Enda Kenny proclaimed with a mystical air “it is an indefinable chemistry”.

In between, we heard how Irish identity can hang on a thread when Joan Burton revealed that she had only recently discovered family connections with the US while researching her adoption.

“When I finally got my background papers one of the items included a passport where I was actually meant to go to the United States but for some reason at that point they wouldn’t have me,” she told a panel discussion on cross-Atlantic relations.

A common theme of the day was how Brand Ireland must evolve from visions of The Quiet Man, or even Father Ted, and instead try to appeal to second-, third- and fourth-generation Irish . . . in fact pretty much anyone who has ever heard of the country or any of its inhabitants. So Taoiseach Enda Kenny made clear as he included in his definition of Irishness “the young lad who climbed out of the tank in China and said to me, ‘You have good music – U2’.”

Inclusivity was emphasised by Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore too in his opening address. Pointing to an under-representation of women at the forum and in its Global Irish Network, he said — to some applause — “the network cannot consider itself to be truly global if it does not reach as many women as it does men.”

Making a similar plea for pluralism, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan described how Limerick could become a template for Irish cities by embracing a multitude of cultures.

“The most successful cities are those which are non-judgemental, open to different lifestyles, different attitudes, different propensities,” he said, at the unveiling of a new logo for Limerick City of Culture 2014.

The design captures the river Shannon, its bridges, the letter “L” and the castle of King John. He was the man responsible for organising Ireland into 32 countries, Noonan recalled, but “he had a bad press office. Robin Hood is a hero and King John is a villain . . . It is unrecoverable when you get on the wrong side of the press.”

As at its two previous instalments, the forum is a mix of behind-closed-doors networking, and plenary debates. International media interest was down on previous years, perhaps a good news story as there are fewer media vultures circling the ruins of the economy. The only freebie going for delegates was a Limerick City of Culture goodie bag containing a chocolate bar and a biro.

Whether actions can match the enthusiasm of the forum remains to be seen but there were some good ideas floating around, including a suggestion at the science and technology working group for Ireland to pool its resources in a specialist area like big data.

“It would be just interesting to see us put a flag on the ground and say we want to take this particular field and make it ours,” said comedian and TV presenter Dara Ó Briain, who chaired the meeting. A science graduate, he still worries about the subject’s status in Ireland. “In the UK, at least they will be able to name Brian Cox and David Attenborough and they have go-to scientists. When was the last time you saw an Irish scientist on Questions & Answers or on The Late Late?”