Let’s nurture the important things that set the Irish apart from the global herd
Opinion: Heritage and culture can help our recovery, but only if we tend to our local roots
Melissa Jeuken with her goats on her father’s farm near Mullaghmeen the Burren. Communities such as hers should be represented at the forum, says Conor Newman. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times
At the first Global Irish Economic Forum back in 2009, one of the interesting features was the focus in businessman Dermot Desmond’s contribution on the competitive importance of the distinctiveness of Irish cultural heritage in the battle for international business success. The same sentiments were aired again at the second forum in 2011, and most recently at the third such gathering in Dublin Castle, which included more than 300 of the most influential Irish and Irish-connected individuals from across the globe,
along with senior Ministers and officials from home.
Unless we act fully on this advice we will hear it again and again at future forums until eventually what is an otherwise excellent suggestion is reduced to a rhetorical nod in the direction of culture and heritage trotted out before the serious business of the forum begins. Maybe those in attendance are not making the right connections. Maybe they should be talking to the communities who, with modest support, continue to deliver historically-founded cultural distinctiveness.
The thinking behind Desmond’s observations is rehearsed in a very engaging book, Capitalising on Culture, Competing on Difference: Innovation, Learning and Sense of Place in a Globalising Ireland, by Finbarr Bradley and James Kennelly (2008). In fact, Dermot Desmond wrote the foreword.
Bradley and Kennelly’s thesis is quite simple; namely that cultural distinctiveness can out-compete global homogeneity. And not just in terms of the quality-of-life measures that influence the choice of location of international businesses, but more particularly in terms of that rarest of commodities: culturally-led innovation – ideas and ways of seeing that spring from the turn of mind that, for instance, have made the Irish arts world-famous. Our languages, our culture, how we think set us apart and allow us to stand out from the crowd. As Lynn Temple, chairman of the globally successful Magee Clothing and Weaving Company in Donegal put it: “Heritage companies worldwide are exploiting the power of their past to drive sales.” (The Irish Times, June 29th, 2013).
Self-confident cultural distinctiveness, Bradley and Kennelly argue, finds its most tangible expression and nourishment in sense of place. Their vision, therefore, is of a 21st-century Ireland that embraces and celebrates its Irishness secure in the knowledge that such is good for Irish society, and can confer competitive advantage in a global context. Their fear, however, is that in a globalising world our Irishness can no longer be taken for granted. It is something that we have to work at.
The call from the Global Irish Economic Forum does not remain unanswered because of the ephemeral nature of cultural identity but because the mechanisms that can deliver on this aspiration are not part of the conversation.