Culture, Commodity, and Cead Mile Failte: U.S. and Irish Tourist Films as a Vision of Ireland

Article excerpt

IN 1966, Bord Failte, the Irish Tourist Board, sponsored a documentary intended to update the international profile of "The Emerald Isle." Robert Monks's 1966 Ireland: The New Convention Country would emphasize the modern facilities available to conference holders and delegates, especially in Dublin city. The film did indeed publicize the hotels, airports, and advanced technical equipment that would expedite such events. But at one point roughly half way through, the voice-over suggested conspiratorially: "Take a day off from your conference: you won't be missed." It then proceeded to detail the range of sporting and leisure activities within easy reach of the urban center (neglecting to mention that some of them were over a hundred miles away). It featured images of Quin Abbey, Bunratty Castle, angling on the river Shannon, and rural roads the voice-over claimed were "the most traffic free in Europe." Many of these were the standard scenes used in the promotion of tourism in Ireland since tourism began, images familiar from paintings, postcards, and photography before the inception of the cinema. (1) Modern it may have been, but this was still "friendly, leisurely Ireland" where culture, history, and geography could be reduced to a series of commodities and services malleable and marketable according to the expectations of sponsors and potentially international audiences.

THE PARADOXES OF TOURISM

Projecting images of the country designed to achieve specific ends, tourist films give perhaps the strongest indication not necessarily of what a country thinks of itself, but of what its cultural industries believe is expected of it. It should come as little surprise then that when international cinematic representations search for cues in the native culture to guide their own promotional films, they should yield similar results to one another, albeit in films filtered through the sensibilities of their producers. Tourist films are promotional and engage a different set of expectations from those documentaries which attempt to explore the identity of a place and its people in a more introspective manner. Though they may be poetic in style and feature and document some essential characteristics of the land and its inhabitants, their concern is not with the satisfaction of the desire to mimic the forms seen in nature. Instead, as Terry Lovell has observed, they are interested in the creation of a desire to control and commodify reality. In Lovell's words, "The cultural producer is keenly interested in the proliferation of wants which will lead consumers to seek out the commodities sold to satisfy those wants." (2) He identifies here a central paradox of the tourism industry. Tourism is a definite site of cultural production, both employing and promoting aspects of "culture" to encourage visitors. As T.J.M. Sheehy observed in the Irish film journal Vision (1967) regarding the increase in production of tourist films at that time: "Sponsors of tourist films are not philanthropists. Their interest is tourist publicity. In the films they sponsor they want quality and artistic integrity, but in their approach art, desirable as it may be, takes second place to publicity needs." (3)

Yet tourism is not merely the result of a capitalist conspiracy. The desire to travel and visit places of which we have no direct experience has always been central to human behavior, though it was only organized within an industrial infrastructure and a capitalist mode of production in the mid-nineteenth century. Tourism capitalizes on that which already exists: on one hand the desire for new experiences, and on the other the qualities of the place in question. In promoting a particular location, it must draw on the frames of reference familiar to the intended audience. Lovell notes that consumers must seek out "the commodities sold," not the commodities created to meet the wants. …