Akron Irish: Made in Ireland
By Lisa O’Rourke
I think of toilet paper, paper towels and all the by now cliché items that the snap in normalcy caused people to hoard. Not to worry though, the lines are forming to return those items in the same bulk in which they were purchased. The next wave of pandemic panic brought shortages of such simple things.
The shortage of protective gear for care workers caused me and many others with sewing machines to have a go at mask making. Except I can’t find elastic, I mean anywhere.
I never thought that I would be waiting over a month for elastic to be delivered. Which led me to wonder, we don’t make that stuff here- anywhere- really? If we can’t get it here in this big country, what are other countries like? What is it like in Ireland?
Happiness Belongs to the Self-Sufficient
Aristotle said that “Happiness belongs to the self-sufficient.” I think that we are all feeling that one, both personally and globally. Can anyone in any country get by with just native made goods?
Ireland had to have been historically pretty self-sufficient, being a wet island in the middle of the Atlantic. The exception to that isolation being England, an obviously messy story worthy of many books. We can move on to when Independence came to Ireland, a hundred years ago.
Part of throwing off the shackles of English oppression was the defiant insistence of Irish people to have everything Irish. Anything and everything that the native culture could provide; sports, dress, language, really everything should be Irish. To not make a concerted effort to be all-in with the nationalism at that time was a minor act of treason, you were a “West Britain”.
This way of thinking has persisted to a degree. My husband was scolded as a young man for playing soccer instead of Gaelic football. As a newlywed, I was told not to ask for Belleek since it was made in Northern Ireland, hence an “English” product instead of an Irish one.
So, I have plenty of Royal Tara china, manufactured in Galway, thank you very much. And, in some respects, this attitude worked for the country, but in many respects it did not. Ireland of the mid last century was a third world country in many ways.
Part of Irish self-sufficiency might have been that their tastes and ways did not necessarily match the customs of the rest of the world. Hunger once led me to walk into a shop there, some thirty years ago, on my first trip to Ireland. The small local shops at that time were crammed with all kinds of things.
Over the Counter Black Pudding
Walking in, I can’t forget the sight of black puddings coiled on wax paper like snakes, surrounded by loaves of brown bread and raw eggs, all sitting together right on the counter by the register! My American sensibilities got a bit of a shock at the lack of refrigeration and wrapping, not to mention wondering what those black things were.
I don’t think that the world was crying out for Irish goods at that time. Many of the things that I saw on that trip had the rough and ready quality that I saw in those little shops. There are not too many of those shops left as they were at that time; the European Economic Community rules have cleaned them up. But that was thirty years ago, what is happening now?
I found some answers in a program made for the Irish TV channel TG4, called “Déantanin Éirinn”(Made in Ireland). The protagonist set out to discover if it is possible to eat, drink, dress, travel and indulge in hobbies, while using only Irish products.
Travel was the first topic that was covered, and I have to say, I saw that one coming, and yes, he drove around Ireland for the rest of the series in a gray DeLorean. Food demonstrated some of the biggest ironies in the series. Potatoes, the most Irish of foods, surely those are Irish, right? No, the potatoes served in Ireland are grown mainly in England and the Netherlands and imported to Ireland before they are served as a nice bag of chips. The hops used in Guinness are grown in Belgium. Irish sugar, labelled Súicra, (Sugar) started off being manufactured in the old “sugar” town of Tuam, and is now imported from England.
Clothing can be made from Irish tweeds, which was woven in other countries, and tailored in Ireland at ridiculously high prices. The same goes for leather goods like shoes. Tin whistles and flutes are made in Pakistan, again unless you have deep pockets, and can afford the handmade counterparts.
As good as it was, that show is twelve years old at this point. Surely things have changed as much as they have here. People are tired of the mass-produced generic products. Not only are they tired of them, they are a little suspicious of them too.
Way too many things that we use and eat are full of artificial ingredients and chemicals that are just bad on many levels. Even that shop with the snakey black puddings seems a lot more appealing now than it did then.
The Old is New Again
The rise of artisanal simple products; the non-GMO, free-range, grass-fed ones, have been a godsend for Irish exports. They never stopped doing simple. Kerrygold butter is a great example and has profited handsomely around the world as consumers catch up to the old ways.
Internally, there are other places where Irish makers are doing it right and creating their own brands and markets. Just like here, there are breweries popping up, making their own local beers, like Black Donkey in Roscommon.
There are more distilleries appearing there than we see here in the US. Gin has become very popular with the new distillers, mainly because it is quick. But they are inserting their own botanical flavors like Beara Ocean Gin from Cork. Fish, such a natural to Ireland, is also being marketed in new ways like at Goatsbridge Trout Farm in Kilkenny, which makes things smoked trout and trout caviar.
Ireland is not so different than anywhere else in the world in that respect. People who were once bored and dissatisfied with the old ways of doing things are going back to them again. So, everything old is new again.
This pandemic is showing us that while it is great to specialize, we had best be prepared to do it all ourselves, to not need anything from the outside too much. Aristotle is right, it is satisfying to make and create your own. And hindsight is always twenty-twenty.
Deanta in Eirinn can be found on YouTube.
*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She enjoys spending time with her dog, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at [email protected]