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Land of drunks, poets, friendly fans. How true are Irish cliches?

We separate the truths, half-truths and lies about Ireland


There are many shades of Irish identity: some clichéd and untrue; others pinpoint accurate. We take some of the most common labels attached to Ireland and put them through the truth test.

1. A tax haven

Senator John McCain’s 2013 description of Ireland as a tax haven has gained currency since the EU’s recent Apple ruling. Yet, experts say the State does not match Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) criteria (including secrecy) for a tax haven.

Truth rating: 4/10.

2. A bucolic tourist paradise

Although around 60 per cent of us are urbanised, Ireland is the world’s 143rd most densely populated country, behind Ethiopia and Jordan. More than three million tourists visited between June and August, a record.

Truth rating: 8/10

3. No country for young cyclists

Since 2010, 49 cyclists have died on Irish roads. This autumn, a 13-year-old boy and an 11-year-old boy – in Louth and Offaly, respectively – and a Dublin woman were killed in the space of a fortnight. Our capital lacks segregated bike lanes, and 700 cyclists recently protested outside Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Shane Ross’s office over the face a mere 1 per cent of the transport budget goes towards cycling or walking infrastructure.

Truth rating: 9/10

4. The best small country in the world to do business

It’s Enda Kenny’s most frequently articulated vision for Ireland – especially when he is overseas. Yet, despite the “leprechaun economics” of Ireland’s 26.3 per cent GDP growth in 2015, analysts say “underlying growth” was still 6 per cent in 2015, and Ireland is the seventh most competitive country in the world.

Truth rating: 7/10

5. A land of drunks and “junk”

Ireland sober is Ireland stiff, wrote James Joyce in Finnegans Wake, and alcohol consumption trebled between 1960 and 2001. In 2014, the World Health Organisation found Ireland to have the second highest rate of binge-drinking in the world and, in 2011, Ireland was found have the highest heroin use in Europe.

Truth rating: 10/10

6. Home of the black stuff

The Guinness Storehouse in Dublin is the country’s most visited attraction, although the craft beer boom has affected Diageo’s ubiquity.

Truth rating: 8/10

7. The best fans in the world

Fans of the two Irish teams at Euro 2016 in France serenaded nuns, sang lullabies to babies, and fixed flat tyres. The mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo even awarded the city’s Grand Vermeil medal to Irish fan Jamie Monaghan, from Louth, who received it on behalf of Irish fans.

Truth rating: 9/10

8. A forest people without a forest

The Woodland League wants a “treestoration” of Ireland’s deciduous forests. Once blanketed by leaves, just 9.2 per cent of Irish land is now wooded, compared with 38 per cent across the EU. And just 1 per cent of Irish land is covered by native forest, the rest comprising of Coillte tree farms.

Truth rating: 7/10

9. No better place to be a cow

Last month’s claim by Kerrygold owners Ornua ignores the fact that Ireland’s 6.5 million cows – like all cattle – produce milk only when pregnant. They are thus repeatedly artificially inseminated, giving birth to calves from whom they are separated within a day or two. Dairy cows can live to 25, but most are killed for beef at 4-6 years of age.

Truth rating: 1/10

10. Big hearts

According to the Charities Aid Foundation World Giving Index of last year, we are the ninth most generous nation in the world. In 2014, the Government spent €609.6 million on overseas aid – 0.38 per cent of Gross National Income, falling short of the UN target of 0.7 per cent.

Truth rating: 7/10

11. And even bigger waistbands . . .

Ireland has the highest average body mass index in the EU. A quarter of our population is technically obese.

Truth rating: 9/10

12. “Priest-ridden”

There are 2,019 priests in active ministry in Ireland, a drop of 43 per cent since 1995.

Truth rating: 2/10

13. A Catholic country

In the 2011 census, 84.2 per cent of people in the State described themselves as Catholic. Yet, seven out of 10 Catholics did not attend weekly Mass, and one in eight Dubliners having no religion. With 96 per cent of national schools still run by religious orders, “sham baptisms” to secure school places are on the rise.

Truth rating: 4/10

14. A well-travelled nation

According to a 2013 UN migration report of 72 countries, more than three quarters of a million Irish-born people were living abroad. We have the highest number of native-born emigrants, in the OECD, living abroad.

Truth rating: 10/10

15. A bad place to be poor and pregnant

Nine women a day travel from Ireland to Britain for an abortion. The option is not open to asylum seekers, or the destitute, however, according to the Irish Family Planning Association.

Truth rating: 8/10

16. An exporter of doctors

A study last year showed nine in every 10 medical students in Ireland were considering emigration upon qualification. A thousand Irish GPs emigrated to Britain between 2009 and 2013, according to the Irish Medical Organisation.

Truth rating: 9/10

17. A gay-friendly land

In 2015, Ireland became the first country worldwide to vote by referendum to permit same-sex marriage. A Gallup poll of 129 states last year put Ireland as the ninth most gay-friendly country.

Truth rating: 8/10

18. Practically topless

In 1518, an aide to the visiting 16-year-old Archduke Ferdinand of Habsburg described Kinsale’s womenfolk as friendly, virtuous – and “practically topless”, with bare breasts common. Gardaí escorted a “Free the Nipple” protestor from this year’s music and arts festival, Knockanstockan, in Co Wicklow.

Truth rating: 3/10

19. Island of saints and scholars

While Irish monks studied and spread learning throughout Europe in the Dark Ages, today our universities rank below 49 counterparts in nine other EU countries. The last saint to die in Ireland was a Dutchman, St Charles, in 1893.

Truth rating: 5/10

20. A warm welcome

Ireland topped an International Rescue Committee poll of 12 EU countries for attitudes towards the arrival of Syrian refugees. Last year, we resettled 178 refugees, short of our annual IRC target of 1,223.

Truth rating: 7/10

21. One of the ‘PIIGS’

In the aftermath of the 2008 bank guarantee, Ireland was added to this early-2000s porcine acronym alongside Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. The last to join the “PIIGS”, we were also the first to leave the sty.

Truth rating: 4/10

22. A cherisher of children

A century on from the 1916 Proclamation, and its (possibly metaphorical) line about cherishing all the children of the nation equally, there are 6,525 homeless people in Ireland, including 2,363 children. Figures from Census 2016 earlier this year showed the total number of vacant dwellings in Dublin, including holiday homes, numbered more than 36,000.

Truth rating: 3/10

23. Source of missionaries and aid workers

There are now fewer than 1,500 Irish-born missionaries overseas, yet there’s no shortage of Irish aid workers.

Truth rating: 7/10

24. A land of poets and scribes

Four Irish men have won a Nobel Prize in Literature – WB Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and Seamus Heaney – with James Joyce overlooked. John Millington Synge, Frank O’Connor, Flann O’Brien, Brian Friel and modern novelists such as Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín and Roddy Doyle confirm a sterling reputation.

Truth rating: 9/10

25. Nurturer of scientists

Last year Donegal-born William C Campbell won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Ireland has been ranked the eighth most innovative economy in the world.

Truth rating: 7/10

26. “Swearers and blasphemers”

Edmund Spenser’s 1596 description in A View of the Present State of Ireland was partly confirmed in a 2014 analysis of subreddits, showing that people from the North swear the most on the planet – and six times as much as Dubliners.

Truth rating: 7/10

27. Good Europeans

We’ve come a long way from rejecting the Nice and Lisbon Treaties. As other countries weigh up the idea of leaving the EU, just one in five of us wants to leave.

Truth rating: 8/10

28. Land of peacekeepers

Ireland usually features in the top-10 UN troop contributors, and has an unbroken record of service in the blue helmet since 1958. Approximately 500 Irish troops serve overseas.

Truth rating: 9/10

29. Home of violence and terrorism

Ireland is still dealing with the reverberations of the bombings, shootings and atrocities known as The Troubles, though the Belfast Agreement has been in force since 1998.

Truth rating: 7/10

30. A nation of tea drinkers

In 1939, we were the world’s third biggest consumers of tae. When the second World War broke out, mass caffeine withdrawals led the then minister for supplies Seán Lemass to set up Tea Importers Ltd (later becoming the the Irish Bank of Commerce and then Anglo Irish Bank). The Irish soon developed a preference for darker African teas. Only Turkey drinks more per capita.

Truth rating: 9/10

31. Talkers . . .

Since 2013, Ireland has had more active mobile phones than people. We also have the highest penetration of phone internet users in the western world. Truth rating: 8/10

32. . . . But only in English

Almost three quarters of Irish people can’t speak a foreign language, the lowest rate in the EU. In 2011, the census figures showed 77,185 people speak Irish on a daily basis outside of the education system.

Truth rating: 7/10

33. Happy/sad

Ireland ranked 19th in the 2016 World Happiness Report. Yet, one in five says they care for, or are related to, someone with a mental health problem. We have the fourth highest teenage suicide rate out of 31 European countries.

Truth rating: 5/10

34. A goldmine of historic architecture

Norman and Gaelic castles and Gothic cathedrals dot the landscape. Newgrange is older than the Pyramids. Within old ascendancy estates, meanwhile, lie classical Palladian and rococo country piles.

Truth rating: 7/10

35. Idiosyncratic protestors

Water charges finally brought out what homelessness, and numerous cuts to home-help, lone-parents and disability allowances could not – mass countrywide protests.

Truth rating: 8/10

36. Prone to flights of fancy

The island of Ireland contains a Republic of Ireland but also, like Russian dolls, the county of Cork, within which lies the capital, in the minds of certain citizens, of a future People’s Republic.

Truth rating: 10/10

37. Neutral

The policy of neutrality which saw Eamon de Valera express condolences upon Hitler’s death does not extend to barring the transport of foreign weapons through Shannon Airport on civilian planes.

Truth rating: 6/10

38. A good place to grow up

A 2013 Unicef report of 29 OECD countries put Ireland in the top 10 countries in which to be a child, with a relatively low child poverty rate.

Truth rating: 7/10

39. ‘Peopled by peasants, priests and pixies

The English broadcaster Robert Kilroy Silk delivered this infamous description in his Daily Express column in 1992. Most of Ireland’s land remains farmed, but the average holding more than doubled between 1915 and 2010.

Truth rating: 0/10.

40. Land of sporting prowess

The heroics of sailor Annalise Murphy and rowers Gary and Paul O’Donovan suggest we’ve struck another rich seam of sporting success.

Truth rating: 8/10