Selling Irish: How the American Market Shaped the Image of a Nation with Marion Casey

Leprechauns have hocked Irish goods to American consumers for generations. When one of the wee folk appeared on a bottle of Irish whisky, its familiar associations marked the drink as an authentic product of an antique culture for the American consumer. From the Blarney Stone to the shamrock, symbols laden with Irish associations in the American mind have proved useful marketing tools for businesses that sought to leverage the value of the word “Irish” in the American marketplace.

In this episode of Stories from the Stacks, historian of the Irish-American experience Marion Casey, professor at the Glucksman Ireland House at New York University, discusses the commercial use of Irish culture to sell goods to American consumers. The Irish people possessed an idea of Ireland and its identity that different from that held in the popular American mind. This forced Irish-American businesses to leverage popular preconceptions of Ireland as quaint, natural, and antique, even as they sought to reorient the Irish economy toward industrial participation in global exchange. 

Using Hagley Library collections, including the Seagram Collections, and World’s Fair Collections, Dr. Casey discovered that Americans interpreted familiarity as authenticity when evaluating the Irish associations of a product. Use in the marketplace of tropes of Irishness, however far removed from genuine Irish culture, reinforced preexisting stereotypes and misconceptions. The power and pervasiveness of marketing images then crowded out other images and associations with Ireland and its people in the popular imagination. New modes of media transmission have not altered this pattern, but rather enhanced it, transmitting and amplifying old errors.

To support her use of Hagley Library collections, Dr. Casey received an Exploratory Research Grant from the Center for the History of Business, Technology, & Society. More information on funding opportunities for research at Hagley can be found here.

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Interview by Benjamin Spohn. Produced by Gregory Hargreaves.

Image: Composite of two images. “Irish village, Midway, North side Donegal at World’s Columbian Exposition,” 1893, 20090226_025, & “Whisky in bottles and barrels, Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia,” 1876, AVD_2003_255_03_B_16B_01, Audiovisual Collections & Digital Initiatives Department, Hagley Museum & Library, Wilmington, DE 19807.