When one hears the expression “cultural imperialism”, one usually thinks of the ubiquitous presence of Americana. Corporations such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Starbucks and Disney are routinely charged with trampling on indigenous industries, showing contempt for different cultures and rendering our high streets bland, soulless clones. The French may be the most vocal agitators in this area, but the British are by no means averse to such protest, as the popularity of George Monbiot and his legions of acolytes demonstrates.
However, while we grouse about the Americanisation of our culture, it is worth remembering that the British can be cultural imperialists, too. Eighty years after the south of Ireland finally bade farewell to the British presence, the Brits are back. This time, the takeover is not military, but corporate. Ireland’s customs and urban landscape are being Anglified.
Much has been written in the past decade about the economic miracle of the “Celtic tiger”. The Republic of Ireland has been transformed in many respects – it has become more confident, greedy and anti-clerical – but its consumer habits and the face of its cities have also changed. This is because much of the business in the country is now British-owned.
Take a walk through the city of Dublin (with apologies to James Joyce). I start off at Tesco in Baggot Street. Heading west, I nip in to a shop to purchase a packet of Walkers crisps and a copy of the Irish Sun or Irish Mirror, before taking in a pint of Guinness (British-owned) at the bar of the renowned Shelbourne Hotel (British-owned). Refreshed, I continue, turning right into Dawson Street, where I amble around Waterstone’s and Hodges Figgis (both British-owned bookshops). Then a left into Nassau Street and another left to Grafton Street, to purchase a CD from the HMV store (British) before getting my groceries from Marks & Spencer (ditto).
While the homogenisation of the British high street has been taking place since the 1960s, the Anglification of the Irish high street has been much more recent. Its most visible manifestation is the remarkable penetration of Tesco, or “Tesco Ireland”, as it brands itself. I remember my Auntie May dragging me along, as a child in the 1980s, to help her with her Saturday shopping at Quinns-worth or H Williams. Both chains have now vanished, the latter having folded in 1987, the former having been purchased by Tesco ten years later. Today, Tesco Ireland is the largest food retailer in the republic, with more than 79 branches, employing more than 10,000 people. It has total sales of 1.79bn (£1.22bn) and remains in rude health: its growth rate in 2002-2003 was 7.8 per cent.
Also back in the 1980s, a great treat for an English lad on his summer holidays was tucking into a packet of greasy Tayto crisps. Tayto is perceived to be as Irish as the Blarney Stone. Yet the firm has since come under acute competition from Walkers. Walkers, starting in 2000, rapidly made its mark in the crisps market and is now second only to Tayto. Its aim is to take top spot, and it has the funds to do so, spending 855,000 (£581,000) a year on advertising, compared to Tayto’s 778,000 (£528,000).
Tesco’s good fortune has been mirrored by that of Boots the Chemist, which opened its first Irish branch in 1998. Having purchased the HCR chain, it is now the leading chemist chain in the republic, employing 1,200 staff across 28 branches. More modest inroads have been made by Marks & Spencer, which has four stores. Considering, however, the difficulties M&S is having at home, not to mention its retreat from other foreign markets, it is surprising that it has any presence at all in Ireland. Elsewhere, both HMV and Virgin have opened outlets, providing competition for the country’s independent record shops and its indigenous chain Golden Discs. BT’s progress has been even more impressive. It acquired the Esat Group in 2000, renaming itself “Esat BT”, and is now second only to Eircom in the country’s telecommunications industry. For a company that is manifestly British, this is no mean feat.
Yet perhaps these developments are not so new. After all, since the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, its people have remained resiliently British in their cultural appetites. The attempted Gaelicisation of the country was a dismal failure. Newspapers such as the News of the World and the Observer continued to muster a substantial number of Irish readers, and the BBC came to be regarded as an honorary home broadcaster, while Manchester United, Liverpool and Celtic are perceived as honorary domestic clubs. This is not something that many of an Anglophobic disposition have been keen to admit, indulging instead in what Freud called the “narcissism of minor differences”: exaggerating trivial distinctions in order to mask very obvious similarities.
Far from the ties with British culture gradually withering after independence, as the founders of the Irish Free State hoped, the reverse has taken place. There are now more than 180 British companies operating in the republic. British cultural imperialism makes the two countries ever more similar, and not just in where people go to shop and what they buy. Thanks to the British media invasion, it also involves what they read and thus how they think. The success of Express Newspapers’ Irish edition of the Daily Star in the 1990s prompted Trinity Mirror and News International to rebrand their Dublin editions as the Irish Daily Mirror and the Irish Sun. The Irish News of the World followed, while the Dublin edition of the Sunday Times commands a big readership.
The repackaging has been a triumph for all three media organisations, with the Mirror selling 200,000 a day and the Sun close to 300,000 – easily outselling the Irish Times and Irish Independent. Although these titles do address domestic issues (and, since May, even Sky News has been broadcasting special Irish bulletins), there is still substantial coverage of British affairs.
Some will regret this development. Yet if it leads to better service and cheaper prices for the consumer, surely it is not all bad. One may even look at it positively on a cultural level, in that market forces are helping to bring the two nations closer together. It’s not as if the traffic were all one-way. Manchester United is partly Irish-owned, Dunnes Stores has several outlets in the north of England, Eason owns a 50-strong chain of bookshops in Britain and the Independent is the property of an Irishman.
Still, I suspect that the likes of Padraic Pearse and Eamon de Valera would have been horrified. To aesthetes and cultural purists, this development is an abomination. But it should serve as a reminder to those in Britain with an anti-American fixation, who deplore the idea of taking their children to McDonald’s to drink Coca-Cola, that when it comes to cultural imperialism, Uncle Sam is not the only culprit.