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New Hibernia Review 7.4 (2003) 50-62

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Pure Genius:
Guinness Consumption and Irish Identity

Brenda Murphy
The University of Malta

As an Irish person and as a member of the diasporic space myself, and, it needs to be noted, as a Guinness drinker—I have often asked myself, "Just what is the attachment to Guinness drinking for me or for any other Irish person living in Ireland or outside?" This is not an idle question. The act of consuming that distinctive national product Guinness is intimately bound up with Irish identity. Further, the role that Guinness and its marketing and advertising producers play in evoking Irishness and in-group membership as a strategy constitutes a complex and commercially potent element of Irish identity worldwide.

In the late 1990s, I undertook a project of comparing the consumption of Guinness as an advertising text by Irish consumers living in Ireland with the meanings given to such texts by Irish immigrants living in London and New York. The findings make it clear that Guinness, its advertising, and the rituals and myths thatsurround it, play a part in the imagining of a place immigrants call "home." As it creates a Guinness of its imagination, the audience effectively moves the product outside the pub space and outside the text, and in doing so, gives the process of consumption new dimensions, values, and uses. The reader of the text or the consumer of the product is not simply responding to the textual content or the market-led strategies employed by the producer; rather, he or she is usually employing numerous intellectual strategies to read, consume, usurp, critique, and play with these messages.

The story begins with drinking Guinness in a pub.

For Irish people, this act seems to be an extremely important part of their day, their week, their social life, the meditative life, and their ideologically shaped life. The interviews that follow were all conducted in pubs, to ensure that the talk surrounding the consumption was as authentic as possible. I spoke to groups and individual Irish consumers in Dublin and Waterford, and to first-generation Irish immigrants in London, and in Manhattan and Queens. The [End Page 50] interviewees were of mixed backgrounds, both professional and working class. They were of mixed ages, and of both urban and rural origins.

During the course of the interviews, respondents were asked to talk about their associations with the product and were shown samples of electronic advertising from as early as 1928 to as late as 1997 for the Irish, United Kingdom, and United States advertising campaigns. They were asked to comment on the advertisements and to give their own analysis of whom they thought the advertisements targeted, what they thought about the images and marketing techniques used, how the advertisements linked with their own feelings of being Irish (or not), and how this was linked with the ritual act of consumption of the product in the pub space. I asked these groups what men think and what women think when they think about Guinness. I learned how these varied groups consumed the product, how they read the advertisement, and how they made sense and meaning of the world around them while they drank. They also shared stories about Guinness as an element in their lives as they grew up—ranging from a tonic for a sick child, to a drink for a nursing mother, to a trigger for a memory of a parent or relative. Respondents were pleased to have a chance to discuss this important, but often unexamined, aspect of their lives; each person to whom I spoke was happy to give more of his or her time than I requested.

All interviewees acknowledged that Guinness is a challenging product. Drinkers described Guinness as a drink for which one must acquire a taste. They also frequently described the quest for the elusive "perfect pint," a quest that required immense discernment on the part of the consumer—to the point that certain pubs would be earmarked as "good Guinness pubs" for all the right technical reasons. This...


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