The miracle of St Patrick

Red-haired colleens, rolling hills, old-fashioned warmth and fun: the global marketing of things Irish, from stout to theme pubs, figures Ireland as a place where the Nineties inner self finds meaning. Is this baloney? By Meg Carter
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The Independent Online
Turn on the television and it is hard to escape a seemingly endless stream of images of Irish life. Zap, and a flame-haired colleen drifts through emerald fields. Zap, and amid the madness of Mardi Gras a young man mistakenly spots his old da' and dreams of rolling hills back home. Zap, and an affable English priest is adapting well to life in a small Irish town. They call it the cult of Celt: a love of all things Irish. Witness the success of Riverdance, Guinness, Liam Neeson - the list runs on and on. And today, St Patrick's Day, marks its apotheosis.

It has been a long time coming. But with the Irish the largest ethnic minority in the UK, business has finally woken up to a lucrative new market: the "green pound". It is more than a matter of the 6 million first- and second-generation Irish now settled in Britain, there is also the growing numbers of Irish- friendly who, despite the continued political tensions between the two countries, are being wooed by an Irish way of life perceived as good-natured, laid-back and fun.

Leading the way are the Irish beer brands. They are engrossed in a St Patrick's Day marketing frenzy spanning Guinness's sponsorship of the Cheltenham Festival to Caffrey's "Passport to Ireland" promotion and Beamish's attempts to persuade 1 million commuters into sampling its product at Waterloo station, London, this week. Oh, and not to forget the multi-million- pound advertising campaigns, each selling a slice of Irish heritage.

Take Murphy's Irish Stout, whose new campaign broke last week. The brand's hero, the shaggy-eyebrowed "Vincent Murphy", props up the bar, beer in hand, and wryly observes an angry old man ranting about his broken car, his poor darts performance and the pouring rain. "Unlike the Murphy's, he's very bitter," Vincent quips. The strategy, in case you have not already guessed it, is all about selling Murphy's point of difference: taste. "We're trying to say it's less bitter than Guinness, although we can't do so overtly," explains Steve Kershaw, group director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, the advertising agency behind the campaign.

Murphy's is all about Irish wit and wisdom, you see. Unlike Caffrey's, which blends a contemporary life in the urban jungle with nostalgic thoughts of home. "Caffrey's is positioned within the context of 'New Ireland'," a spokesperson for its UK parent, Bass, helpfully explains. "There's warmth and lyricism mixed with cosmopolitan and contemporary appeal." And then there is Beamish. According to Fiona Pryor, marketing manager at the parent company, Scottish Courage, "We have a unique positioning - as the genuine Irish stout. We are the only brand that only brews in Ireland. Cork is the home of our brewery, which gives us added depth. Anyone with a superficial knowledge of Ireland knows Dublin; Cork takes more seeking out: it's the 'real' Ireland."

So now you know. Each is unique, yet the sub-text of each is the same. There is the world at large, and then there is Ireland - as much a state of mind as a place.

That is a point endorsed by Guinness even though, unlike its rivals, it eschews any overt Irish connection in its UK advertising campaign. Instead, it opts for an enigmatic approach typified by its Eighties "Man in black" ads starring a bleach-haired Rutger Hauer and its current "Not everything in black and white makes sense" campaign. "On the one hand, Guinness is the quintessential Irish brand," Jeremy Probert, Guinness's media manager, explains. "Irishness underpins its identity which is all about sociability, like-ability, having a good time - as the Irish would say: 'good craic'." On the other hand, Guinness is outward-looking. "Guinness's UK advertising has always been geared to what is going on in society."

So, in the Seventies, when being part of the crowd was what really mattered, Guinness ran its "Bottle of Guinness Supporters' Group" campaign. In the Eighties, "Man in black" was all about "me values" - "Like wearing Armani, drinking Guinness made a statement," Probert says. And in the Nineties? "Research shows people today are more inwardly focused. The current message is: think again about life, your inner self, Guinness. All is not how it appears at first glance." Nineties consumers no longer seek the right brand as a badge. They desire a brand which is more in tune with personal values, he claims. Luckily for the marketers, "Irishness" hits the right spot. "It definitely fits with the Nineties consumer - it does seem to strip away irrelevant values. It's more about beer than hype," Jay Pond- Jones, executive creative director at advertising agency GGT observes.

Pond-Jones, however, is circumspect. "In some ways, this has resulted in the peddling of another cliche, although I'm not sure many people spot it," he adds. Witness the theme-park approach to Irish culture infiltrating British pubs, clubs and bars. "It does seem strange, genuine Irish bars are being closed and reopened as Irish themed pubs. All too often, people rely on old cliches."

Which was the impetus behind a recent GGT ad for Holsten Pils featuring the American comedian Dennis Leary. The commercial lampooned "Oirish" romanticism with Leary slumped across the bar snoring as a pint of Guinness is served, two priests chasing a pretty young girl down a hill and the rolling Irish landscape revealed as a carefully shot corner of Hampstead Heath.

Yet authenticity can be hard to find. Look behind the genuine Irish beer brands and you see the heavy hand of British brewing giants. Guinness plc is a UK company; Murphy's is now owned by Whitbread and Caffrey's by Bass. Scratch the surface of many of the UK's 400 Irish pubs and it's the same story: Whitbread operates the O'Hagans and JJ Murphy chain; Allied Domecq runs Scruffy Murphy's. As for Guinness, which launched its Irish Pub Concept business in 1992, it now exports Irish theme pub packs around the world - the latest addition was O'Malley's which opened last month in Shanghai. Exporting "Irishness" is in the breweries' best interests, you see - to build new markets for the international roll-out of Irish beer.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about this aspect of the Irish phenomenon. "There are two sides to Irish pubs: the tasteful side which is a contemporary reflection of Irish bars back home, and the fake side: without Irish staff and with 'funny' explanations about the drink and food on sale," says Neal Keniry, general manager of Waxy O'Connor, an independent London Irish bar. And he criticises new products which cynically attempt to cash in on Irish heritage when they have none of their own. "This is not a stupid marketplace. People know when they are being conned."

Declan Lowney, director of Father Ted, who directed the new Murphy's ads, shares his concern. "I do get irritated by portrayals of an Ireland I can't identify with," he says. Ballykissangel, for example. "It's patronising. But I suppose it's a style and tone which makes it work as a comedy drama." Hang on a minute, weren't there people in Ireland who objected to Father Ted on the grounds of negative stereotyping, too? True, he admits: "But I would defend it by saying it's in its own world - it makes it's own rules: it's a piece of fun."

Lowney claims both Ted and his Murphy's work praise a new generation of Irish with the wit and confidence "to laugh at an older Ireland". It is all part of a country (and a culture) that has finally come to terms with itself to achieve a new sense of self-confidencen