Ireland Toasts 250 Years of the ‘Black Stuff’

By Andrew Bushe
Agence France-Presse

DUBLIN ~ Ireland toasted the 250th birthday this week of Guinness, the country’s unofficial national drink, as the iconic brand battles to hold its own in the global economic downturn.

The company is celebrating the decision by Arthur Guinness, the son of a land steward, to sign a 9,000-year lease on a run-down brewery in Dublin’s St. James’s Gate in 1759.

It was the birth of a drinks legend and the start of one of Ireland’s biggest success stories: the consumption of the dark ale spread around the world and some 10 million pints are now downed every day in 150 countries.

The birthday marketing hype peaked at 17:59pm on Thursday not just in Ireland but also in New York, Lagos and Kuala Lumpur with the toast “To Arthur!” followed by big-name concerts and gigs.

The celebrations come as Ireland is being hammered by recession and overall drink consumption is down four percent – though Guinness says its sales held up and were “flat” last year.

Social changes are leading to more wine drinking and entertaining at home, while sales are also hit by tougher drink-driving laws, a smoking ban in public places and rising unemployment.

The Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI), representing pubs outside Dublin, say 4,800 jobs have been lost in the last year.

Arthur Guinness, who married an heiress and had 21 children, originally used a £100 inheritance from his godfather, an archbishop, to get into the brewing business in Leixlip, just outside Dublin, before moving to the capital.

Having a job with “Uncle Arthur,” as the firm was known in Ireland, came to mean security, two pints a day free beer allowance, staff picnics and company healthcare and sports facilities, including a sports field and swimming pool.

Now owned by the Diageo drinks company since a merger in 1997, the Guinness family only retains a small shareholding.

Diageo, which employs 2,200 people in Ireland, says that as a result of the economic downturn a 670-million-euro (US$990-million) restructuring plan announced last year is “under review.”

“It is ironic that as it has become less and less owned by an Irish family, it identifies itself more and more as a feature of what it means to be Irish,” said Tanya Cassidy, a sociologist at the National University of Ireland.

The “black stuff” is now firmly entangled in the stereotype of boozy Irishness: a love of pubs, a huge capacity for pints and always being ready for a bit of craic (fun).

Like the shamrock, the traditional Guinness harp is inextricably linked to the Emerald Isle and is both the company’s trademark and a national emblem.

Visitors regard the Guinness “experience” as symbolic of the country.

The company’s Storehouse visitor centre in Dublin – with its top-floor 360-degree bar and free pint included in the 15 euro entrance fee – attracts over a million visitors a year, making it the country’s top tourist attraction.

Cassidy is researching how drinking is linked to Irish culture and creativity, from writer Brendan Behan to film star Colin Farrell.

“It was understood that you could be drunk and Irish and creative. That link to a notion of creativity is not just Irish, but we seem to have made it an art form,” Cassidy said.

The original boozy Irish stereotype involved whiskey at a time when ales like Guinness were seen as a healthy alternative to spirits, says Cassidy.

The stereotype grew in the late 18th and early 19th century and was linked with working-class emigrants in the US and Britain.

“One of the key employments for emigrants was to run pubs. And this was where the emigrant populations met. The general populace would see the Irish in the pub.”

The boozy stereotype grew despite the fact that the Irish didn’t drink as much as people in countries like France and Italy. But the arrival of the Celtic Tiger boom in the 1990s changed that.

“As we became wealthier we drank more alcohol. The reality is, we now hold our own,” said Cassidy.

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