Why Brand Ireland now means Crystal Swing and Jedward

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PRESENT TENSE:ON MONDAY, Crystal Swing appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’s US chat show. When introduced, Mary, the mammy of the group, proffered a bottle of Jameson with all the determination of a Spartan messenger boy. She delivered a script straight from the Tourism Ireland Bait-a-Yank handbook. Cork, she said, had beautiful people, great scenery, lovely food. As she said it, footage of Ireland rolled across the screen – at which point we knew for sure that Tourism Ireland was involved, because it had clearly gone to some trouble to find up-to-date footage of Ireland on a dry day.

Tourism Ireland had indeed funded Crystal Swing’s trip to the States. The trip follows its previous appropriation of the Jedward phenomenon as a tool to sell Ireland to the British. And so it becomes clear: for all the talk of the value of Irish culture, of its monetary potential, of its lure for tourists, of its centrality in an economic recovery, our biggest cultural exports of the past year have not been Heaney or Tóibín: they’ve been Crystal Swing and Jedward.

What’s more, for all our ideas of how we might like to be represented by our artists, of how we’d like to be perceived, of the repeated media discussion of strategy and campaigns, Crystal Swing needed only nine minutes to confirm what millions of Americans already presume Irish culture to be. Even Colm Tóibín – whose Brooklyn is this year’s selection for the One Book, One Chicago event – has spent decades building a career only to be outsprinted by a family passing in a blur of teeth and legs and a whiff of cheese.

On The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Mary said that everyone in Ireland watches the show and “we’re the talking point of Ireland today to be on it . . .”. You can forgive the hyperbole. We don’t all watch it – most of us don’t know where to find it anywhere other than through the internet – but on the second point of enthusiasm, she could hardly be faulted. Crystal Swing appeared on a US chat show and it made the news pages of our national papers. And why not? They long ago vanquished those of us who sneer at them and wonder how long this bad joke will go on. (Okay, they’ve defeated me.)

The US appearance may have marked the peak of their “moment”, but it was a dizzying one nonetheless. And in Ireland, where to be spotted in the crowd at a Big Brothereviction night is almost enough to make you a local celebrity, Crystal Swing are now behemoths. If you yearn for them to go away, you should accept that you’ll have to leave first. It’s their country now.

And here’s the thing: they did a sterling job of representing it. They delivered the tourist spiel, faithful to the last rising inflection of their accents. They plugged Jameson, Midleton, Cork and Ireland with grinning intensity. If they’d been asked to put on sequined leprechaun suits, they’d probably have offered to knit the beards themselves.

They weren’t the only Irish musical act to appear before a massive international audience this week. On Tuesday night, Villagers – otherwise known as Conor O’Brien – appeared on BBC2’s Later with Jools Holland. Of late, the reputation of Ireland’s male singer-songwriters has teetered on the edge not just of wetness but of a raging torrent of drippiness. O’Brien is quite brilliant though, marrying intensity with a refreshing joy and very hummable tunes.

He is, perhaps, more of what we might like the world to see in our entertainers, but his Irishness wasn’t a factor on Jools Holland. The pithy introduction to his performance didn’t mention it. It didn’t need to. Viewers could have thought he was from Northampton or New York or anywhere.

He did not present Holland with a bottle of whiskey and a sales pitch.

It’s a conundrum that greets anyone attempting to place a potential value on Irish arts and then flog it to the world. To be seen as identifiably Irish, it has to come with props and accents and a begorrahness that we may find embarrassing but which hammers the message home with the force of an inflatable shamrock.

Because the truth is that when we talk about exporting Irish culture, the high brows belong as much to Jedward as to anyone else.


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