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The Economic Importance of Irish Culture

As Ireland suffers fall out from banking and Eurozone crises, it’s timely to look at how Irish culture and tradition contribute to economic well-being.

In most countries, culture, tradition and history intertwine and add to their richness. In Ireland, it’s particularly marked. Ancient Celtic history, folk legend and epic poetry fuse with contemporary lifestyles, rural and urban, language, music, performance and celebration/ritual.

Irish traditional and Country & Irish music evolved from mythology to create unique strands. Fiddles, harps, banjos, bodhrans (hand drums), whistles, accordians and violins have become synonymous with the music. Irish dancing paralleled it, with evolutions of jigs, hornpipes, reels, polkas and step dancing to accompany songs about emigration, civil strife, everyday love and life. Harmonies and melodies in elegant simplicity are hallmarks of the music.

Any list of great artists writing in the English language in fiction, philosophy or drama include many Irish. George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, WB Yeats, James Joyce, Bram Stoker, CS Lewis (N.Ireland), Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Sheridan are but some. They didn’t all earn to help Ireland’s economy directly, but their success was a credit to their homeland.

Music and Dance

The roll-call of (near) contemporary Irish musicians is long, and demonstrates international success both artistically and commercially. Thin Lizzie, Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher, U2, John O’Conor, Barry Douglas, Daniel O’Connell, The Chieftains, The Boomtown Rats, Clannad, Enya, The Corrs, Sinead O’Connor, Planxty, The Pogues, The Cranberries, Boyzone and Westlife are but a selection.

The spectacular global triumph of Riverdance is a case study in how tradition, modern technology, music and dance skills combine with history to make an export that will be forever an Irish triumph, again both as a piece of pure art and a money-making machine. It began in 1994 as a seven minute interval piece in the Eurovision Song Contest viewed by 300 million people.

The single went straight to Number 1 in the Irish charts in May, 9 in the British charts. In November it was on the Royal Variety Performance and tickets went on sale for the show developed from it and Jean Butler and Michael Flatley’s careers were launched. It took over a million Irish pounds in three weeks. Thus was born a show that is still running, still touring the world, albeit in smaller venues than in the early years.

It’s hard to find figures on how much the concept has taken, or how much has benefitted the Irish economy. Clearly, though it has to be substantial while the publicity for Irish culture is immeasurable. Irish business writer, Barra O’Cinneide published The Riverdance Phenomenon (2001) and said it: ‘explains the background to the recent surge in Irish culture (and its greatly enhanced image abroad), concentrating on two aspects which have experienced unprecedented booms in popularity in the past decade, traditional music and, more recently, dance’.

Money, Money, Money

In a submission paper to the Department of Finance in March 2005, the Irish Music Rights Organisation showed that music has a significant positive impact on the development of inward investment, tourism and local communities. They cited the 2001 Goodbody Report which estimated the Irish music industry was worth half of one percent of Gross Domestic Product, was six times bigger than the Scottish equivalent and exceeded the value added in industries like dairy products, newspaper/magazine publishing, and plastics and rubber production.

Of this in 2001, 56% was the earned income of recording artists, 30% the activities of performance artists and 14% from the support sector. Clearly, whichever way it’s viewed, music’s contribution to the overall economic well-being of the country is significant. Brian Norton, writing in The Journal of Music (2005) said: ‘government support for part-time music education is woefully inadequate. It is a consequence of a narrowly defined arts policy rather than an overarching strategic national vision’.

Norton argued that evidence ought to make education policy makers aware that music should be an integral part of the pedagogy at every level in the education system. The implication being that young people need to capitalise on their traditions in every way. Of course, music is not the only art form.

Other Cultural Activities

Tourists visit Ireland (spending around four billion euros a year) for the countryside, historic and religious sites, pubs and beer. The Bronze Age artifacts, early spiritual carvings, manuscripts, the festivals and fairs are equally important. No recent surveys have asked if people visit Ireland for the music/dance/theatre, unlike surveys in Scotland which analyse the impact of the Edinburgh Festivals on the local and national economies.

Ireland’s traditional bedrock economy depends on agriculture and livestock related industries. Diversification into modern technology has been widespread. Joining the European Union and the euro have seen Ireland reach highs (when it was given the ‘Celtic Tiger’ plaudit in the 1990s) and lows, as bailouts, bankruptcies and buildings unused littered the landscape of the early 2000s.

Through all the vagaries of economic cycles, the fact is that Ireland has a unique and enduring contribution to make to global culture. And that may be worth more than money, in the long run.

First published on Suite 101, 4 August 2011

Image: Irish Dancing Group, Vienna – Michael A.Zapletal


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