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Friday, 17 March, 2000, 00:51 GMT
Getting high on craic

Booze and blarney: What's not to like about Ireland?
By BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley

Europhiles may have trouble getting Britons to look to the Continent, but we seem to need little prompting to gaze fondly in the opposite direction - towards Ireland.

It's arguable that the British nowadays celebrate St Patrick's Day with all the gusto of those across the Irish Sea.

Many certainly await 17 March with more enthusiasm than the feast days of our own patron saints.

The Corrs
The Corrs: Quite popular
According to the Irish Times, more than 200,000 Britons are set to visit Dublin this weekend to raise a glass of Guinness to the snake-hating 5th Century saint.

Media mogul Chris Evans has even decamped his Channel 4 TV show TFI Friday to the city on the Liffey, saying St Patrick's Day comes second only to Christmas in his favourite times of year.

The Irish were once the butt of many British jokes and were regularly stereotyped as dim-witted. But today they seem to be one of the few nationalities the British seldom talk of with anything but praise.

Murray Pittock, a University of Strathclyde academic and author of Celtic Identity and the British Image, says Ireland's recent economic growth has forced this change.

"Up to the 1970s Ireland was written off as poor, insular and largely rural, certainly not as a modern European country. Its economic transformation, the rise of the so-called Celtic Tiger, has undermined this sort of anti-Irish stance," he says.

B*Witching: Irish music conquers the UK charts
Ireland has also been spectacularly good at selling itself as a friendly, fun-loving and cultured nation.

"Irish businesses and the tourist industry have had almost unparalleled success in projecting Ireland's culture abroad. The 'theming' of Ireland has been very effective," says Mr Pittock.

Irish theme pubs and beers have become part of the nightlife for many the length and breadth of Britain.

Those not out on the town settle down in front of the TV to watch Father Ted, Graham Norton or Ballykissangel, or plough through books by Roddy Doyle, Frank McCourt or Maeve Binchey.

Irish pop groups top the UK charts and Irish slang peppers the speech of cockneys and brummies alike.

Boyzone's Ronan Keating
Ronan Keating: Ireland's boyband ambassador
Ronan McGeevy of the Irish Post says Britons "regard the Irish as slightly eccentric cousins".

"There's a notion that the Irish have a certain joie de vive, they know how to enjoy themselves and are less uptight than the British," he says.

Mr McGeevy says political rather than economic changes have aided the rise of the Irish in our estimations.

"Irishness is more acceptable in the UK because of the Northern Ireland peace process. During the 30 years of the Troubles, the British harboured a deep suspicion of the Irish community."

However, the commercialisation of Irishness may not be such good "craic" as it first seemed.

A national identity can't live on Guinness alone
While consigning the stereotypes to history, the Irish may find themselves saddled with a reputation built on theme pubs and squeaky-clean boybands.

Mr McGeevy says the "authentic Oirish" pubs found in nearly every High Street in the UK, with their twee nick-nacks and 19th Century decor, have little to do with the reality of Irish life.

"No Irish pub, up until about 10 years ago, looked like one of these 'theme' bars. The trendy consumers targeted by these businesses wouldn't have been seen dead in a real Irish pub."

Mr Pittock says there are perils to playing up to the current fashion for all things Irish.

"Fashions change and building your national identity on a kitschy theme is a risky ploy."

Father Ted
Father Ted: Craic me up
But at the moment the British love affair with Ireland looks in no grave danger. Indeed it seems like our affection is being reciprocated, says Mr Pittock.

"It cuts both ways. Recent polls in Ireland have shown the British are the most favoured foreign tourists."

Given this state of affairs, St Patrick is perhaps an ideal figure to celebrate. He was, after all, a Briton who loved the Irish and was in turn taken to the nation's heart.

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