Ireland cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
When meeting someone for the first time, good topics of discussion could include Irish literature, music, history or sports (especially Gaelic games). Topical issues could include changes in Ireland since the advent of the Celtic Tiger. Irish people are in general quite proud of their culture, so talking about any positive experiences you have had so far during your stay in Ireland will win you some points. If out socializing, asking for recommendations on the drinks available in the establishment being visited could be a good conversation-opener.
Potentially controversial topics to avoid would include any stereotypes or clichés about Ireland; Northern Ireland and the role of the UK in Irish politics; or divorce, homosexuality or abortion (many people are devoutly religious or conservative in their social values). Referring to the Republic of Ireland as part of the UK or Britain might not be taken well. Note that calling someone a "mick" would be considered a serious slur. Irish people are fairly nationalistic, so avoid partaking in any criticism of Ireland.
Humour is very important for breaking the ice and building trust. An Irish person may use it as a defence mechanism, in a self-deprecating or ironic way. Note that it is also commonly held that "the more I insult you the more I like you". 'Slagging', as this trade in insults and teasing is often known, works on the basis that it is meant to reflect the strength of relationship between those engaged in it and so not meant to be perceived negatively. To a visitor, such jokes at someone else's expense may seem over-personal or harsh. If ever at the other end of a slagging match, you will earn immense respect if you try to give as good as you get, while remaining in good spirits and not taking it personally.
Overall, be cognisant of remaining modest and sincere - bragging or displays of arrogance will not be well received. Wit, sarcasm and eloquence in turn of phrase will be appreciated, but not if done in a condescending or superior manner.
The Irish in general are difficult to offend. They are known for their great sense of humour. Starting a first conversation should not be difficult. An easy openning topic, a perennial conversation topic, the lousy rain filled weather. Asking questions like: Where do you live exactly? What kind of area is that? Have you always lived there? Have you been to my country?
There aren't really no-go places for Irish conversations. However if you want to make an extra good impression avoid stereotypes about drinking, religion and the British. The relations to these three things in Ireland have changed drastically, very much different from North America conceptions. Drinking has declined in Ireland, however still popular. Almost everybody you meet will probably drink but not necessarily every week and not necessarily large amounts. The state is attempting to bring about legislation to change drinking habits in Ireland. Church attendance in Ireland has changed drastically in the last 30 years, however the population remains overwhelmingly Catholic. This does not mean that Ireland is the church-going nation of years past. Relations with Britain have thankfully changed. The two countries, despite a lukewarm situation in Northern Ireland, have very favourable relations similar to any average two nations in Europe. Ireland has changed very much in the last 30 years, actually undergoing a sort of identity crisis at present, transforming from the Ireland of the past to full-fledged modern integrated European nation. In short, starting a conversation in Ireland in not difficult. What to worry about is ending them!
The requirements for personal space when communicating may be somewhat less that in Canada. Consistent - but not constant - eye contact is important to demonstrate engagement. Ireland can be quite a macho culture, and touching between men is rare. In the workplace, men should avoid being touchy with women.
Modesty in gesticulation and a relaxed tone of voice is the norm. Being overly emotional, loud, touchy or friendly early on in a friendship may be seen as fake and put people off. People may be more direct than in Canada, but in the name of politeness, instructions may be disguised as polite requests.
Regarding gestures, at a first meeting, a firm handshake would be the norm. Note that the "V for victory sign" with the palm facing inward is the equivalent of the middle finger in North America. Also, rather than pointing with a finger, many Irish may nod or jerk their head or chin in the direction of the item being discussed.
Eye contact is always good especially in overtly formal situations. Shaking hands is the usual greeting. Men and women tend not to kiss on the check, as in French or Latin cultures, only really doing so between close relations. The middle finger and other lewd hand gestures are frowned upon. Tone of voice and directness fluctuates from situation to situation, as in North America.
Display of emotion
In informal social situations, public displays of emotion would be more common than in Canada, especially in pubs and clubs and with younger people. Strong public displays in the workplace should be avoided; a general guideline would be to stay composed, but not uptight.
I would most certainly say that public displays of emotion are common: whether of affection or anger. Ireland is not exactly a reserved society in this regard!
Dress, punctuality & formality
Business dress is quite formal in Dublin (e.g. dark suit and tie), especially in finance and in management positions, and less formal in other areas. Smart casual would be a safe option, (i.e. a jacket and shirt collar with slacks for men; a modest trouser suit for women.)
Interactions in the workplace are in general quite personable and relaxed, but compliance and formality towards authority may be more common than in Canada. First names are used almost immediately with all colleagues. For an initial meeting with senior people, it may be advisable to err on the side of formality, and use Ms/Mr (not Mrs) for initial greetings. Although perhaps not necessary depending on the culture of the organisation, it will be appreciated.
Punctuality is important for business meetings, but time is more fluid for social events - don't be surprised to wait for up to an hour for an acquaintance to arrive. Note, however, that a double standard may be in place for non-locals, and you may be expected to arrive exactly on time. Overall, you can expect your employees to have a more flexible attitude to time, but not to getting the job done.
Working in Ireland is similar to any European nation. Western business attire or causal business attire is the norm depending on the exact environment. Generally superiors are addressed on a first name basis. However it is always best to ask ahead of time. The approach to time in Ireland is unique to say the least. The nation is known to be very laid back with regards to time. Especially the National Bus Service! However, this greatly fluctuates from region to region. Areas outside of Dublin are more laid back while Dublin at times can be sadly quite hectic. Yet at it's most hectic, Dublin remains hours behind most American cities. Your place of work may determine the attitude towards time. The cultural institution that I worked for was very laid back. The laid back approach to time in Ireland is one aspect of the country that has yet to fully change. For example, even in Dublin, a city of millions, there is no early Sunday bus or rail service!
Preferred managerial qualities
Demonstrating hard work, and being personable are key to gaining respect as a manager. Flexibility and the ability to improvise are also valued. Excessive praise, pressure, or the display of strong emotions in the workplace would not be the norm. Displays of self-importance or boasting about achievements will not, in general, be appreciated; competence would be better shown through actions. For some Irish people, it may be more difficult to say "No", so watch out for nuances when delegating tasks. Your Irish employees may be cliquish, and have higher expectations of a non-local manager. Being invited out to join in camaraderie of a social occasion is a sure sign of acceptance into the clan.
Qualities that are highly regarded in a superior or manager are very similar to North America. However, I would say that there might be a greater emphasis on experience as opposed to education, different from North America. I would say expectations remain the same for non-locals. Your staff will express their feelings as in any North American work environment, in casual conversation or in formal address.
Hierarchy and decision-making
A 2004 study from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) in Ireland reported that 28% of employees are rarely or almost never consulted before decisions are made that affect their work. Compared with Canada, Irish managers in general would make decisions on a more autonomous basis, with less consultation from senior or subordinate colleagues. Brainstorming, particularly between different levels in organization, would not be as common as in Canada.
In the same study, 73% of people said that partnership agreements in the workplace, involving management and unions, have a positive effect on their job satisfaction. In the light of this preference for consultation, a willingness to provide feedback and answers to your team would be greatly appreciated.
Again I would say that, these elements are similar to North America. Decisions tend to be made by the team but governed by the leader. It is most certainly permissible to go to superiors for immediate answers or feedback.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
As a society heavily influenced by Catholicism, the traditional role of mother and wife has dominated beliefs about women in Irish culture, and has been enshrined in the Constitution. Up until Ireland's accession to the European Community in 1973, women were obliged to resign from the civil service upon marriage. Since then, better education, declining fertility rates and an opportunity to earn higher wages have increased women's participation in the labour force. Married women, however, have a considerably lower participation rate compared to other European countries; the lack of childcare, and discriminatory tax policies are key factors. Occupational segregation is still very marked, and women are frequently found in low-paid, part-time, insecure and "low-skilled" occupations, with very few in senior management. The situation is changing, however, with the election of two women to the role of President within the last fifteen years. Compliance to European Union equal opportunity legislation has also promoted the status of women.
Catholicism has been a key factor shaping Irish society and culture. In recent years, however, the influence of the Catholic Church has begun to wane, and social values are beginning to converge with those of other European countries, particularly within the younger, urban and more educated population. Church scandals have contributed to this. Weekly Mass attendance still hovers around 60%, compared with the European average of 30%; many children also attend Catholic schools. There have been campaigns in recent years, however, to end the broadcast of the Angelus, a Catholic devotion, on RTE (the public broadcaster). Currently it is broadcast every night at 6.00 pm on RTE 1 (TV station), and on Radio 1 at noon and 6.00 pm.
Advances in the economic situation of Irish people in recent years have masked the impact of class. Social privilege in Ireland, in any case, is often dictated more by knowing whose back to scratch. In Dublin, many would say that you could tell a person's class by their postal code - the Dublin 4 or "D4" area being a prime example of one universally considered as well heeled.
Many people consider the Travelling People in Ireland as a distinct ethnic group. Similar to Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, Travellers have often experienced systemic discrimination, poverty and exclusion. Travelling People have a distinct dialect and follow a nomadic way of life. Since the advances in the Irish economy, Ireland has also become a magnet for immigrant workers from Eastern Europe and Africa. To facilitate the growing diversity of Ireland, in October 2005, the Government introduced the National Action Plan Against Racism, one of the most comprehensive anti-discrimination codes in Europe.
Despite still having a clause in the Irish Constitution stipulating that a woman's role is in the home, women tend to be on equal stance with men. However statistically, like in most Western nations, women are disproportionately paid and found in places of leadership. Additionally, abortion remains illegal in Ireland. Attitudes to sexual orientation are somewhat conservative. Differences are certainly tolerated but not exactly embraced.
As stated earlier views towards religion are changing. As little as 15 years ago Ireland was a staunchly Roman Catholic nation. However, with a continued secularization throughout the West and scandal after scandal in Ireland, the Church has greatly declined. While many may consider themselves Catholic they may not attend church and probably do not follow ideology. However, there still remains a large segment of the population, generally the young and old, that attend and follow ideology, you may say religiously!
Despite Ireland's famous economic progress there remains a substantial segment of the population that has remained poor. This especially true of the Travelling community in Ireland, better known as Tinkers or Gypsies, who live outside mainstream Ireland in inadequate embarrassing conditions. However, all in all there does not exist a stigma towards class in Ireland as, for example, there is in England.
This is a changing issue in Ireland. With economic success has come immigration to a nation so famous for emigration. Many different colours, languages, religions, and ethnicities are coming in to Ireland. This change has been hard to swallow for some of the Irish. Ignorance and scepticism towards immigrants and especially towards refugees remains rampant. However this does not mean the same for executive workers or travellers, who are well received and welcomed. The influx of the poor coming to Ireland seeking work has created new issues for the Emerald Isle, testing the tolerance of a nation so well received in the rest of the world.
As a small society, Ireland is very relationship-based, so it is very important to build rapport and trust to forge successful relationships with colleagues and clients.
Taking the time to get to know and chat with your colleagues or staff will go a long way. As a manager, buying lunch or an after-work round of drinks will promote loyalty in your team. Refusing an invitation to go for a drink with an Irish colleague or client may be considered poor form. Not drinking alcohol may also be taken in the same way. In social situations, each person must religiously take their turn to buy a round or drinks. At social events with clients, don't bring up business unless your client does so - the hard sell may be perceived as rude or pushy.
Establishing a personal relationship is beneficial though not essential. It is beneficial for somebody from a different cultural background as it would serve to break down certain barriers. A relationship could be established by going out for lunch or for a drink after work.
Privileges and favouritism
The social network is important to doing business in Irish society to a degree, but strict Irish and European equal opportunity policies, particularly in larger organizations, means that preferred treatment based on a personal relationship or friendship would not be tolerated. Rewarding an employee who went out of their way to get the job done with an opportunity for promotion, training, or some other legitimate benefit would be appreciated and remembered.
As in any culture exceptions are made on an individual basis. However, if you have a relationship with somebody, something as strong as blood or as simple as the same Alma Matter, some exceptions would be expected. Preferred treatment probably, but only to a certain extent; however, certainly not something like a pay raise!
Conflicts in the workplace
A work-related problem with a colleague should be addressed in private in a non-threatening environment. Inviting the colleague out for a coffee or after-work drink in a casual situation would be a suggestion. Some Irish people can be quite direct, so you may not need to wonder if you have offended someone. Out of politeness or so not to be seen as incapable, some Irish people may find it hard to say "No"; watch out for nuances if a team member does not immediately agree to a task you have given them.
If you have problem with a colleague, I would suggest confronting them directly in a private manner. If the problem cannot be remedied then I would approach my superior in a private manner. Indications of dissatisfaction in your work would most likely be expressed directly in a polite manner.
Motivating local colleagues
In a 2004 study by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) in Ireland, over 80% of employees appeared committed to their organization, though their loyalty generally would not go so far as turning down a better offer or tolerating a demotion to stay with their current company. In the same study, contract status (permanent / non-permanent), length of tenure, earnings, training, being able to work from home, and job sharing provided higher job satisfaction. Women, and senior managers were found to have higher levels of job satisfaction. Offering employees the opportunity of flexi-time, and implementing family-friendly policies had a general positive impact on stress. Giving employee's greater control and discretion over their jobs, and direct and regular consultation also had a positive effect.
Work colleagues would be motivated by job satisfaction, commitment, money, loyalty, good working conditions, and fear of failure in precisely that order.
Recommended books, films & foods
Ireland is not short of literary greats, but here is a small selection of contemporary fiction:
- Amongst Women - John McGahern
- The Butcher Boy - Patrick McCabe
- Shade - Neil Jordan
- Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha - Roddy Doyle
- The Book of Evidence - John Banville
- Are You Somebody? - Nuala O'Faolain
My Left Foot, The Crying Game, The General, The Magdalene Sisters, The Field, Intermission, Michael Collins, The Dead, The Van, The Snapper, Veronica Guerin.
Public: RTE 1, RTE 2 and TG4 (mostly Gaelic language programming)
TV3 (the only private broadcaster)
Broadcast on Friday nights since 1962, The Late Late Show is the longest-running talk show in Ireland. Deemed responsible for opening Irish minds to a range of subjects, including tricky social issues, it is said "there was no sex in Ireland until The Late Late Show"!
Places to visit
A relatively small country for a Canadian to navigate, Ireland offers a range of cultural, nature, and historical places to visit. A visit to the Gaeltacht (Irish speaking communities) on the Western seaboard, or attending one of the many music and cultural festivals that take place in Ireland throughout the year would be worthwhile.
Culinary experiences to try: a full Irish breakfast, a visit to a chip shop, and a carvery lunch at a good pub lounge. Also look into regional and seasonal fare, such as The Galway Oyster Festival during September, or colcannon and barm brack at Halloween.
If you're feeling homesick, Tim Hortons doughnuts and Timbits are now available at some convenience stores in Dublin, and in the Dublin Zoo.
- Irish Tourism Board: www.bordfailte.ie
- Portal site of RTE: www.rte.ie
- Government of Ireland: www.gov.ie
- Information on social and civil rights in Ireland: www.oasis.gov.ie
- Information on living in Ireland from the European Union: http://europa.eu.int/eures/home.jsp?lang=en
- 'How the Irish Saved Civilization' would be a very flattering book to read. 'Political Issues in Ireland Today', a collection of essays examining current debates.
- 'Reinventing Ireland: Culture and the Celtic Tiger', a similar to the above.
- 'The Commitments" - a popular film that looks at a Dublin on the crisp of the Celtic Tiger, as seen through the eyes of an amateur rock band.
- 'The Crying Game" - a celebrated film that ingeniously explores issues of Nationalism and love in 90's Ireland
- "Gangs of New York" - a film by Martin Scorsese that in addition to other issues gives a good conceptualization of the early Irish immigrant experience.
- "In America" - an Irish film that gives an inspiring look at the Irish immigrant experience some 135 years later.
- "Michael Collins" - a great film about a towering historical figure who in 1922 helped Ireland gain its long sought independence from Great Britain.
"The Late Late Show" is a once-weekly chat show that is also the longest running television program in the world.
Places to visit
- The West Coast of Ireland is a good to place to visit as it encapsulates all of rural Ireland and is outstandingly beautiful.
- Cork City, as it is my hometown!
- Belfast is definitely worth seeing to get an understanding of the North.
- Dublin, Ireland's capital, particularly its Georgian Squares and definitely its celebrated Literary Pub Crawl.
U2, the Chieftains, Tommy Tiernan, Dylan Moran
The main cities have a cosmopolitan entertainment, restaurant, bar, pub and club scene, and Dublin in particular is a popular spot for stag and hen parties for people from the UK. Smaller towns and villages are sure to have a pub or two. A variety of broadsheet and tabloid daily newspapers are available, e.g. Irish Times, Irish Independent, Cork Examiner, Daily Herald. Sunday newspapers containing extra supplements on travel, career, property, finance and other topics are worth the purchase.
Gaelic football and hurling are the most followed sports in Ireland. Although amateur sports, crowds of up to 80,000 people gather to see the All-Ireland Finals at Croke Park, a Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) stadium in Dublin. Camogie is a version of hurling played by women. Rugby or soccer internationals are also worth a look. The Irish bloodstock industry is considered one of the finest in the world, so a jaunt to one of the many race-tracks around Ireland will be time well spent. A visit to the dog track is also recommended.
I would certainly recommend reading local newspapers, watching local television, and listening to the local radio. Major urban areas have an abundance of tourist related activities that can get you familiar with local culture. If you are looking for a 'cultural informant' all you have to do is ask the first person you see!
Eamon DeValera, Michael Collins, Padraig Pearse, Charles Parnell, Daniel O'Connell, Brian Boru
Christy Moore, Bob Geldof, Bono, John McCormick, Luke Kelly, Phil Lynott, Rory Gallagher, Sean O'Riada
George Best, Stephen Roche, Roy Keane, Barry McGuigan, Ronnie Delaney, Jonjo O'Neill
Fionn McCumhaill, Cuchalainn
Patrick Kavanagh, Samuel Beckett, Christy Browne, Brian Friel, Benedict Keily, Sean O'Casey, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, Brendan Behan
Ireland's national heroes fall into three categories: mythological figures, historical figures, and religious figures.
Cuchulain and Finn McCool.
Brain Boru, Daniel O'Connell, Charles Stuart Parnell, Michael Collins and Eamon DeValera.
St. Patrick and St Brigid.
Shared historical events with Canada
Immigration of Irish people to Canada over the past several hundred years has forged links between the two countries. In recent times, the involvement of General John de Chastelain in the Northern Ireland peace process and arms decommissioning was good publicity for Canada's profile in Ireland.
The only shared historical events that would affect work or social relations would be positive. Like America, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand, Canada has a strong history of Irish immigration. The Irish Potato Famine (1845-1848) sent thousands to Eastern Canada. Canada remains to this day home to some two or three million people who claim Irish descent.
Sadly, the general Irish perception of Canada is that it's a more friendly, polite and cultured version of America. Canadian tourism is not well promoted in Ireland - this is a shame, as Irish people are world travellers and are missing out on experiencing all that Canada has to offer. Of note is that University College Dublin, Ireland's largest university, offers a program in Canadian Studies. The program seeks to interpret and promote study of the historical and contemporary distinctiveness of the peoples, cultures and environment of Canada, as well as Canada's contributions to the world.
Only those stated in the first question regarding drinking, religion, and the British. Also all Canadians should well expect to be called Americans. Even though Canada has a special place in the hearts of the Irish, Canadians will still accidentally and continuously be called Americans.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in England of Irish parentage, and is the youngest of five children. From the age of ten months, she was raised between South County Dublin and East Wicklow (in the east of Ireland) until the age of 17. She moved to Dublin to continue her studies, and graduated with a Bachelor of Social Sciences from University College Dublin. After a six-month stint in the US and a four-year séjour in Belgium, during which she studied at the University of Leuven, your cultural interpreter immigrated to Canada. She is currently living in Ottawa and working in the field of training and consulting.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Cork, Ireland the youngest of 3 children, to an Irish-Catholic family. He was raised in this city until the age of 5, when he moved to Toronto, remaining in Canada till this day. He graduated from McGill University at the age of 22. His personal aspirations sent him abroad for the first time alone in 1998, when he was 14, to visit family in London and Ireland. He traveled to Ireland and Europe 3 times after that for work and leisure. In May 2005 your cultural interpreter went to Ireland, where he lived for a year and a half.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.