On the train from Flagstaff to Chicago, the old couple sitting at my table for breakfast were delighted, as so many people in America were, to discover I was from Ireland. They spent a while raving about their recent Irish holiday - friendly people, nice weather and, best of all, really good food. Now, whatever about the other two, this last point threw me. 'Irish food' to me means dismal mutton stews and a few sadistic ways of preparing potatoes. Good food? What could they mean?
"I really liked your bread," explained the woman, "We could have eaten a whole loaf of it every morning." This still wasn't helping me. What was so special about Irish bread? As far as I could see, bread in Ireland and bread in America were exactly the same. In America, you could buy every kind of bread you can get in Ireland; indeed you could probably buy five hundred million more kinds of bread. I wasn't aware of any ethnic Irish school of bread-making.
A while later the answer struck me. You see, in the early nineties a change swept over the land of Ireland. One day, people woke up and everything was different. Where there was once rain and gloom there was now endless sun; where there was once ignorance there was now light; and where there was once 'bread' there was now 'Irish Bread'. Or even better, 'Traditional Irish Bread'. The country had discovered - marketing!
And so I suspect that the old American couple had had an ordinary brown pan loaf, made the same way brown pan loaves are made everywhere, except that they were told it was 'Traditional Irish Bread'. And the tradition and the Irishness no doubt made it taste all the better, and they left the table happy victims of Ireland, Inc.
The national marketing craze didn't stop at bread, of course. At about the same time, what was known as a fry-up or full breakfast became known as a 'Full Irish Breakfast' - strange, since exactly the same thing is called an 'English Breakfast' in England. Cheese became 'Irish Cheese', beef became 'Irish Beef', and strange bottles of stuff called 'Irish Spring Water' appeared, which upon careful examination contained trace quantities of Blarney.
In the most bizarre turn of events, Irish pubs became 'Irish Pubs', thus becoming awful in an entirely different way. If you ever wondered whether Paddy O'Shaughnessy's Drinking Hole that you saw on holiday in Bratislava is really the genuine article, the simple answer is yes. Like most Irish pubs, it was built or renovated in the 90s, is full of lacquered-to-death wobbly tables, has a big screen showing English football, and is cluttered with old Hiberno-kitsch that now seems to be available in limitless quantities. A few pubs in Ireland still exist in their pre-90s state, mainly in obscure regional areas, but these are too depressing even to think about.
The 'Traditional Irish' trend in marketing is of course nothing more than an appeal to tribalism and nostalgia, in the manner of any number of political demagogues of the past and present. 'Traditional' in itself is an almost meaningless word. It says nothing about the quality of a product, as many people who have heard traditional music bands can attest. It says nothing about the expertise of the makers: I could start a company making 'traditional' bread tomorrow. It even says nothing about how long a product has been around: most things we regard as traditions are of relatively recent origin. The 'traditional' St. Patrick's Day Parade, for example, originated as a low-key military parade in the 1930s, and took several years after that to develop its present must-avoid status. Ultimately, 'traditional' is just a cynical appeal to an over-romanticised youth, a lost golden age when you sucked your thumb and Mummy baked bread and tucked you in at night.
The same kind of arguments can be made for 'Irish'. It's one thing to describe a product as 'Irish' when it specifies a particular type of that product (as in Irish whiskey) or when Ireland has a reputation for excellence in that product (as in... er...), but it's another to tack 'Irish' indiscriminately on to every product made in the country. What reputation, for example, are 'Butler's Irish Chocolates' appealing to?
For marketing spin-meisters, 'Irish' is a win-win. It fires up the nationalism of the home crowd, and it traps the tourists. Because when you're visiting a foreign country, let's face it, you want the full native experience. When you're in Ireland, you don't want to eat bread, you want to eat Irish bread. And eat Irish brie, and Irish salami, and drink Irish lager. Luckily, you will find everything labelled appropriately. It's the Disneyland mentality. Is calling something 'Irish Bread' substantially any different from calling it 'Mickey Mouse Bread'? No.
The 'Traditional Irish' stuff is just a mild example of the negative influence of marketing. Marketing is the art of duping people in to spending money, of lying without lying, of stealthily planting thoughts. And it seems to have evolved into a lethally precise art. Compare old advertisements, with their laughable flat claims and silly jingles, to the horribly slick and expensive productions of today. Today's ads don't just sell a single product, they sell a hundred different things: lifestyle, culture, morality, youth, beauty, love, sex, beliefs, goals. They invade you on so many levels, exploiting a variety of desires, prejudices, insecurities. I can never watch one without feeling raped.
I try to avoid advertising wherever possible, but I was exposed to a lot of it in work this summer. One thing that struck me was the way so many ads use sex. Full lips, licking tongues, breasts, moist flesh, smooth legs - flashed out constantly to sell things as exciting as bathroom freshener and shampoo and insurance policies. Now don't get me wrong - I'm all for sex, but I find something demeaning in the way it is commodified in advertising. Human bodies and human relationships are being sold along with everything else, a symptom of the contempt in which advertisers hold people. Since it seems to be the intention of every advertisement to make me aroused, I often wonder how I am meant to respond to this. Am I meant to whack off on the spot? It's really not clear.
Sadly, most people are not well equipped to respond to today's marketing techniques. People have a natural tendency to believe what they are told. Children are especially vulnerable and almost defenceless against the toy and fashion fads being pushed at them. But this is just part of a wider problem. While marketing and other media bombardment has increased in scale, saturation and sophistication in recent years, education systems have largely stayed the same. And until education provides people with tools to analyse the vast amounts of information spewed at them, they are just going to keep swallowing Traditional Irish Bread and other lies.