A nation's stout heart

 

WEEKEND REVIEW:The relationship between Guinness and Ireland is symbiotic, but as the black stuff celebrates its 250th birthday across the globe, is the love affair beginning to show its age?, asks PAUL CULLEN,Consumer Affairs correspondent

IT IS THE pint of plain of poems, the black stuff of sentimental songs. It has served as the lubricant for a thousand great nights out and caused many a man to rue the day he first took a sup. For some, it is an aphrodisiac, for others the opposite, for others again a laxative. Its image and that of Ireland are so closely intertwined that they both share the same emblem, a harp. It once claimed to be good for you, but is now firmly in the bad books of health professionals.

“It” is Guinness, of course, that dark combination of water, hops, yeast and roasted barley that celebrates its 250th anniversary this year. Next Thursday, this remarkable survivor of Irish industry, still prospering when so many other home-produced goods have disappeared, will be feted with worldwide events to mark the quarter-millennium since Arthur Guinness signed the lease on the St James’s Gate brewery in Dublin in 1759.

The makers of Guinness have shown over the years that they know a thing or two about advertising, so there is undoubtedly method in next week’s marketing madness, which includes big-name concerts on four continents and dozens of gigs throughout Dublin. You can almost hear the ring of the cash registers as the word goes out to “raise a glass to Arthur”.

It is hard, though, to belittle the achievements of the world’s biggest-selling stout, whose success has sustained Dublin through times thick and thin. For decades, a job in Guinness was a guaranteed passport to steady, stable and well-paid employment, with medical care and home deliveries of drink provided free. Even to this day, thousands of people in the city are housed by the Iveagh Trust, set up by the owners, the Guinness family, to coordinate their many philanthropic endeavours.

But while this is a fitting time to consider these achievements, it is timely also to ask how long they might continue into the future. The love affair between Ireland and Guinness, while lengthy and enriching for both sides in the past, is showing its age. We have changed, and so has Guinness, in ways still unimagined when the company marked its 200th anniversary in July 1959.

Back then, advertisements still proclaimed the message that “Guinness is good for you”, which has since been dropped. The 85-year-old Earl of Iveagh laid the foundation stone for a new recreation centre and dispensed cheques totalling €4,000 to various charities.

The centrepiece of the bicentenary celebrations was the 64th annual show of the “St James’s Gate Fanciers and Industrial Association” at the Iveagh Grounds in Crumlin. There, the attractions included a show for dogs, pigeons and vegetables, a display of Irish dancing, a “cut-and-style competition for frocks” and an adult fancy-dress competition. A fireworks display rounded off festivities and the 4,000 or so workers were bussed home at midnight.

TODAY, GUINNESSis owned by Diageo, a giant multinational drinks company, with annual revenues of more than €10 billion. No member of the Guinness family sits on the Diageo board and their share ownership is proportionately tiny (though their 1 per cent shareholding is still worth €200 million).

Arthur’s Day, as the company has christened next Thursday’s events, will be celebrated in Lagos and Kuala Lumpur as well as Dublin, reflecting the importance of Africa and Asia in the company’s marketing plans. Visitors are no longer given tours of the brewery but are directed instead to the Guinness Storehouse, where, for €15, they can watch a video and buy merchandise; last year, one million visitors trekked up to the Storehouse, making it the country’s leading tourist attraction.

At least the tradition of philanthropy survives, with Diageo planning to dole out €2.5 million this year from the Arthur Guinness Fund, to “social entrepreneurs”. An Post has also printed a commemorative stamp in honour of Arthur, just as it did in 1959.

The company sees the 250th anniversary celebrations as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to promote the Guinness brand and the pub milieu where it thrives, according to its Irish boss, John Kennedy.

“Guinness and the ‘local Irish pub’ are similar in character – they are about authenticity, ritual, community, folklore and language – characteristics that during this recession mean more to people than they have done over the last decade.”

The inter-relationship between Guinness and Ireland is remarkable, even symbiotic. Diageo sells Guinness around the world, much of it through a vast network of Irish pubs, on the back of the Irish reputation for craic and conviviality; in return, Ireland’s international visibility is raised, and profiled in a broadly positive light.

Yet when people think of France, they think of the Eiffel Tower; Sweden brings to mind Volvo or Ikea. So what does it mean for Ireland that its name is inextricably linked to the name of a drug – a legal one, yes – that wreaks harm as well as good?

“We have a complicated ambivalence about this part of our identity,” comments Dr Tanya Cassidy, a sociologist at NUI Maynooth who has researched the role of alcohol in Ireland. “There is this poetic imagery linking Guinness to conviviality and traditional Irish pubs but, on the other hand, the reality for lots of people is informed by a negative experience rooted in problem drinking and health issues.”

Although our consumption of drink peaked at the start of the decade and has been falling since, Cassidy believes alcohol is still inextricably linked to Irish identity. “From Brendan Behan to Colin Farrell, it was understood that you could be drunk and Irish and creative. Then we managed to integrate drinking into the success culture of the Celtic Tiger.”

In a sense, the issue of identity is out of the hands of Diageo now because, as John Fanning, chairman of McConnells Advertising, points out, brands are effectively owned by the people who consume them rather than the manufacturer, “so if people think Guinness is Irish, then it doesn’t matter what the company thinks – it is Irish”.

IN SPITE OFthe umbilical link between the stout and St James’s Gate, the co-identification of Guinness and Ireland is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Smithwick’s brewery in Kilkenny is older – it dates back to 1710 – and Murphy’s stout in Cork has often worked harder on its branding as an Irish product, because it had to.

It is only since the mid-1990s that Diageo’s marketing people started pushing the stout as a specifically Irish product, thereby riding the wave of Irish success as skilfully as the surfer in one of their television advertisements.

The 19th-century stereotype of the hard-drinking Irishman related to whiskey consumption, Cassidy points out, and beer (and, in particular, Guinness) was at that time considered a healthier alternative to spirits.

“The company took the existing stereotype and flipped it on its head by celebrating stout,” she explains. Hence, the “Guinness is good for you” slogan. This era, when nursing mothers and post-operative patients were given stout, lasted well into the 20th century. Indeed, blood donors are still offered a glass of Guinness afterwards, though the Irish Blood Transfusion Service says that few of its customers now take up the invitation.

Cassidy says Guinness has managed to hang on to a morally positive image for most of its 250 years. Some women she interviewed for her doctorate denied that they consumed alcohol, even when they later told her they drank three to four glasses of stout a night, because this “wasn’t really drinking”.

However, the era of benign contemplation of stout is over. Health campaigners have their sights set on the drinks industry, and care little if Guinness gets caught in the crossfire. They point out that alcohol is a factor in half of all homicides, one-third of road-crash deaths and more than 40 per cent of cases of deliberate self-harm. Even low levels of intake can have disastrous consequences: in 2003, one in six drivers with alcohol in their blood who were responsible for fatal crashes were not above the legal limit.

In response to this pressure, the industry has spent millions on responsible drinking campaigns, but it still seems to be losing the battle. Stricter enforcement of drink-driving rules, coming on top of the smoking ban, has had a tumultuous effect on pubs, where 95 per cent of Guinness is consumed. An expected further reduction in the drink-driving limit is likely to make a bad situation worse.

Yet Kennedy says investment means “putting the pub at the centre of everything we do”. Diageo’s massive sponsorship of GAA and rugby is designed to tap into local communities. The company has attempted to follow the market by making the beer colder and fitting widgets into cans to improve the quality of the take-home product, but traditionalists have taken offence.

The one comfort is that while sales of Guinness are flat, other beers are doing worse in the recession. Beer sales overall are down 5 per cent in the latest figures, but Guinness increased its share of pub sales slightly, now accounting for one in every three pints pulled in a pub.

While Irish people are increasingly becoming stay-at-home wine drinkers instead of downing pints of plain in their local pub, Diageo itself is reassessing its relationship with Ireland. Reports in 2007 that the company was planning to close the St James’s Gate brewery caused widespread consternation. The following year, it announced that St James’s Gate would, after all, remain open, but other breweries in Kilkenny and Dundalk would be closed and 250 jobs lost.

This plan has since been put on ice because of the global recession, leaving an air of uncertainty about the company’s intentions. Ultimately, as Cassidy says, “if there is money to be made, they will keep on doing it”. Not to mention the fact that there are still 8,750 years to run on Arthur’s lease.