The Irish as Cultural Middleware #34 #cong17

By Frank Hannigan:

University College Cork asked me to deliver a lecture on “The Irish as Cultural Middleware”. It was part of the MBS, Asian Studies – a Masters Degree imagined by the Farmleigh Fellowship.

“Cultural Middleware” was a line I used in a speech some years earlier that grabbed the imagination of people online.

I conjuring up the unique way Irish people thrive in global organisations, building up connective tissue and informal power.

Travelling around the world I noticed that, at the very least, being Irish was neutral and in most cases it was a huge positive.

In politically sensitive places like The Balkans, The Caucuses and “One China” – I found that all sides were empathetic towards the Irish – Armenians, Azeris, Kosovars, Serbs, Croatians, Taiwanese, PR China etc. etc.

Ron Immink spent a year travelling and alternatively introducing himself as being Irish and being Dutch: “When I said “I’m Dutch” – no reaction - When I said “I’m Irish” – the smiles came automatically everywhere”

So this is more than a hunch, but if it is real there will be logic and science to back it up.

My job over the next year or so is to gather as much empirical and logical evidence to understand if this is a genuine competitive advantage.

Let me sketch out the map I will be exploring:

Dúchas – who we are, where we are from, our people

We are not Celts.

12,500 years ago our people came from The Basque territory and Galicia in Round Coracles with their animals and tools.

Much earlier they came from the lush Armenian plains.

They were among the first Europeans to arrive at the end of the Ice Age.

As the ice melted opening up new land, they flowed like a river through the Balkans, the Mediterranean, onwards to the Iberian coast and finally across the open sea to Ireland.

You might imagine these people were risk takers, endlessly curious.

They were not people who settled for an incremental improvement of their lot.

They were open to the world. They were adventurers.

The Celts came to Europe 4,000 years later.

Celts had more of a cultural impact than a political impact on Europe.

They were not state builders like the Romans. Their cultural impact on Ireland is significant.

Celts never invaded Ireland – their impact on our DNA is limited.

Two thinks at the same time

“Two thinks at the same time” is how James Joyce described our tribe’s unusual ability to hold two conflicting concepts in balance.

From my initial search his hunch seems to be backed up by neuroscience.

This capacity is key to parsing ambiguity.

Making sense of ambiguity is key to high performance in a number of activities highly prized both in modern business and society.

These include creativity in general, empathy, play and storytelling.

If this “two thinks at the one time” is an accelerator in these areas, it is an inhibitor in terms of dealing with authority and accepting formal structures.

All cultural stereotypes are built around some elements of truth. Germanic and English people for example are perceived to thrive on process and structure.

We don’t.

Tommy Tiernan tells a great yarn about an Irish guy growling at his GPS:

“Nobody is going to tell me what exit to take at the next roundabout.”

What did the Roman’s ever do for us?

Another reason for our unique perspective on the world is the fact that we were never part of the Roman Empire.

Greco-Roman logic was one way we learned to make sense of the world.

It was not the only way:

“Irish writers have often expressed their discontent with logical orthodoxy by deconstructing and recombining language to suit thought processes that do not fit the categories and conceptual limitations delineated”

“in contradistinction to the orthodox dualist logic of whither/or, the Irish mind may be seen to favour a more dialectic logic of both/and: an intellectual ability to hold the traditional oppositions of classical reason together in creative confluence”

“The Irish mind remained free of the linear centralised logic of the Greco Roman culture which dominated Western Europe” Kearney R “The Irish mind – exploring intellectual traditions.

“One of the central hypotheses is that the Irish mind has succeeded in several important respects, in eschewing the orthodox dualism between intellect and imagination , between conceptual and aesthetic creativity, which has been a hallmark of the Western logo-centric tradition” Daniel Pink

I could not have put it better. We don’t do binary.

In culture no Irish person needs a primer to make sense of the magic realism of Salman Rushdie or Ben Okri.

We get it.

These writers tap into our natural capacity to entertain multiple realities to understand the world in a more profound sense.

In business our natural ability to detect key tiny signals that matter comes from this duality. I don’t believe this is intuition. It is an ability to map out the future and the present by tapping into to the dialectic logic described above.

This book will interview people across the planet whose Irish mindset has allowed them to build leadership beyond authority; build astonishing connective tissue and informal power that their peers wonder at, lacking the ability to replicate.

The Craic

The connective tissue we build can be explained in part by the global expectation that the Irish are great craic.

Jerry Kennelly tells how Irish parties are the most requested tickets at most conferences around the planet.

“Irish and fun” is encoded in most cultures globally.

I have been in many interesting places that had no McDonalds and no Starbuck’s but inevitably had at least one Irish bar.

Is this down to Guinness? Probably.

Is there something in the Irish brand that is a root cause? Almost certainly.

It can easily be dismissed but it can just as easily be embraced as a differentiation that gives us an edge.


What more valuable reason to parse ambiguity than to re-write our future.

John Hawkins says “People with ideas, people who own ideas have become more powerful than people who work machines and, in many cases, more powerful than people who own machines.”

Our little Island was never truly industrialised. We have very little to lose in the new global economy that Hawkins maps out.

We score highly on global entrepreneurship surveys and we have a rich history of imagining new products from Submarines to the Hypodermic Syringe that have changed the world.

Today, open economies like Ireland are disrupted by technology and globalisation in a way that puts a question mark over many traditional roles in business and society.

Roles that are based on artistry will be resilient enough to survive the tsunami of change we are living through.

Malcolm Gladwell taps into Scandinavian research to suggest that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get to the level of artistry.

What does that artistry look like? I like a definition by San Diego writer Ted Burke:

“Artistry begins when you forget your own ideas about what art is and what art making is and find yourself fully engaged in a moment of absolute creation, when everything you know how to do intellectually, technically and can access at command just come to you as easily as taking a breath.”

How do we align education, economic development policy and personal development to harness our competitive advantages for this new wave?

How do we create generations of artists that shape reality and not worker bees who depend on others to shape their reality.


Who weaves the best narratives frames the world.

John Gray in Straw Dogs says “ The human brain receives 14m bits of information per second, but can process consciously only 16 bits per second.”

Most of our ability to absorb stories and ideas is done unconsciously or emotionally.

We create narratives that help us shape our understanding of the world.

75% of Irish Nobel Laureates were recognised for literature or Peace.

That is an astonishing statistic.

This is the tip of an iceberg I want to investigate.

The Irish have been described to me as being able to synthesise competing agendas into narratives that all sides buy into. They do it consistently.

I visited Government Officials across The Balkans who said there is a collective memory of Irish civil servants arriving with practical solutions; quietly managing the conflict between donors and Ministries and then agreeing a way forward over dinner with both sides.

The fact that the local leaders were happy to buy into these solutions tells a lot.

We are a nation with 10,000 years experience telling stories at the drop of a hat.

Is there any chance we may have passed Gladwell’s metric as a race?

It it hard to prove, and to be honest maybe it doesn’t need to be proven.

“So whether he calls it spirit music

or not, I don’t care. He took it out of wind off mid-Atlantic.”

Two Mother Tongues

What is without question is that our storytelling is deeply impacted by having two mother tongues:

Irish, a language of the oppressed, a wild graphic platform that is playful and soulful.

English, a structured object oriented trading language.

English has evolved more than any other European mother tongue over the last 1,000 year pulling into its germanic core sounds and ideas from Celts, Norse, Norman French, not to mention the import of Latin and Greek words and worlds.

That second language, the one I write in, happens to be the world’s lingua franca.

Research has shown that culture is coded into our mother tongues. Linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which holds that the language we speak shapes how we view the world has fallen out of favour but there is rich evidence that suggests that there are strong links between culture " how we think and how we do things around here", and our mother tongue".

How we warp and weave English is so different to how the language is used in England. Investigating cross pollination between our two mother tongues is going to be an interesting journey.

Attitude to authority

Tommy Tiernan’s GPS story is in marked contrast to Milgram’s experiment in Yale.

Brendan Behan wrote that the first item on the agenda for any Irish organisation is “The split”.

We instinctively rail against orthodoxy.

21st Century corporate behaviour is in flux but one key theme is that authority increasingly is earned by bosses who act like mentors.

These newly framed authority figures are the equivalent of top PS4 game players who share on Youtube how the game works, they explain the cheats and workarounds to get to the next level of the game.

They are the opposite of traditional bosses.

They don’t give orders, they disrupt the formal process to bring their tribe to the next level of the corporate game.

They use formal routes where they are aligned with the teams KPIs and strategic objectives, and use cheats to work around formal routes when they are not.

Cultures that are drawn to process and rules may not bring the resilience needed in the 21st century. That goes for economies as well as companies.

In simpler times we built organisational theory to make sense of relatively simple ecosystems with slow and limited flow of information to provide context.

Now organisations are complex and fluid. Supply chains are atomised and global. They need to flourish in a hyper connected always on and rapidly changing environments.

We need a new language to make sense of organisational behaviour and culture.

The culture the Irish bring, their fatal flaw when it comes to authority, becomes a prized cultural attribute in this new context.

In our brave new world the asymmetric fighter will always be more resilient than the regimented squaddie.


We are a people apart, islanders, but we have plugged in to global culture, society and business world.

Ireland is the 3rd most globalised economy after Hong Kong and Singapore according to E&Y Economist “Ireland may not be the originator of all the innovation that passed through its doors, but the country’s role as a conduit for R&D – through manufacturing, packaging and export – has been an important contributor to its high level of globalisation” Paul Saffo Stanford Professor and futurist tells us.

He goes on to describe Ireland as “Silicon Valley with worse weather and more culture”.

"A thin veneer of Christianity"

This is a great line from John B Keane's "The field". How our tribe and our culture has been shaped by our relationship with spirituality and religion is a rich seam to be mined.

What came before Christianity in terms of religion and what impact did that have on our brand of christianity.

The reach and impact of the Irish missionaries in the badly labeled "Dark Ages".

The impact of the famine on culture and society and how Irish Catholicism become the tool to enforce these new norms.

The connective tissue created by the waves of Irish missionaries who arrived and put down roots and shaped society and politics across the planet from Buenos Aires to Harare.

The Irish Abroad

There are 15m Jewish people on the planet. Whether born in Brooklyn, Berlin or Bloemfontein they share a coherent patrimony.

There are 50m in the Irish Diaspora but our patrimony today is neither as coherent nor as shared. Imagining how new media and technology may enrich coherency and this shared sense of tribe is worth investigating.

Do the competitive advantages of our tribe travel well?

Culture has travelled in both directions, Philip King talks about how Irish culture dismissed as dry and old was suddenly exciting and sexy when reflected back from America.

Philip and others talk about the profound impact Irish culture has had on American culture.

The book will check out where the tribe impacted globally including Che Guevara and hurling in South America, Irish blood English Heart and investigation of the tribe in the UK from McAlpine's Fusiliers to The Smiths and Antipodeans from Ned Kelly to the Recessionistas.

Man and Superman

I tell my kids “You are equal to all men and better than none.

Writing this book is not about the Irish being better.

It is about being the Irish being different. It is about mapping out competitive advantages we may have.

Dúchas, who we are; where we are from; our people, is something worth exploring for every tribe on the planet.

I hope my book will excite other writers to do something similar for their own tribes.

I want to provide a glimpse into what makes Irish valuable as part of a global fabric.

The book may be an addition the knowledge base needed to create winning strategies for us as individuals, our economy and our society.

In the end we humans have so much more in common than that which separates us to quote the late Jo Cox MP.

For a start we humans are 60% water.

99% of our DNA is identical to Chimpanzees.

Travelling the world has been a real eye opener for me.

Our cultures and our personal experiences overlap dramatically.

There is a thin veneer, a difference that reflects where we come from and our personal experience.

The rest is shared.

I am glad we are different.

I don’t just want to celebrate that difference.

I want to see what impact that difference can make on the world.

Originally published on Frank Hannigan’s blog

CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie