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It’s great Guinness is having a moment in Britain. But as Ireland’s soft power grows, so does our boozy national stereotype

Ireland’s cultural reputation abroad is in the ascendant but stubborn stereotypes abide

It is hard for any pub in central London to stand out as particularly remarkable. They are all pretty similar – with around 430 in the borough of Westminster alone the market is crowded and most streets in Soho are home to several hostelries. But just outside of Piccadilly underground station, tucked around a corner, is the Devonshire. Somehow it has managed to emerge above the parapet as London’s most zeitgeisty spot: always full, tables exceedingly hard to come by, punters forced to spill on to the street. Plenty have tried to explain the secret behind the Devonshire’s centrifugal force. A friendly Irish proprietor, a great kitchen, a location that couldn’t be more central. All of this is part of the alchemy. But the key ingredient is more simple: a good pint of Guinness.

Guinness is having a moment. In fact, as of last year it is Britain’s most popular beer. One in nine pints sold across the country is a Guinness, in London the figure is one in six. GQ magazine last summer was alert to the “great Guinness surge”. The Sunday Times more recently investigated how the drink took over London. Suggestions vary: nostalgia, hipsterness, a reaction to the rise of the fussy and staid wine bar. The popular social media account shitlondonguinness tracks the worst examples of the pint you can find in the city. The consensus is that the Devonshire offers one of the best.

Soft power comes in many forms. That every street corner of central London tonight will be thronged with people drinking one of Ireland’s most famous cultural exports hardly counts for nothing. One thing you hear in Britain all the time is about the nation’s antipathy to its Celtic neighbour: Ireland is simply too small to bother thinking about, so they claim. At a political level this may have once been true. Brexit, however, changed that attitude in Westminster, finally forcing the realisation that there were political concerns that could not be navigated without paying close heed to Ireland. But culturally this assertion was never right. London is a product of diversity and Irishness has long been a significant part of that, baked into the fabric of the city. The Guinness boom is simple proof of concept.

This is a big moment for Ireland’s reputation abroad. Actors Paul Mescal and Andrew Scott are ubiquitous – on stage, on the screen, at every award show. Ryanair anecdotally – at least – is enjoying a reputational renaissance. The Banshees of Inisherin by Martin McDonagh was a huge cultural touchstone. Joe Biden’s official visit to Ireland in April was celebrated and derided across the world.


But amid all of this there is an anxiety. The larger Ireland looms in the culture, the more potent its national stereotype becomes. In Mark O’Connell’s review of Banshees of Inisherin he explains that Ireland (in director Martin McDonagh’s universe) is “at once beautiful, unique, and irredeemably cliche”; a nation characterised by its “misty poeticism, rural backwardness, prodigious boozing.” But this idea of Ireland extends far beyond McDonagh’s calculations – it is a perception general to the cultural consciousness outside of Ireland itself.

Every nation has to resolve an internal battle: submit to national stereotype or aspire to subvert it. Can Ireland be the version of McDonagh’s imagination – with the jocular drinking and lyricism and all the tweeness that comes with it – while also being one of the wealthiest nations in Europe that hosts the headquarters of tech behemoths and exercises soft power far beyond its size? At some point must both of these images clash? Twenty-twenty-four seems like a good time to disavow the diminutive stereotype once put about by Punch cartoons. Now is a time to demand seriousness.

Possibly. But perhaps stereotype is not all bad; perhaps both visions of Ireland can exist at the same time; perhaps it is even helpful that they do. The affinity American presidents have for the country – affected or not – is perfect evidence of this. During Barack Obama’s visit he joked that he’d “come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way.” Most contemporary presidents – with the notable exception of Donald Trump have found some kind of political expediency in gesturing towards their Irishness.Biden walking on stage to the Drop Kick Murphys – flanked by Tricolours – is not a subtle interpretation of Irishness. But that the most powerful man in the world is convinced he is Irish is no less of a good thing for Ireland because of that. In fact it is a very useful place to be.

There is plenty of disquiet in some corners about Ireland’s continued policy of military neutrality. There is also plenty of anxiety about the existential threat it poses to the United Kingdom – made more acute by the popularity of Sinn Féin with its agenda of a united Ireland. Perhaps the national stereotype – whimsical and patronising though it might be – is a good antidote to these thornier parts of our politics.

A cleverly wrought balance between the misty-eyed romanticism of Ireland and the cosmopolitan, pro-market capitalistsm could be an expedient image. That thousands across London tonight will be holding pint glasses with the iconic harp is no frivolous component in all of this.