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Making Ireland Irish

Review by: Ellen Furlough, University of Kentucky

Eric G. D. Zuelow, Making Ireland Irish: Tourism and National Identity since the Irish Civil War, (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2009).

Eric Zuelow’s well written and researched book examines the creation of Ireland’s tourism industry. He argues for tourism’s significance as a venue for Irish people to create their own representations of Ireland, as distinct from the pre-Civil War era in which English railway companies and hoteliers promoted Irish tourism for English tourists. Irish tourist officials, promoters, and local communities debated and represented “Irishness” and Irish national identity to themselves and tourists from elsewhere. A key element of tourism’s success within the Irish Republic, Zuelow claims, was its savvy promotion of tourism during the 1920s and 1930s as a “national interest”, one that subsequently worked in tandem with tourism’s social impacts and contributions to economic development. The book is richly documented, drawing upon Irish archives, published primary sources, film and radio transcripts, interviews, regional and national publications, and foreign press reports.

The book provides a careful analysis of how Ireland’s nascent tourism industry became a key sector of national importance and then promoted tourism as a state project. The Irish Tourism Association (ITA), incorporated in 1924 from an amalgam of several existing tourism organizations, provided a significant catalyst along with regional and local initiatives. Only after the Irish Civil War were “the Irish, not the English…completely responsible for developing their own tourist product and for determining how they wanted to present themselves to the world.” (p. xvii). Tourism became a national project, although funding for tourism development largely depended on voluntary contributions from local communities and ITA branches. The ITA’s first branch in Killarney (1924) convinced other places of tourism’s potential to bring better roads, a safe water supply, sewerage, and other improvements. Tourism, Zuelow claims, “provided a national solution to local problems, and was increasingly defined as a “national interest.” (p. 13)

Tourist groups worked to ensure government support for tourism development and an effective tourist industry. The 1939 Tourist Traffic Act created the Irish Tourist Board (ITB), which pushed for tourism initiatives and durable infrastructures. After the war it was replaced by a new nonpartisan, national statuary tourist body, Bord Fáilte Éireann. Postwar tourist revenues climbed rapidly, presenting a solution to poverty and emigration. While early Bord Fáilte projects such as a chalet scheme in Tuosist were unsuccessful, they sparked discussions about how tourist “products” for outsiders could exemplify Irish culture, history, and landscape.

While Zuelow’s early chapters on national tourist policy focus primarily on institution building, subsequent chapters analyze tourism and cultural change through examples of how “Irishness” was presented to tourists. One conundrum concerned the Irish–speaking regions (Gaeltachts). While the ITB believed foreign tourists wanted to see “authentic” Irish people, ultimately the government chose to promote tourism-related rural development over language preservation in the Gaeltachts. (p. 112) Other Irish communities embraced the financial advantages of revamping fairs and festivals to depict “authentic” Irishness for foreign tourists. In contrast, An Tóstal: Ireland at Home (created in the 1950s), provided a nation-wide festival specifically aimed at tourists. Its content, Zuelow emphasizes, derived from local communities creating national cultural attractions. Older images met contemporary needs and local communities enacted visions of themselves.

Subsequent chapters offer excellent case studies of broadly based tourism-related deliberations about how to represent Irish history as one of unity rather than conflict. Zuelow’s analysis of the restoration and development of Kilmainham Jail, slated for demolition in the 1950s then restored as a museum and memory site for Irish nationalism, depicts efforts to preserve Ireland’s historical places, and the accompanying desire to avoid political controversy. Other debates concerned Irish landscapes. Were they the patrimony of the Irish people or landowners? Should tourism-related preservation trump urban development?

Zuelow presents a complex narrative of how institutions and groups from across Irish society helped create a vibrant tourist industry, one that by the 21st century included both northern and southern Ireland. We learn less about how tourists (foreign and from elsewhere in Britain) understood their experiences, and about the Irish as tourists themselves. Tourists from the UK persistently surpassed those from other countries. Did tourism as an agent of national identity further situate Ireland, and “Irishness”, as distinct from “Britishness” since it emphasized the Irish Republic’s distinctive cultures and its history of resistance to British rule? These questions notwithstanding, Zuelow’s claim for tourism development as a significant element in the creation of Ireland’s national identity proves convincing.

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