The Myth of Irish Food
This paper begins by assessing Roland Barthes theory of ‘Mythologies’ and its primary elements and uses these tools to analyse recent Irish media texts successfully advocating the consumption of Irish foods. However, while the ‘Buy Irish’ campaign has been successful in creating demand the Irish economy has failed in delivering Irish product to demanding consumers by ignoring the confusion as to ‘what is’ and ‘what is not’ Irish product. Using the examples of ‘Siucra’ Irish sugar and ‘Lyons Tea’, both publicly perceived as Irish but, in fact, imported goods and how each of these are marketed and promoted Barthes theory of Mythologies can demonstrate how myth can be exploited for commercial gain.
Roland Barthes classic ‘Mythologies’ (1984) while not explicitly focused on media has contributed a way of looking at language, images, signs and symbols that have helped media analysts to consider the ways in which our responses to media texts are framed by our reading of a symbolic language that is entirely cultural and based on oppositions and relations between significations. In other words, it is the difference between things, not the properties of individual things, that constructs meaning and Barthes’ ‘myth’ can be used to decode a single sign. (McDougall, 2012)
According to Roland Barthes his notion of Mythologies stems from his feeling of impatience at the sight of the ‘naturalness’ with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up a reality which, even though it is the one we live in, is undoubtedly determined by history. Thus, he argues, nature and history are confused by ideological abuse. The notion of myth, he contends, seems to explain examples of the falsely obvious.
Myth, for Barthes, was a mode of representation characterised above all by its self evident truth, its naturalness. The origin of Mythologies lay in Barthes’ rejection of the way in which newspapers, magazines, films and exhibitions represented social constructions – the outcome of historical and political struggles – is simply natural or common sense. (Masterman, 1984) For Barthes’s, the production of myths is conditional upon two, linked repressions of history and of politics. The transformation of history into nature was, for Barthes, “the very principle of myth” (Masterman, 1984).
Language is a corpus of prescriptions and habits pervading the signifier’s expression without endowing it with form or content: “language is an abstract circle of truths” (Barthes, 1953) Barthes further states that ‘mythology’ is a language surrounding social phenomena in contemporary society. (Barthes, 1991) Myth, then, is a type of speech, a system of communication, a message. It is a mode of signification. Everything can be defined as a myth because there is no law forbidding discourse on any subject or matter. “A tree is a tree” but it is no longer a tree when it becomes the subject of the Romantic poets. It is a tree which is decorated, adapted for consumption and laden with literary self-indulgence. Some, but not all, objects created in mythical language become permanently mythological. Myth is a type of speech chosen by history and cannot possibly evolve from the ‘nature’ of things.
The media has served as a support to this mythical language. The images we are exposed to are given for specific purposes of signification. (Barthes, 1991) Pictures and words are predetermined texts distorted by mythology and decipherable by semiology. Such texts are no longer concerned with facts except inasmuch as they are endowed with significance. Semiology studies signification and is not a science that is necessary but sufficient in the deconstruction of these texts. Semiology postulates a relationship between signifier and signified but takes little account of the sign itself. There are functional implications to this distinction which are of capital importance for the study of myth as semiological schema.
Semiology is restricted because it knows only one operation: reading, or deciphering. (Barthes, 1991) This concept is best understood by looking at any text used for the purpose of public consumption. For example, the image of Mickey Mouse standing outside Disneyland in a wizards outfit waving a wand with magical stars flying all around him is an image constructed to signify that a holiday in Disney World will be magical. However, to each individual the signification is a mythological interpretation influenced by nature and history. The meaning of the myth has its own value; it belongs to a history which postulates a kind of knowledge, past, a memory, and a comparative order of facts, ideas, and decisions. It is this confusion between meaning and form which defines myth. The signifier, personified by Mickey Mouse, is the accomplice of the artificial concept. In relation to the signified, now motivated by a seemingly unambiguous text, is caused to unconditionally accept and utter the perpetrated myth. A whole new history is implanted into the myth and the signified becomes the signifier and this repetition of the concept through different forms is precious to the mythologist determined to decipher the myth. Myths are organic in that they grow, change and alter as history progresses and thus the deciphering of myths requires neologism to identify concepts that are not arbitrary. The association of signifier and signified and the relationship between the two can be defined as the signification. This signification is the myth itself and it too has characteristic modes of correlation of the mythical concept and the mythical form. The function of myth is to distort and deform but not obliterate or abolish the meaning. The mythical signifier is formless and based on historicity and as such is flexible.
Deciphering a myth is not a challenging process. “Disneyworld is magical” is a signified myth produced by the symbol of Mickey Mouse. The myth is perpetuated by the Media seeking a form for it. The creation of such form distorts the meaning and an ambiguous signification is transmitted. Myth transforms history into nature but to understand clearly how this process works a more appropriate and Irish example is needed.
One of Ireland’s most pervasive consumer myths in relation to food is ‘if it looks Irish, it is Irish’ and by patriotically consuming these products local and national economies will prosper, jobs will be created and ultimately an autonomous society can better endure the assault of globalisation. This successful myth, created by Media texts, propounds the virtues of Irish foods, shopping local and buying Irish. Consumers responded and market research suggests the demand for Irish products is escalating. However, the global economy has, perhaps deliberately, retaliated by filling market shelves with counterfeit Irish foodstuffs that are near impossible to differentiate from national produce.
A cursory search of any Irish newspaper reveals editorial, advertorials, advertising and reports on success stories of the Irish food industries luminary manufacturers reaping rewards of national and international recognition. “The strength of Ireland’s food industry is evident in the latest directory of the Top 100 food and drink manufacturers in Britain and Ireland” (ISSUU, 2011) According to the publication; “There are three Irish companies in the top 10”. (Irish Times, 2012). Such glowing accolades for the industry have perpetrated a myth to Irish consumers regarding the alleged superior quality of Irish food, endorsed by superior forces, which consequently enrich the demand for Irish home-produced foods. The campaign is successful in that the demand has increased.
Irish supermarket chain Dunnes Stores highlight their Irishness with the epitaph “The difference is we are Irish” while International Supermarket chains such as Tesco, Lidl, and Aldi are going to strains to create a mythological Irishness to consumers. The media is saturated in News articles reporting the latest of the innumerable ‘Irish’ food awards being presented to these international chains and their ‘local’ suppliers. Blatant headlines such as; “Aldi’s Suppliers Success At National Irish Food Awards” (Nenagh Guardian, 2012), and “Great Times For Irish Cheese Makers” (Digby, 2012), are highlighting awards for Irish food companies such as Knockdrinna Gold, Killeen, Burren Gold and Dingle Peninsula Cheese. Such reports maintain an impression that Irish food is freely and readily available but this impression is not entirely accurate.
In an Irish Times report Manchan Magan challenged himself to “eating only Irish food” to determine is it possible to survive on Irish-made produce alone. “I turned to the supermarkets for Irish food and realised how complicated this was going to be.” (Magan, 2012) In his article he reveals that Boyne Valley Honey is not Irish, Donegal Catch fish is Chilean, Siucra Irish Sugar is British, Guinness’ main ingredients are Australian and Chips, as in Supermacs, an Irish fast-food chain which claims in their logo to be “100% Irish”, actually import Belgian potatoes. Magan concludes “If Irish goods were not so difficult to find, I’d never buy an imported product again.”
An estimated 45% of branded grocery food products sold in 2011/2012 was imported according to research which found that Ireland’s total grocery market was worth €7.1 billion with branded products making up 47% of that. However, 45%, of the branded products sold in Ireland in 2011/2012 were actually imported (Kantar Worldpanel, 2012). Irish research has also uncovered “considerable confusion” (Love Irish Food, 2012) about well-known Irish brands. 80% of those surveyed believed imported ‘Siucra’ was produced in Ireland. Some 77% believed Lyons Tea was produced in Ireland and 71% thought the HB ice-cream brand was Irish. (Healy, 2012)
These results prove confusion over the origin of Irish foods. Imported brands with Irish-sounding names are confusing people. These foodstuffs might best be referred to as ‘mythical Irish’. There is also confusion about brands that might have been manufactured in Ireland previously but have moved their manufacturing facilities abroad. “These results give indication as to the confusion which exists” (Love Irish Food, 2012). The market for mythical-Irish foods is vibrant due to the demand for genuine Irish food. Research by Bord Bia found 85% of shoppers were loyal towards Irish brands. (Bord Bia, 2011) However, this research found half of branded products purchased as Irish were, in fact, imported. International manufacturers are clearly aware of the demand for genuine Irish food and have responded with branding foreign products with an artificial Irish identity.
This difficulty in finding Irish produce on supermarket shelves was highlighted by the Irish Food Writers’ Guild at its 18th Annual Awards. Myrtle Allen, “one of the pioneers of the movement to promote locally produced Irish food” (Irish Foodwriters Guild, 2010) claimed Irish farmers and growers produced some of the highest quality food in the world and yet it was often a challenge to find something as simple as an Irish apple in Irish shops. (Healy, 2012)
From this example we can understand clearly how the myth reader is led to rationalise the signified by means of the signifier; namely Irish consumers seeking Irish goods (the signified) and believing that they are buying genuine Irish goods presented to them by international companies, endorsed by Media texts (signifiers). Large print Newspaper headlines such as “Retaining Loyalty to Irish Brands” and “Irish consumers spending an estimated €1.5bn on imported food brands” imply that there is urgency for government, always presented by the press as the essence of efficacy, to legislate to protect the Irish economy. The signification of the myth follows clearly from this: genuine Irish foodstuffs are suffering because the government is allowing fake Irish foodstuffs to be readily available to consumers. The myth is imperfectible and unquestionable; time or knowledge will not make it better and worse. (Barthes, 1991) Also, because the signifier and the signified have a natural relationship, the consumer takes the signification as factual. The availability of fake Irish foodstuffs is either due to the demand for cheaper home produced food or governments alleged choice not to protect the Irish food industry. In either case the government is accountable.
In any everyday situation we are likely to be confronted by thousands of signifying systems and instances of signifying output. We call these signs. These signifying systems include the language we use to communicate with, the signs that direct us to destinations, to the myriad of media texts that are presented to us or merge into the background of our everyday lives. (Long & Wall, 2009) We are relentlessly exposed throughout a normal day to these signs that plaster our environment and compete for our attention.
The Siucra and Lyons Tea advertisements are two such media text that might appear on a billboard or perhaps in a glossy magazine we might buy intentionally or browse to pass the time while waiting at the doctor’s surgery or hairdressing salon. We might pay them some close attention in a magazine or newspaper or glimpse them as we drive by or opt to ignore them if they appear as a pop-up as we surf the web. In all cases we rarely have to stop to pick up meaning and so all of the factors in these text works together in their impact.
Any analysis must begin with the text and what we make of it. The logic here is that for textual meaning to work we already know what it means; the object is to understand how it means what it does and how meaning is marshalled, organised and anchored in order to make each text effective. The meaning of the Siucra branding is clear, obvious and incontrovertible; by virtue of its name alone this product is Irish. Lyons Tea, previously manufactured in Ireland but capitalising on its historicity, in its ongoing campaign focuses on the idea that ‘talk’ is the secret ingredient in its tea; “It’s no secret that Irish people are both big talkers and big tea drinkers. The secret is we, at Lyons, have been adding talk to the tea” (Hurley, 2010). The encoded message is in the ‘we’ as one of ‘us’ Irish. Ireland’s king of talk radio Joe Duffy spearheads the campaign to reinforce the message. In both cases the images and words shown in the text is a combination of complex signs that are designed to sell more product but he subtext is ‘we are Irish’. Neither advertisement spells out anything directly or plainly for a reader but both remain loaded with significance. The ads have been constructed to have a certain affect. They both elevate brand recognition and urge us to buy the ‘Irish’ product. Closer examination of these subjectively constructed adverts demonstrates allegiance to the convention that the logo is clearly obvious thus suggesting Irish pride. Here then, at the level of mythology, nature is invoked in excess, but clearly not spoken about in an obvious way (‘Siucra is a natural Irish product and Lyons Tea enhances one’s communication abilities because ‘good Irish talkers’ drink ‘good Irish Lyons’ tea). The products are presented not as manufactured, artificial goods but as ‘natural’ and more desirable. The ‘Irish’ images become pawns of economic exchange. The products are not only desirable but also are accessible for all who can afford them. For the consumers who are the intended audience for these adverts, they are asked to recognise the images as natural Irish and therefore more desirable. Furthermore, we should not forget the alibi here that the denotative meanings confer upon the connotative aspects of the signs. These are, after all, just adverts and images, without hidden meanings, asking us to buy these products that will naturally enhance our lives but, in both cases, not only can we achieve these enhancements but also demonstrate patriotism and loyalty to our national identity.
In Roland Barthes essay on his concept of mythology ‘Myth Today’ (Barthes, 1991) he considers media images in his reading and his aim is to make a point about the nature of texts and the ideas they present, how they are all around us in everyday life and he saw media messages as never-ending rather than reducible to any one instance. At the level of connotation we can appreciate that such images, as demonstrated by Siucra and Lyons, present us with an association of patriotism by supporting Irish brands and, by such, there is already a symbolic aspect to the signs. However, if we consider the nature of myth the literalness of the images offers what Barthes calls an ‘alibi’ for any further interpretation or accusation that these are something more than innocent adverts; “it is again this duplicity of the signifier which determines the characters of the signification…myth is a type of speech defined by its intention…much more than by its literal sense…and in spite of this, its intension is somehow frozen, purified, eternalised, made absent by this literal sense. This constituent ambiguity of mythical speech has two consequences for the signification, which henceforth appears both like a notification and like a statement of fact” (Barthes, 1991).
Such mythological moments are part of a chain of signification in a culture (in this case Ireland of the 2000’s) and not an isolated case but part of a whole social context in which such meanings have value. It is an example of what Barthes calls a ‘type of speech’ in which ‘culture’ is turned into nature.
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