Have you ever wondered how good knowledge about Ireland is around the world? I decided to ask a few people from different countries what they know about Ireland, to see how stereotyped their image of the country is.
Stereotypes and clichés are everywhere when it comes to what we think about a country. All Americans are bad at geography, right? Do all French people eat frogs every day? Probably not. But without being taught about a country, getting rid of these preconceived ideas is a difficult task.
Ireland is no exception. With worldwide fame, mostly due to the huge celebrations of Saint Patrick’s Day thrown in various countries, comes several clichés. To see what people think and know about Ireland, I interviewed ten people from different countries: Sophie from England; Liisu from Estonia; Aladdin from France; Jasmin from Germany; Giorgia from Italy; Yasmine from Morocco; Charlotte from Norway; Mikhail from Russia; Christiana from the United States; and Katarzyna from Poland.
Among the ten of them, only Liisu has ever been to Ireland, where she lived for a few years. The others have never experienced true Irish life. Their answers tell us a lot about their image of Ireland and their level of knowledge about the country.
What do people think about Ireland?
“I have to say Ireland has always had a special place in my heart,” Katarzyna tells me when I ask her what she thinks about when she hears the word “Ireland”. Her cousin lives in Ireland, among the Polish community. She also remembers her first English teacher, who told them about Ireland and Irish Culture. “We sang traditional songs, danced Riverdance, and celebrated Saint Patrick.”
Beside personal stories, we can easily see the pictures that comes to mind for people when they imagine Ireland, often linked with nature and the colour green: Sophie, Jasmin, Liisu, and Yasmin talk about countryside, land, and mountains. Sophie, just like Mikhail and Giorgia, adds the image of the clover, either the shamrock or the four-leaf clover. The shamrock and the colour green can remind us of nature, but they are also considered Irish symbols around the world.
They also say some surprising things: Aladdin talks about attractive taxes for skilled immigrants; and Jasmin immediately thinks about the Irish singer Niall Horan – who probably popularised Ireland among a whole generation of One Direction fans – and the show Sons of Anarchy, of which a section comes from Northern Ireland.
Another thing that appears a lot in their answers is drinking. “In Russia, Irish pubs are very popular with a huge variety of different beers,” Mikhail tells me. “The Russian people really like this atmosphere; I think we have a similarity in that we like to drink and have fun noisily.” In her list, Charlotte also mentions world famous companies like Ryanair and Primark (maybe without knowing the Irish call it Penneys), and also rugby.
Their first thoughts are globally positive, even if they may be a little bit funny and stereotyped. Concerning their opinion on the country, they confirm the positive message. “Although I have never been to Ireland, I think it is a wonderful place as far as the naturalistic aspect is concerned,” Giorgia said.
Nature was again central in their answers. “I’ve heard the climate can be a bit dreary, rainy, and cloudy,” Christiana remarks. The country is often qualified as beautiful. Who could disagree? Once again, Aladdin gives us a practical perspective: “I hear that it is a country with a good level of security and infrastructure”. Since he considers moving in Ireland one day, we can understand why he looks for facts about the country.
Yasmine quickly mentions what she called traditional celebrations and a rich history. “It has its issues like most countries,” Sophie says, while Liisu prefers to talk about “something boiling underneath”. The Irish spirit, maybe? She has experienced Irish life, so it’s not a surprise to see that she knows more about the true atmosphere.
But what interests us here are the clichés. What clichés do foreigners know? From the previous answers, you can probably already see some of them. Alcohol is in a lot of answers. Either the cliché concerns drinking a lot (for Sophie, Giorgia and Christiana) or drinking on work time (for Aladdin), the interviewees know it is not totally true.
“I think that in every cliché there is a grain of truth, but that we must never generalize,” Giorgia suggests. Christina makes the same statement about there being an element of truth in every cliché, but she “would never use a blanket statement to describe every Irish person as the same.” However, Liisu presents it in another way: “Irish people love to drink, it’s true for many”.
The cliché Jasmin, Charlotte and Mikhail know is that the majority of the population is redheaded, but that’s just not the case. Wikipedia tells us that around 10% of the Irish population is redheaded, it doesn’t sound a lot, but when you know that in the world, only one or two percent of the population has this hair colour, it changes your vision. Ireland has the largest population of redheaded people per capita. Hurrah!
Liisu also heard that Irish people are rather fond of fighting, which she doesn’t think is true, and that they fear and respect their mothers – she thinks this one is true. Yasmine is the only one to mention a truly negative cliché by saying she heard Irish people were disrespectful and rude. Most people would disagree.
Except from Aladdin, who did his research, all the interviewees agree that their vision of Ireland is stereotyped. “I’ve never met someone from Ireland and have only learned about the culture through television and Americanized Irish festivals,” Christina explains. But what happens when you stop asking people what they think and start asking them what they know? Does the cliché persist?
And what do they actually know?
Liisu, Jasmin, Yasmine, and Mikhail have never been taught about Ireland in their lives. On the other hand, Aladdin was taught by friends; Giorgia and Charlotte learnt about Ireland in history classes; and Christiana had a few university-level courses on Ireland for her Master’s program.
As an English woman, Sophie knows about Sinn Fein and “the rift between the two part of Ireland,” and also about the IRA and bombings. However, she regrets the lack of time given to Ireland in English teaching programs “given the fact that [a part of Ireland] is actually the UK…”
“As a history fan, I am really fascinated by similarities between my country and Ireland,” Katarzyna tells us, before explaining that both Poland and Ireland “lost their independence, were connected by Catholicism, and saw many of their citizens emigrate to the US in the 1840s”.
Giorgia and Yasmine both know about Ireland’s religious background. Christiana develops the topic by mentioning the religious turmoil between Protestantism and Catholicism. She, just like Liisu, talks about the troubled relationship with the UK, talking about “bad blood” and the country being “full of sufferings by the hands of the British”. Globally, Liisu knows about fighting. Yasmine and Christiana also mentioned the Vikings and other invasions.
Charlotte talks about various topics: Irish-British relations, the Great Famine, the Irish War of Independence (also mentioned by Georgia), Irish immigration to American, and witchcraft. “Ireland is a good example of how late in history one could still be legally accused of bewitchment.”
If Sophie knows about the IRA and recent changes like abortion rights and same sex marriage, Aladdin and Mikhail confess to know “not much” for the former and “almost nothing” for the latter about Irish history.
If we leave history to talk about culture, the stereotypes come back. Religion, traditional music, beer, folklore, Saint Patrick’s Day… Culture is usually the main subject of clichés. Liisu notes the “great magical tales”, while Aladdin thinks of Ireland as “the birthplace of Halloween”.
In fact, modern Halloween comes from the US, but is a transformation of the Celtic festival marking the beginning of the “dark half” of the year, Samhain. Halloween’s origins aren’t truly Irish as such, but Celtic.
Giorgia and Charlotte don’t know a lot about Irish culture, and Jasmin doesn’t know anything, she says. Mikhail tells us about Saint Patrick’s Day and the big celebrations thrown in Ireland, probably without knowing that these big celebrations come from the US.
“I also know that Ireland has often won the Eurovision Song Contest,” he adds. Indeed, Ireland is the only country to have won the contest seven times and the first to win it three times in a row in 1992, 1993 and 1994. Well done, Ireland!
Christiana gives us a list of the things she knows about Irish culture. We encounter beer and music again, but she also mentions rugby and pub culture, potato stew and Irish soda bread, leprechauns and the Irish mixed martial artist and boxer Connor McGregor.
In a way, the clichés persist when we stop talking about opinion and start wondering about knowledge of Ireland. It is probably because Ireland is not taught a lot around the world, but the positive note is that all the interviewees said they would like to know more about Ireland if they get the chance.
Globally, for what I’ve heard during these interviews, Ireland’s image around the world is positive, mostly about the country’s beauty or the festive atmosphere. Of course, clichés are not always true, and every country has a bad side. But it is better if foreigners think your country is nice rather than think your people smell bad or are all fat, don’t you agree?
What do you think about all these clichés? Do you think they are true? And do you know more about Irish history than our ten interviewees? Let us know in the comment section!