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

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).

Competitive advantage
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.

Cultural distinctiveness can be supported and nurtured, and the way to do this is by supporting the communities that are prepared to step up to the plate and play an active and leading role in its conservation and development.

Communities the length and breadth of the country are the front-line stewards, analysts and promoters of our cultural and natural heritage. What concerns them are not interpretive centres or ad campaigns, but genuine pride and sense of place, a sense of community and of belonging, local distinctiveness, communal history and a communal future. These are the oak trees from which acorns of invention and innovation fall. Such communities have a right to small and ongoing investment and encouragement to secure the maximum social, economic and environmental benefits from their efforts.

Every community is a piece of the mosaic that is Irishness, and it is only through their efforts to conserve, understand and champion local heritage that our collective cultural distinctiveness will endure as a shared, beneficial modern resource. We need to listen to them and support them in doing so for everyone’s good and sense of wellbeing.

Financial and moral support
The Heritage Council is charged with the job of supporting communities to achieve these goals by encouraging them to enjoy, manage and conserve their heritage, and has done so successfully since it introduced its community grants 15 years ago. Over that time, it has developed a support network that reaches into almost every parish in the country, delivering friendly expert advice and financial and moral support through its grant schemes. The potential contribution that cultural heritage can make to national recovery will be seriously diminished if adequate funding is not secured to re-start the community grant scheme suspended in 2013 due to Government budgetary cuts.

The rapporteurs at the recent third Global Irish Economic Forum were each allowed four “asks” of government. I have just two. The first is to restore the Heritage Council’s capacity to support heritage projects that are vital to the ambitions of local communities in their pursuit of social cohesion, sense of identity and direct and indirect employment.

The second is to answer Dermot Desmond’s call by inviting to the next Global Irish Economic Forum community groups such as those in the Burren (featured in last weekend’s Irish Times Magazine), the Wicklow Uplands, Bere Island, Julianstown, Mulranny and so on who, with the support of modest grants and a lending hand from the Heritage Council, are doing it for themselves. That way we might finally see how this part of the national project can be realised.

Conor Newman is an archaeologist and chairman of the Heritage Council

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