- Brewing Identities: Globalisation, Guinness and the Production of Irishness by Brenda Murphy
Everyone knows the Irish love Guinness. This brand of stout, produced by the British multinational, Diageo, has become something of a national icon, a ubiquitous signifier of Irishness around the world. Brenda Murphy’s Brewing Identities aims to strip away the mystique that has grown up around what is, underneath several carefully constructed layers of advertising-generated hype, just a mere capitalist commodity. Adapted from her dissertation at Goldsmith’s College, London, Murphy’s book locates her analysis in a sophisticated mix of semiotics, sociology, anthropology, and cultural studies.
The entirety of the text is structured according to a “Circuit of Culture,” a conceptual model Murphy borrows from the historian Richard Johnson that allows her to examine Guinness in terms of “Everyday Life,” “Production,” “Text,” “Reading,” and finally, back to “Everyday Life” again. Gender, national identity, diasporas, and questions of inclusion and exclusion recur throughout. Beginning with “Everyday Life,” Murphy addresses the ubiquity of Guinness in Irish life and in the rituals of Irish life: funerals, weddings, homecomings, even births and baptisms. She quotes a marketing manager at Guinness, who saw fit to claim his company was one of the “guardians of the spirit of the nation,” on a par with Fianna Fáil, the GAA, and the Catholic church. Murphy ascribes this perception to four interlocking factors: the role the Guinness family played in the lives of its employees and to a broader Dublin and nationwide audience; the symbolism of the Guinness harp logo; the use of advertising that continuously linked Guinness to Irishness; and, finally, the social and cultural predilection of pub culture in Ireland, in which Guinness as a product played a conspicuous part.
These are all valid points—though the matter of Guinness’s notoriously aggressive approach to its competitors is not addressed. Nor does Murphy mention that for much of Guinness’s history in Ireland it has been a monopoly product (other than in the holdouts of South Munster). Is Guinness the quintessential Irish commodity because of a series of sophisticated marketing campaigns? Or has it more to do with how thoroughly they erased almost all their provincial competitors? Murphy’s strong focus on culture and semiotics slightly belies the fact that we are still speaking about a capitalist enterprise, with all the aggressiveness and desire for monopoly that goes along with that. [End Page 154]
Nonetheless, Murphy’s intelligent use of semiotics highlights significant aspects of how Guinness is advertised, not least the ways in which Guinness is consciously marketed to a white male Irish demographic. If Guinness-Diageo are “guardians of the spirit of the nation,” theirs is a very narrowly defined nation. When women do feature in the company’s advertising, it is usually as sexual objects and always as the drinkers of glasses of Guinness (never “manly” pints). Moreover, Murphy uncovers a fascinating case study from the mid-1990s when Guinness announced they were producing a television advertisement that would feature two gay men, but quickly scrapped the advertisement and subsequently denied it had ever even existed. Whatever about the Irish loving Guinness, it would appear the parent company could stomach only certain kinds of Irish people consuming it publicly. As Brewing Identities observes, “Guinness is a gendered artefact. Its resonance is masculine. The advertising texts speak almost exclusively to heterosexual men and use a grammar that is masculine” (though one might ask if there there any brand of beer that does not have masculine advertising?) Murphy also addresses the theoretically innovative issue of the perception of non-consumers’ toward Guinness: many Irish people who do not drink Guinness nonetheless see it as a hallmark of Irishness. That identity can be bound up with certain kinds of commodity consumption is a familiar claim; the idea that a consumer does not have to actually consume the commodity to be able to perform the associated identity opens up new ways of thinking about these matters.
Moving from “Everyday Life” to the other stops...