Red box or green? A lesson in Irish localism

One thing I have noticed in my recent travels around Ireland and the UK in the last two months is how fiercely proud Irish people are of their local history, character, and traditions. Take drinking, for example.  In England, you can order Earl Grey or English Breakfast tea.  When a friend from Oxford ordered Earl Grey on a recent visit to Cork, they gave her a funny look and said they didn’t have any…she asked what they did have and the reply was “Barry’s”.  Barry’s is the brand of Irish breakfast tea (in the red box) that we drink in Cork, not to be confused with Lyons tea (in the green box), which they drink in the North and West.  People maintain strong allegiances with Barry’s or Lyons, because your choice is an obvious symbol of your identity and community loyalty.  No one seems concerned with the fact that the two teas taste the same. Like, exactly the same — especially when you add milk and a chocolate biscuit.  It seems sometimes its the principle that matters, not the practicality of the situation.

This localism is true for beverage choices at the pub as well: Bushmills whiskey is distilled in the North, while Jameson is distilled in County Cork. If you are drinking cider, will you have Bulmers (as it is called in the Republic), or Magners (as it is called in the UK)? Again, they are exactly the same drink, but people seem to identify with, and defend, one over the other.  In perhaps the most important example of Irish beverage-localism, you should really only drink Guinness in Dublin, because Guinness – any Irish(wo)man will tell you – doesn’t travel well.  Ireland may market and export Guinness all over the world, but really, one should only drink it in Dublin.  A contradiction, perhaps, but endearing and principled all the same.

Irish localism extends far beyond drinking of course – you see it reflected in the country’s political culture, their local historical and sports celebrities, and in the range of accents from across the four provinces, and more subtle dialects and accent variations within each county.  With a sentence, you may well be able to identify what part of the country someone is from, make reference to their local political scandal or recent GAA win, and know if they are a Barry’s or Lyon’s drinker. While the smallness can sometimes be stifling for those of us who are used to the anonymity of a country like the United States, I think there is something each of us can learn from Ireland’s localism and community pride.

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