Taking the 'sham’ Out of Shamrock: Legacy Tourists Seek the 'Real Thing’

ABSTRACT - Demirdjian (2002) reports on Irish Americans and the Aconsumer awakening to the Celtic culture.@ He suggests that businesses Are-green@ the AShamrock market@ along with the cafes, pubs, restaurants, travel agencies, and better serve this cultural subsegment of the U.S. market. However, Fletcher and Bell (2002) specifically request that it is time to Atake the 'sham’ out of shamrock@ and that the Irish pub phenomena is AHijacking Country of Origin Image.@ In this paper, the authors explore Ireland’s Country of Origin Image and discuss the impact this often-used construct has with a pilot study of respondents.


Nina M. Ray and Gary McCain (2003) ,"Taking the 'sham’ Out of Shamrock: Legacy Tourists Seek the 'Real Thing’", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 54-59.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 54-59


Nina M. Ray, Boise State University, USA

Gary McCain, Boise State University, USA


Demirdjian (2002) reports on Irish Americans and the "consumer awakening to the Celtic culture." He suggests that businesses "re-green" the "Shamrock market" along with the cafes, pubs, restaurants, travel agencies, and better serve this cultural subsegment of the U.S. market. However, Fletcher and Bell (2002) specifically request that it is time to "take the 'sham’ out of shamrock" and that the Irish pub phenomena is "Hijacking Country of Origin Image." In this paper, the authors explore Ireland’s Country of Origin Image and discuss the impact this often-used construct has with a pilot study of respondents.


A country image projected to the rest of the world is very complex (O’Shaughnessy and O’Shaughnessy 2000) and multidimensional (Papadopoulos and Heslop 2002). Demirdjian (2002) reports on Irish Americans and the "consumer awakening to the Celtic culture" (p. 138). He suggests that businesses "re-green" the "Shamrock market" along with the cafes, pubs, restaurants, travel agencies, and better serve this cultural subsegment of the U.S. market. In preparation for this year’s St. Patrick’s Day, the Wall Street Journal called on "experts of Irish heritage" to help judge the best sources of Aran sweaters (Hughes 2003) and reminded readers that "if you thought St. Patrick’s Day festivals were as ancient as the Blarney Stone itself, think again. Today’s iconic parades and green beers aren=t so much a product of the Emerald Isle, but in fact were born of an Irish diaspora clamoring for respect" (Kinnersley 2003, p. D2). This interest in Celtic culture leads to a desire to participate in Irish related experiences in the United States as well as an increased interest in visiting Ireland itself. Descendants of Irish ancestry often take great pride in their cultural heritage. A segment of the U.S. tourism market that has been found to be specifically responsive to Celtic culture consists of legacy tourists who travel to seek their ancestral roots (McCain and Ray 2002a,b).

The interest in Celtic culture and the inclination to buy to reinforce that interest do not guarantee that Irish culture is, in fact, what is being purchased. Even in the 1970s, Russell (1976) titled one of his essays, "The Wearing Out of the Green," and lamented how American "Irishness is much diluted" (p. 463). He complained about the silly, but harmless, "Kiss MeBI’m Irish" buttons often worn in parades. Recently, Fletcher and Bell (2002) condemn the corruption of true Irish experiences, specifically in the case of the expansion of the Irish pub phenomena without maintaining the true nature of the Irish pub. They assert that it is time to "take the sham out of shamrock" (p. 15). They label the use of a localized adaptation of foreign cultural symbols as "Hijacking Country of Origin Image." The purpose of this paper is to begin an exploration of the country image of Ireland in the U.S., where Irish immigration has historically played an important role. We review the recent marketing literature concerning Ireland, Country-of-Origin (COO) impacts, and comment on the possible "hijacking" of Ireland’s COO image. We will examine the impact of the potential of cultural hijacking of Irish Country-of-Origin image on legacy tourist travel expectations. Convenience samples of American students will be analyzed regarding the importance of COO images and their impact on overall perceptions of Ireland and the possibility of future travel there with specific focus on their heritage and legacy travel intentions.

As Chambers (2000, p. 103) reminds us,

The United States is, for example, a nation of immigrants, many of whom seek opportunities to visit the countries from which their ancestors originated. Some host countries, which have experienced considerable out-migration during periods of their history, have come to base much of their tourism on inviting such people to return to their ethnic "roots." Ireland is a good example of this.

Receptivity of the Irish to legacy tourists and the commitment to providing authentic Irish cultural experiences is not uniformly positive. For instance, Irish Roots recently reported "More Restrictions in Researching Ireland’s Vital Statistics" (2002). Therefore, the country may be projecting conflicting images (i.e., encouraging those with Irish ancestry to come find their roots, while at the same time, making it difficult to do so). Other examples of conflicting marketing images involve the proud heritage of the island’s craftsmen and hard workers (authentic sweaters, Belleek pottery, Waterford crystal, Irish peat for heating homes, etc.) with the cultural 'sham’ of porcelain leprechauns, "kiss me, I’m Irish" signs, and the ever-present shamrocks on every item of clothing, including underwear. Even worse, for this year’s Christmas season, one could buy from the Creative Irish Gifts Christmas catalog "O’Rudolph the Green Nose reindeer" consisting of a "shamrock and antler-adorned hat, complete with flashing green bulb nose, green twinkling antler lights, and dangling figurines, balls and bells." At issue is whether the COO of Ireland overseas is accurate and whether any hijacking of Ireland’s COO for commercial purposes acts as an incentive or disincentive for tourism.


Hijacking Ireland’s COO

There is a substantial body of literature on COO effect. Papadopoulos and Heslop (2002) state that there are over 766 works in the literature. Initially the research focused on advantages derived when there was a positive COO associated with a product category (Bilkey and Ness 1982), especially for the classic 'made in’ studies, such as those by Nagashima (1970 and 1977). This led to research as to how to create a favorable COO or correct an unfavorable COO (Johansson et al, 1994). This was followed by research into the impact of COO on consumer behavior. Specifically the effect of COO stereotypes on consumer beliefs and evaluation of products (Janda and Rao 1997). O’Shaughnessy and O’Shaughnessy (2000) state that buying based on a country’s image is affect-driven, in contrast to buying on the basis of "reputational capital" which is belief-driven.

Recently research on the topic has reflected the complexities of globalization (Phau and Prendergast 1999). In the global environment, 'made in’ increasingly does not mean what is implied and COO is indicated by phrases such as 'assembled in,’ 'designed in,’ 'packed in’ or 'engineered in.’ And, of course, all of these phrases could be completely at odds with the legalities of the 'made in’ wording (Jaffe and Nebenzahl (2001a). With the increase in the number of global firms, although products are produced in many locations, they are being promoted as associated with that country whose COO is perceived to be strongest.

However, to our knowledge, the COO variable has not often been evaluated as one having an impact on tourism, even though intuition tells us that it might be an important variable in tourism behavior and a recent article by Papadopoulos and Heslop (2002) lists tourism as one of the multidimensional parts of 'place equity’ in their review of past COO research. One exception to this lack of research seems to be that research focusing on country image as impacted by mega-events such as the Olympics (e.g., Mossberg and Hallberg 1999). Asking respondents in some of our previous studies to respond to a Country Image measure (Martin and Eroglu 1993) resulted in findings showing little relationship between their tourism behavior and their perceptions of the host country, so maybe COO links are strongest for physical products. The authors plan to explore this possibility.

At a macro level, COO can become an important element in national competitive advantage and governments often undertake trade promotion activities overseas to create a positive COO association, such as the recent "Cool Britannia" campaign. Stewart-Allen (2002) reports that the British Brands Group has found that this heritage can make a difference in global markets. In an age where protection of intellectual property rights is becoming an increasingly important issue in international marketing, COO research is beginning to address activities that create the illusion of COO without there being any real substance to the actual or implied claim. Mueller, Mack and Broderick (2001) coined the term 'captious cues’ for marketing cues that mislead, confuse or create ambiguity for customers about a product’s geographical origin. Their research applied to products. However, in the area of international services, there is evidence of wholesale hijacking of COO as opposed to just the use of misleading cues (Fletcher and Bell 2002).

The proliferation of Irish pubs around the world is a prime example of COO association without necessarily having any actual connection with the country of origin. In the UK, 95% of these are Irish 'representations’ and have been established by chains of UK breweries. Guiness has created 1250 Irish bars worldwide and is involved in joint ventures with 'authentic Irish bar’ designers (Brown and Patterson 2000). The above however does not explain the whole phenomenon as there is also a COO effect at work, even if it is faux. As Americans are sometimes surprised to learn, Michael Flatley of Riverdance fame is not Irish, but an American born and raised in Chicago, and that the show itself is faux Irish and a classic example of hijacking country of origin image. According to Brown and Patterson (2000, p. 656),

the typical Irish theme pub with its green garish decor, pseudo-Gaelic invocations, 'thousand welcomes’ doormats, shamrock inspired fittings, peat burning fireplace, freshly brewed stout, wide range of whiskeys, conspiratorial hints of under-the-counter poteen, and general air of pseudo-hiberno bonhomie, cannot be considered indicative of today’s Ireland, yesterday’s Ireland or any other Ireland this side of The Quiet Man.

Two dangers arise from this hijack activity. In the first place, the strength of the illusion creates an image that is in conflict with the real Irish pub and with the real Ireland. Secondly, the illusion of reality is often less (or more) attractive than the actual authentic offering. These facts have grave implications for the tourism industry, especially when tourists might be disappointed that realism doesn=t live up to the myth created by the captious cues.

Ireland and Legacy Tourism

Partly because of intermittent 'peace dividends,’ Northern Ireland experienced a large tourism increase in the mid-1990s. In a study of German tourists concerning their potential travel to Northern Ireland, a large majority (81%) had a good or very good impression of the country as a travel destination and 59% considered it safe or very safe (Lennon, Weber, and Henson 2001). In fact, writing after September 11, Stanbridge (2001) tells her British compatriots that it is time to explore 'the Celtic connection.’ Many UK businesses and organizations are examining venues closer to home in these turbulent times; Belfast is a 'new’ destination for many, but is close to home, and is a location which has historically shown "resilience and optimism" (p. 26) during times of trouble.

The importance of genealogy tourists (referred to as "legacy" tourists) in Ireland (mostly the North) and their key motivations when they travel has been the subject of recent research (McCain and Ray 2002a,b). While this legacy niche of travelers is important, marketers often overlook opportunities associated with this market segment. We read that genealogy is a "significant part of Northern Ireland’s tourism industry" (Evans 1998, p. 14). Unfortunately, there is little more specific about the contribution of genealogy to tourism industries, although this "significant part" is part of approximately 200 million pounds revenue per annum from foreign visitors (Collins and Beggs 2000), but still only represents less than 2% of GDP in North Ireland, in comparison to 7% in the Republic of Ireland and Scotland ("Tourism Development in Northern Ireland" 2000).

The legacy category of heritage tourism has drawn increasing attention in the industry. Although the boundaries of what constitutes heritage tourism are somewhat fuzzy, most researchers generally agree that it includes tourism related to what we have inherited. This may mean interest in our connections to history, art, science, lifestyles, architecture, scenery found in a community, or to a region, population, or institution that we regard as part of our collective lineage, or our own search for personal meaning through ancestral research. Certainly many in the U.S. care about their Irish heritage and, as Silberberg (1995, p. 364) discusses, there was a tourism shift in the 90s away from 'escapism’ to 'enrichment.’ He reports that 88% of American travelers said that understanding culture was very important when planning trips (up from 48% in the 80s). The next largest percentages were 73% for "location with natural beauty" (up from 60%) and 72% for "gain a new perspective on life" (up from 40%). The motive for enrichment excludes "pop" images of Disneyesque leprechauns and "Kiss Me" buttons.

To increase tourism interest, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board implemented what Silberberg (1995) has said to be the most important form of partnering with others to achieve tourism successBpackaging cultural and non-cultural tourism products together. As one example of this, the Ulster Historical Foundation provides travel opportunities for those "searching for that elusive Irish ancestor" (Ulster Historical Foundation 2001). The program includes:

a range of tours, social events and entertainment, all included at no extra cost. Delegates will visit heritage centres, explore museums and enjoy the magnificent scenery of areas of outstanding natural beauty such as The Glens of Antrim, The Giant’s Causeway and Co. Donegal. They will also have the opportunity to visit the historic city of Derry including a tour of the famous walls, the Guild Hall, St Columb’s Cathedral and the award winning Tower Museum.

This certainly represents a lot of 'partnering’ between the heritage institutions and typical tourist attractions.

There are some specifics on 'cultural tourists’ who represent a contribution of more than three billion pounds to the rest of the UK economy each year, apart from Northern Ireland (Collins and Beggs 2000). Interestingly, 98% of tourists to the Republic of Ireland are motivated by the opportunity to visit 'cultural and historic’ places Although specific statistics are lacking regarding the contribution of legacy tourism to local economies, tourist officials in Ulster are interested in developing marketing strategies to try to tap a "huge untapped source for tourism into Northern Ireland" ("Genealogy" 1999, p. 1). In a quick search on the Internet with Google, the words "genealogy and tourism" produced approximately 109,000 results. Of the first ten pages of listings, 20% related to Ireland genealogy tourism. Others included genealogy travel to Wales, Scotland, England, Germany, Canada, numerous states in the US, and even to Croatia and the Falkland Islands. The Republic of Ireland emphasizes this legacy motivation with advertisements enticing travelers to "come Back to Erin" (Journey Through Ireland 2002) and one of its neighbors, VisitScotland, the national tourism organization of Scotland, does this by managing ancestralscotland.com (2002, p. 82), advertising "You’ve explored your Scottish heritage. Now explore your ancestral homeland. . . Come home to Scotland."

As outsiders, we applaud the willingness of the tourism boards of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to work together, especially since several sources cite lack of coordination as a weakness in tourism marketing in Northern Ireland (Collins and Beggs 2000 and "Genealogy" 1999). These partnerships are not without challenges however as "the NITB is mindful that a significant section of the Unionist Community do not wish to develop deeper links with the South of Ireland" (Greer 2002, p. 365). These reports stress the need for Ulster to "accommodate the shift towards cultural tourism" (Collins and Beggs, p. 505) and to engage in market segmentation and penetration of potential markets.

Even though place image is most often not directly under marketers’ control (Papadopoulos and Heslop 2002), perhaps determining what Ireland’s image is with potential visitors is a good step. Our recommendation is that tourist institutions in the country engage in "legacy tourist tracking" based on the changing role of cultural/heritage tourists in general and consider if Ireland’s image can be capitalized on in the marketing of its heritage. It may be a way for Ireland to take some of the 'sham’ out of Shamrock and continue the trend away from the escapism of artificially created Irish symbols and toward enrichment and the "search for authentic otherness" (MacCannell 2002, p. 150).

Marketing researchers will need to keep in mind that legacy tourists have several types of motivations for trying to find the "trail through time" (what Candon 2000 described as the "product" the Ulster History Park sells). These include family pride, bragging rights, religious observations, and memorial respect and what one of us remembers the UHF representatives describing, at one talk on their 2001 U.S. lecture tour, as a "feeling of completeness." While Candon (2000 p. 611) (Ulster History Park) reports the obvious ("most people, most of the time, do not believe literally that they are able to travel through time"), he also recounts the feelings of legacy tourists by quoting another author (Brett 1993, p. 186), "History, truly considered, is a verb, not an abstract noun. We history." To history is a cue for seeking authentic experiences that take priority over being entertained. And, as tourists looking for Irish enrichment, we will certainly pay someone to help us to 'history,’ which presumably will be more enriching than visiting faux Irish pubs or buying silly trinkets. Certainly, there is nothing more personal than one’s own legacy or heritage as a motivation for travel. [The impetus for the investigation into legacy tourism derives from personal observations as a participant of heritage tourism experiences. One author has recently traced her own family roots and journeyed with an aunt to Northern Ireland to find information about their distant Ulster ancestor. While there, she was invited by the Ulster Historical Foundation (UHF) to witness their presentation before a meeting of the Northern Ireland Assembly Departmental Committee on Culture, Arts and Leisure at the Parliament Building at Stormont, outside Belfast. Both authors are also attempting to subsegment the heritage tourism market to focus on tourists= personal heritage motivations. The UHF speaker mentioned both motivations when they explained to the Departmental Committee why they had asked her to attend.]


The authors are in the process of conducting Ireland Country Image studies with convenience samples of American undergraduate students. Some of the questions from Lennon, Weber and Henson (2001) are used, specifically: whether the respondent has ever visited the country before and experience derived from frequency of travel in general (both representing "internal information"), respondents’ perceptions of the destination as a safe place to visit and overall impressions of it as a travel destination. In addition, respondents were asked to respond to a country-of-origin measure (Martin and Eroglu 1993). General travel motivations, such as those researched by Eagles (1992) are included to help determine if COO is linked to any specific motivation for travel and Meric and Hunt’s (1998) list of sources of travel information is included. Results should shed some preliminary exploratory results as to not only the perceptions that Yanks have of Ireland, but whether tourism marketers should look further into the role that COO can have in choosing a country as a travel destination.

Preliminary results of a small pilot study of only U.S. undergraduate students show 77% of them have a good or very good impression of The Republic of Ireland as a travel destination and that 52% of them believe that Ireland is safe or very safe, with 17% saying the Republic is not safe. Only three people in this small group of 48 had ever been to Ireland. The group of students has an average age of 25. The typical frequency of travel is spread out, with equal percentages (21% each) indicating that they travel once a month, once in three months, and at least twice a year, with an average of 22% of that travel being international. Almost 20 percent of this group are not citizens of the U.S., even though they are studying in America. Therefore, this pilot study information is certainly not necessarily representative of typical U.S. students. When presented with a list of travel motivations, 71% (ranked fourth in importance) said that "visiting where family came from" (the question the authors use to categorize legacy tourists) is important to them when they travel. However, these potential tourists also list the following travel motivations as even more important to them when they travel (in order of importance): local festivals, change from a busy job, and oceanside. Being physically active, seeing historical sites, and interacting with native peoples are also highly rated. The fact that motives like local festivals, interaction with native peoples, and seeing historical sites rate highly indicates a desire to experience authentic Irish culture. Ireland could certainly accommodate them concerning these travel motivations. [In addition to wanting to visit places where their family is from, legacy travelers surveyed in past research conducted by the authors believe that the following are the most important motivations for travel: (in order of importance) visiting historic sites, wilderness and undisturbed nature, mountains, and visiting friends and relatives. Travel guides, chambers of commerce, and word of mouth are the most important sources used in planning vacations for legacy tourists. Traditional media and even tourist bureaus play a lessor role. The convenience samples of respondents reported here tendto agree. They ranked word-of-mouth, the Internet, and travel/books and guides are the first, second, and third most important sources when planning travel.] They seek to find the real Ireland. To the degree that they bring incorrect perceptions of what to expect derived from captious cues learned prior to their travel, they might find the travel experience disappointing.


Country of Origin perceptions (semantic differential 14-item measure, 1 to 7 scale; coefficient alpha of .90) that stand out are that they believe that Ireland is very economically developed, very much represents a free market system, with a strong industrialized democratic and civilian government, and has high literacy rates. For none of the fourteen COO items were means higher than neutral points, with lower numbers indicating perceptions leaning toward more developed, etc. (The entire COO measure, along with representative means is shown in Figure 1.) The respondents were asked to respond to an open-ended question regarding perceptions of their overall image of Ireland and any thoughts they may have regarding products which are made in Ireland (whether they had ever been to Ireland or not). They said that it is "a very green place," "surprisingly economically developed," (yet one person thought it was an "underdeveloped country") "the landscape is one of the most beautiful in God’s creation," "moderate to cold and foggy climate," "historic and has great beer" ("lots of Guiness"), "wool," "lovely people," "great place for Americans to conduct business," "music, dance, and culture in general," and the fact that it offers a "rural-style vacation." Others commented on the "medieval history and religion" and its "soccer" and "rugby." Some commented on its high-tech reputation, yet the country was neutrally perceived as having a "high (vs. low) level of technological research" in the COO items. We cannot determine the degree to which these are based on accurate perceptions of Ireland or are artifacts of commercialized image creation. Regarding Ireland’s products, most didn=t comment, but one said, "I don’t think they are the best" and a few couldn=t think of any products made in Ireland. One added to the last statement that s(he) knew that they were "well made," however. Comments also include "Irish linen is the best" and this person also knows about the "china and crystal." Potatoes were mentioned by five people.

It seemed that several (five or six) of the respondents (indicating "civil unrest") perceived The Troubles as taking place in the Republic and did comment that they wouldn=t feel safe there and that it is "not safe for Americans; they have disappeared there" and that "they have small wars there." One indicated that the safety issue is "black and white," with safety a problem in the North, but not in the Republic. There was evidence that the influence of hijacked COO affected students’ perspectives of Irish products through faux cues. Two mentioned Irish soap and one said, "Products made in Ireland (Irish Spring Soap) do well by taking advantage of the American view of Ireland as a peaceful countryside." Another mentions Riverdance.

We conclude that while the legacy tourist seriously seeks authentic Irish cultural experiences, there is evidence that the definition of authentic is subject to contamination from captious cues of the pop culture Americanization of Irish symbols. Hijacking of Irish County of Origin image appears to be altering and confusing the expectations of American travelers. To the degree that those fallacious cues are accepted as authentic components of the Irish culture, American tourists in Ireland, especially legacy tourists who are committed to authentic discovery of their ancestral past, may find the Irish (as would many countries) fail to measure up to false expectations. We also find that there is a great deal of confusion surrounding any differences between the North and the Republic. If tourists are fearful of The Troubles, both Irelands seem to be affected. Perhaps in the collaboration between the two Irelands’ tourist boards, efforts could be made to define Ireland (and the two parts of it).

Obviously this pilot study has a major limitation in the fact that the persons sampled are unlikely to travel to Ireland as tourists. It would be best to collect data from websites devoted to Ireland and related travel sources. Future research is needed into the degree to which various segments of travelers recognize the artificiality of commercialized and Americanized symbols are accepted as authentic symbols of Irish culture. And, how is their satisfaction affected by any artificial expectation?

How likely are the serious legacy tourists to be more or less critical of pop symbols than tourists overall? How different are experienced tourists from the non-traveler in their recognition of the faux nature of such symbols? And, what would be tourists’ reactions to a possible Irish brand (following the lead of "Scotland the Brand," "New Zealand Way" national brand, and others [Jaffe and Nebenzahl 2001b])? And, should Ireland consider joining other European nations attempting to protect any valuable "geographic indicators?" After all, European negotiators at the WTO are attempting to protect food names associated with specific regions, such as the UK’s cheddar cheese (Miller 2003).


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Nina M. Ray, Boise State University, USA
Gary McCain, Boise State University, USA


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003

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