It may seem unfair to reduce a nation to a set of oversimplified ideas, but globalisation has turned “nation branding” into a competitive field. With slogans such as “South Africa: Alive with Possibility” and “Egypt: Where It All Begins”, countries increasingly present themselves as products, jockeying for position on an international supermarket shelf.
There have been calls to better harness Ireland’s image abroad for the sake of tourism and trade. The Country Brand Index, a study compiled by the consultancy TopBrand, measures the effectiveness of such campaigns by assessing nations in everything from quality of life to culture and heritage. Ireland ranked 21st in the most recent index. New Zealand was fifth, Finland 10th and the Maldives 16th.
Ireland’s image has been somewhat tarnished in recent years, and arguably needs as much rehabilitation as our economy. But some aspects of our national character – intangible qualities not easily distilled into logos, brochures or promotional clips – have weathered the change.
Sonia O'Sullivan remembers when the Tricolours began appearing. In the build-up to her becoming a championship winner, world-record holder and, in 2000, Olympic medallist, fans would turn out to support her even in far-off places like Qatar.
“A lot of the people I was competing against were really surprised at the amount of respect that you got from other Irish people, that you could be held in such high esteem for being one runner from a small country and that everybody would know who you were,” she says. “It was quite amazing for people to see that.”
During the 1997 World Championships, in Athens, the enthusiasm of the Irish supporters continued even as O’Sullivan struggled. “I was aware of them in the same spot every time I came near, so I thought, As long as they’re going to stay, I’d better stay.” She laughs. “It was one of those things that made me finish the race. You don’t feel good getting lapped, but, at the same time, it felt like it wasn’t just about me.”
Today, living in Melbourne, she still sees that passion, whether it’s the Irish dominating the crowd at a Lions rugby match or swathing a tennis court in green even for the first round of the Australian Open.
“I’ve spent quite a lot of time in America, the UK and Australia, and Irish people will randomly start talking to you in the street as if you’re in a small town in Ireland. You just connect in a certain way. People from other countries don’t really get it. They’ll see it, they’re amazed by it, but it’s a strange thing.”
When the comedian Jarlath Regan moved to London in 2013, he felt overwhelmed by the city and turned to "the titans of the humour game" for guidance. The resulting podcast series, An Irishman Abroad , features the likes of Dylan Moran, Dara Ó Briain, Graham Linehan and Ed Byrne reflecting on their careers and, occasionally, on what makes Irish humour unique.
“Chris O’Dowd mentioned that Irish people have this skill of chancing their arm in the best possible way and that a life without arm-chancing is a life wasted,” says Regan. “The greatest achievements of a lot of people I’ve spoken to emerged from one moment of having the courage to chance your arm, in that it opens the door to something else which eventually leads to the breakthrough.”
The advantage in walking on stage as an Irish comic, Regan says, is that Ireland’s tradition of storytellers and humorists puts international crowds at ease. “It’s quite common to find people from other nationalities a bit dry, but there’s almost an expectation for an Irish person to have a story or at least a little subversive cheek where they won’t take life quite as seriously.”
Although many of Ireland's greatest comedy achievements, like
, have subverted stereotypes to parody how we're viewed, Regan says the Irish image is in such flux that it's hard to pinpoint what it is. "We do so many things well now that there's no cliched Paddywhackery chat about the Irish any more – and, if there is, it's tongue in cheek and well intended. If anything, I've played on people's goodwill towards us to point out that we're getting away with murder."
Joleen Cronin feels like an international consultant for redheads. Since launching the annual Irish Redhead Convention in Cork, five years ago, she has been receiving daily emails from redheads looking to share their experiences. Last year what had started as a joke in a pub was recognised as an award-winning festival and chosen as a flagship event for the Gathering.
Its success is partly due to the fact that when nearly 3,000 people flood the town of Crosshaven for three days in August, warm welcomes are taken seriously. “My family own a pub,” says Cronin, “so I’ve grown up in an environment where you’re welcoming people all the time, and the feedback is great. When people come to Crosshaven for the convention, those who live there are basically hosting the party. Everyone pulling together makes the whole event possible. And visitors notice that.”
Last year redheads came from as far away as New Zealand and South Africa, with many claiming they felt a Celtic connection based purely on the colour of their hair. Often someone will be walking through town during the convention, Cronin says, and a bond will spark when one redhead notices another.
“I think we’re naturally warm; we want to be helpful, and we talk to people. In a way, people are attracted to the Irish, and I suppose we do use that to our advantage.”
In developing the TV series Bringing It All Back Home and Other Voices , the musician and broadcaster Philip King has spent 25 years absorbing Irish creativity. It's evident not just in the impact that Irish emigrants and their offspring have had in other cultures, he says, but also in the reaction of artists when they visit this country.
"Since we started Other Voices , 12 years ago, musicians like Amy Winehouse, The xx and The National all sensed something in Ireland that's in tune with their way of thinking as artists. They find this place to be inspirational. It's something Seamus Heaney called the given note: this thing that's almost in the air and part of who we are. Imagination is a huge natural resource we have, but it's not something that can be leveraged just to promote this, that or the other."
If we were discussing Irish identity 100 years ago, King says, the State’s founding philosophy would only just be gaining momentum. “In 2014 where are the people who are going to interrogate what a new Ireland might be? The answer for me is in communities, voluntarism and places where art can flourish. There, I think, you will find the bonding agents and emotional cohesion necessary to rebalance our society.”