Every distinct society passes cultural knowledge onto the next generation and that knowledge forms the basis of ongoing cultural identification. It’s the information that defines us as a cultural group and makes us who we are.
One of the more interesting things about such cultural knowledge is that in those areas where it’s strongest, it’s often held in least regard and taken for granted. In Ireland, for example, the most authentic cultural knowledge often (but not always) tends to be retained and transferred in rural areas and Gaeltachts where people have a more intimate connection to the surrounding land, its history and cultural narratives. In such areas, social rituals, traditions and language, belief systems and lore (all forms of cultural knowledge) create a societal backbone that’s passively transferred from one generation to the next, even if nobody feels a burning need to point it out.
On occasion, some people are obliged to leave the areas where they were born and raised, exposed to and absorbed such native influence. Others leave voluntarily, keen to depart negative circumstance while also rejecting the strong cultural connections they associate with those experiences. Because they’re tainted with negative connotations, such individuals have no interest in heritage or tradition and focus instead on living new lives where such elements don’t figure.
The consequence of disassociating completely from one’s culture often kicks in later in life when living overseas or raising kids of your own. It’s usually at this point that people who’ve cut the cultural cord come to the slow realisation they’ve little in terms of authentic cultural wisdom or learnings to pass onto their children. That situation is even worse for the children (and grandchildren) of Irish emigrants keen to explore their Irish heritage. With their cultural connections effectively severed, they’ve little genuine experience or background to draw on and their understanding of Ireland is often based on the limited influence of family, snippets of outdated cultural references or tacky misrepresentations of ‘Irishness’ (Lucky Stars, Kiss me I’m Irish, ‘Oirish’ films etc.).
Interestingly, we therefore find that when people don’t have access – or no longer have access – to cultural knowledge (think expats etc.), it suddenly takes on a far greater value.
And that, of course is where commercial interests come in.
In commerce, any defined need, is a potential market opportunity to be fulfilled and there are plenty of people who’ll sell you something to satisfy your yearning (even where they lack the actual skill of experience to do so). Those seeking to reconnect with their Irish heritage can find an almost infinite slew of businesses, religions and ‘teachers’ offering to help (Oirish-themed books, Celtic revisionists, mar dhea family crest providers, commercially produced ‘Oirish’-themed toys, skin-deep “Celtic” experiences etc. etc.). Many of these, based overseas, have limited direct experience of Irish culture and, hence, trawl the internet looking for free, low hanging cultural fruit they can use for branding purposes. That’s why we still see faux “Irish cultural experts” like W.B. Yeats and others of the Celtic Twilight quoted so liberally online. They’re cheap (they’ve been out of copyright for many years) and, sure, they might not be accurate or genuine, but they’ll do the job for the uninformed.
On the home front meanwhile, there are also plenty of people happy to supply unknowing tourists with the cultural experiences they want, no matter how naff or false they might be. This is a big business for some organisations.
We’re now at a very interesting period where commercial representation of Irish identity and culture competes directly with the natural, more gradual, transfer of cultural knowledge (and the former has a far bigger marketing budget). It’s still hard to judge the true impact and longer-term ramifications of such intrusions on our cultural identify but it’s certainly something to be aware of.