“It’s the diaspora economy, stupid”

35,000 Americans in Dublin this week

By Dr Sean Carey

After a miserable summer, there was widespread relief that it stayed dry for last Saturday’s match between Notre Dame University’s Fighting Irish and the US Naval Academy at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.

Around 35,000 Americans had flown in for the match, which marked the start of the US college football season. It was only the second game to be played outside the US mainland (the first was between the same teams in Croke Park in 1996). According to the Irish Times, the Aviva event generated the largest movement of US citizens in peacetime. I believe it. When I paid a visit to the Irish capital at the end of last week there was a huge number of white, middle-aged American men (and a few women), all wearing Fighting Irish tribal regalia, walking in small groups in Grafton Street, Dublin’s main shopping area, and Temple Bar, on the other side of the River Liffey, renowned for its restaurants and bars. Other Americans were sitting on benches, as well as the ever so slightly damp grass, in St Stephens Green enjoying the warm sunshine.

The Irish economy, like the rest of the Eurozone, has been in the doldrums since 2008. Alas, the bad news keeps coming. Last week, for example, the Fine Gael and Labour Party coalition government announced that the nation’s health services would be cut by 130 million euro, and newly qualified teachers would receive an annual salary of around 27,000 euro in 2012, a drop of 30 per cent from the level paid in 2010. There were also rumours swirling around about the imminent imposition of new tax on property. Some analysts claimed that while it might bring in much-needed revenue for the government, it would kill off the housing market’s tentative revival, apparent in the affluent suburbs of South Dublin, as well as hitting a significant minority of people throughout the country, who are in mortgage arrears.

An opportune time amongst all the doom and gloom for a little light relief with the Emerald Isle American Football Classic? Definitely. But the Fighting Irish vs. Navy match wasn’t just about entertainment. Analysts calculated that the net gain to the Irish economy from the many American visitors splashing the cash in hotels, restaurants, bars, shops, and golf clubs in and around Dublin would be worth somewhere between 100 million euro and 250 million euro over seven days.

Yet it was what was going on in parallel to the sporting and consumption spectacle that has real significance for the Irish economy. Martin Naughton, 72, the Dundalk-born founder and CEO of Dublin-based consumer electronics giant Glen Dimplex, which owns brands like Belling, Morphy Richards, and Lec, has a long-standing friendship with Irish-American Don Keough, 75, a former president of Coca-Cola, who still serves on its board as well as that of Berkshire Hathaway. The two men had set up a number of dinners and other events to coincide with the football match so that economically powerful Irish-Americans could meet their less powerful Irish counterparts to discuss business.

In his 1972 classic The Asians in East Africa, Agehananda Bharati, then professor of cultural anthropology at Syracuse University, contrasted the social and cultural patterns of behaviour of different South Asian groups, in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda with Irish-Americans in the US. He concluded that while Irish-Americans like to think of themselves as ‘Irish’ they were in fact ‘American’ in terms of behaviour and outlook. By contrast, groups of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims within the South Asian mosaic of East Africa had very effectively reproduced the culture and subcultures of the Indian subcontinent.

But try telling that to Irish-Americans. When he first encountered members of the Irish diaspora in the US some 40 years ago, Martin Naughton was canny enough never to write them off as Plastic Paddies. Instead, he was highly sympathetic to their allegiance. In the Irish Times he said Being Irish means you belong to the clan. It’s what you feel. They feel Irish. He was especially interested in perceptions about the depth of ancestry. The big question for them is – are you one, two or four generations? And they say it with pride.

Mainstream economic analysis based on rational choice theory – competition and the maximization of private interests, in other words – has a genuine problem in explaining how a deep attachment to an ancestral homeland can influence decision-making about serious, multibillion dollar investment decisions. The truth is that economists need to widen their frames of reference and acquire some of the tools of Durkheimian-inspired social and cultural anthropology, which analyses group behaviour, in order to make sense of this type of non-rational (note: not irrational) diaspora investment decision-making.

It’s also worth pointing out that it’s not just Irish-Americans who are doing business in the Republic of Ireland, but their friends and associates as well. Don Keough, who brought 16 of his 18 US-born grandchildren on a sentimental visit to Ireland in 2006, has also convinced hard-headed, non-Irish-Americans like Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett and Microsoft’s Bill Gates to invest in the country. So networks based on friendship are an important part of what’s going on, too.

Be that as it may, the Irish will sincerely hope that as their affluent, sports-mad cousins leave Dublin airport to fly across the Atlantic in the next few days, cheered by Notre Dame’s 50-10 victory over Navy, they will not just stock up with bottles of Jameson Irish whiskey and Guinness-flavoured chocolates at the duty-free, but, in the absence of a recovery in the Eurozone, come back to God’s own country with billions of dollars of investment. To paraphrase former US president Bill Clinton: It’s the diaspora economy, stupid.

Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton

* Published in print edition on 7 September 2012

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