Commodification or celebration? The question of Irish culture

Katie McGinley considers the recent St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and whether Ireland’s cultural heritage is at risk of being lost in a sea of obnoxious tourists

On March 17, 1,563 years ago, Saint Patrick passed away. On 17 March 2024, people all around the world descended upon Ireland for a weekend of excessive drinking, causing traffic delays and more drinking. This is obviously what the saint would have wanted.

“Yes, we enjoy social drinking, and we all look good in green, but we must address where the stereotypes end and the truth begins”

The tourists can be seen and heard from a mile away, sporting distinctive matching green outfits. The typical specimen can also be heard confessing “yeah, my great great grandmother was actually from Galway” over their pint of overpriced Guinness sourced from the Temple Bar. But does Paddy’s Day in Dublin represent our national identity? How much has Paddy’s Day become intertwined with profit acquisition and the continuation of stereotypes? Yes, we enjoy social drinking, and we all look good in green, but we must address where the stereotypes end and the truth begins. 

Commodification is “the act or process of treating something as a mere commodity” (Oxford Languages). It is a process within capitalist societies where something that may previously have been free or an intangible idea is transformed into a product to be sold. For example, many argue that Valentine’s Day has been commercialised. Yes, it is a holiday about love, but more importantly, it has become a way for companies to sell products vaguely pertaining to love like chocolates, flowers and jewellery. 

Stereotyping goes hand-in-hand with commodification. It is easy to create a desirable product out of easy-to-recognise stereotypes. The problem with cultural commodification arises with two points: when the culture becomes widely misrepresented and when aspects of the culture are sacrificed to become more palatable to a wider audience. So, has Irish culture itself been commodified and commercialised? 

The first question that needs to be answered is, what is Irish culture? It is a question that Irish people have asked themselves since the dawn of time. Our history of colonisation has tainted what we now know about our past. As colonisation does, it has a lasting impact not only on what other countries think of us but also on how inhabitants of the country think of themselves. We have clung tight to the history we have been able to preserve. This cultural ethos includes the language, the myths like Oisín in Tír na nÓg and the arts, for example, Irish dancing. 

“This tight hold that we have on our culture, at home and abroad, has led to the formation and progression of Irish stereotypes”

This ethos also applies to Ireland’s emigration patterns. As an Irish person, it’s almost a rite of passage to leave the country to search for better opportunities and better weather.  By becoming the token Irish when moving abroad, it has meant that Irish people, when in other countries, have been defined by their nationality for years. This tight hold that we have on our culture, at home and abroad, has led to the formation and progression of Irish stereotypes.

This tendency lends itself to commodification as the strong stereotypes that surround Irishness allow for the creation of easily identifiable “Irish” products and experiences. For instance, an Irish pub can be found in many other countries. They often play on Irish stereotypes to attract visitors when, frequently, the bar owners and workers have no connection to Irish people. They may hire live musicians to play Irish music or Irish dancers, but the art may be cheapened or simplified for commercial appeal. The pub is an extreme example, but I think it is something that many Irish people have experienced when travelling. Homesick, we might head to an Irish bar for comfort, only to feel alarmed when this establishment fails to represent Irish culture as we know it.

Multiple aspects of our culture may be argued to have been commodified. One way that sticks out is the commodification of infamous Irish writers like Oscar Wilde and James Joyce. Irish cultural identity is deeply rooted in the art produced by its citizens, with the Irish Literary Revival of the early 20th century being the driving force behind the resurgence of the Irish culture we know today. Despite its cultural importance, you can’t walk down any street in Dublin without seeing an Oscar Wilde quote slapped on the front of a mug or t-shirt (tenner bets it was “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken”). This quote is actually a misattribution and the famously cynical Wilde never said anything so cheerful. These distortions have cheapened the legacy of their work. 

In the process of attempting to create a product, their work has become more easily accessible, but potentially at the cost of its authenticity and integrity. Although quotes on a t-shirt are relatively harmless, there are more insidious examples of this that have resulted in Irish literary figures becoming mythologised, with them even being removed and separated from their work. 

“It is a day when we should have pride in our cultural history as well as an excuse to take work off and go drinking”

On a positive note, commodification has yet to overwhelm our cultural integrity. We retain a lot of authenticity as a country, and our culture is in no danger of dying out. The tradition of Irish music and dancing remains strong, and although it may be modernised, it remains in touch with its traditional roots. Even on Saint Patrick’s Day, which is a day when the commodification of the culture may come to the fore, there remain genuine expressions and celebrations of Irish culture. It is a day when we should have pride in our cultural history and our country as a whole as well as an excuse to take work off and go drinking.

On the other hand, the commodification process is something to be aware of, especially as Trinity students. Trinity is a massive part of Ireland’s cultural history, with the Book of Kells and the Long Room being cultural signposts in Dublin and Ireland. The role that Trinity has to play in the preservation of culture and protection of its cultural goods from over-commodification cannot be overstated. There is a thin line between commodification and celebration. Collectively, we need to be aware of the difference and attempt to walk the line, as best we can, on the side of celebration.