Celtic Tiger, Riverdance and the Export of Culture

On May 20, 2012

By the 1960s, Ireland was repairing its poor economy, with a new Taoiseach in Sean LeMass and a strong focus on fiscal policy alongside high-quality, low-cost secondary education, allowing the country to create a skilled workforce (Casey and Lee 2006 p. 139). The country had began changing policies to welcome foreign business and move away from its previous protectionism by abolishing the Controls of Manufacturers Act in 1957 (Murphy 2000, p. 8). The IDA (part of the Department of Industry and Commerce) was introduced in 1969 to encourage foreign businesses investment, and the country became attractive due to its foreign investor grant schemes and low business tax (Dorgan 2006, p. 3). However, this did not immediately benefit those already raised in a poor education system, many of whom were illiterate. For this generation, manual labour abroad was still the only realistic opportunity.

By the 1970s, the economy was beginning to show signs of improvement. Public expenditure (GDP per capita) grew from 32% (1960) to 42% (1973). Alongside Ireland’s entry into the European Union in 1973 came investment interest from Europe and the USA (Dorgan 2006, p. 2). However, the decade brought more ups and downs: inflation rates grew rapidly through the late 1970s and 1980s, alongside unemployment rates and government expenditure (Dorgan 2006, p. 3). The oil crisis brought many countries to the brink of recession, and emigration began to take hold again in Ireland. Over 200,000 left between 1981 and 1990.

In 1995,  Ireland experienced an unprecedented economic boom; GDP hit a peak of 8% and and employment was at its highest rate in since fiscal retrenchment policies were introduced in 1987 (Murphy 2000, p. 5). Heavy investment from the IT sector combined with a skilled and well educated local workforce brought the country many multinational corporations. In this short spell, the country transformed itself from one of the poorest to one of the richest in Europe. 

Ireland also saw cultural exports such as U2, The Corrs, Sinead O’Connor, Mary Black and Enya strengthen its music industry: between 1996-2001 Irish artists won 48 platinum awards (Henry, p. 81). The Irish film industry boomed, from movies and directors to actors (Keohane et al. n.d). However, a different art form gave Ireland a new cultural torchbearer – Riverdance. 

Ireland had been successful in back-to-back Eurovision Song Contests, highlighting the popularity of its musical and cultural exports. A small interval performance piece during the 1994 contest, however, became one of Ireland’s most successful stage shows. After its Eurovision success, the producers (John McColgan and Moya Doherty) turned it into a full-length production. In 1995, an estimated 170,000 people attended the show during its eight-week Dublin debut – equivalent to 10% of the Irish population between 15-64 (Henry 2007, p. 82). After Dublin, the show was sent to strategically chosen London and New York to capitalise on their Irish populations. It combined energetic dancing and music from Ireland with elements from Spain, Russia and North America. The show’s multicultural approach – and the effects of globalisation – meant that it quickly gathered an international fan base and soon became the new symbol of Irish modenity (Wulff 2008, p. 121). 

However, Riverdance is in fact a hybrid of the modern and the traditional (Wyndham 2006, p. 124). Irish step dancing has undergone many transitions in the 20th century, influenced not only by artistic movements but also the earlier discussed discourses in Catholicism and its relationship with the state (Keohan et al. n.d.). Certain movements and interactions were controlled, and particular dances were sanctioned by the church and state. Though competitive Irish dancing has become more elaborate in its footwork and costumes, rigid postures and straight arms remain. Riverdance sought to change much of this, simplifying the costumes and introducing dances with arm movements, synonymous now with lead dancer Michael Flatley (Keohan et al. n.d.). The result presented a new and exciting way of displaying Irish traditional dancing to a much wider audience. 

Irish dance became very popular globally, with both Irish and non-Irish involved in classes and competitions. A department (An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha – CLRG) set up by the Gaelic League in 1929 oversaw the progress and regulation of Irish dancing competition (Wulff 2008, p. 93). 

Riverdance spent 18 weeks on top of the Irish music charts and was top ten in the UK, contributing greatly to the Irish creative industry and to its economy (Henry 2007, p. 83). However, although Riverdance appeared during a time of growing economic prosperity in Ireland, Doherty was ultimately disappointed that more cultural entrepreneurship didn’t follow from Riverdance:

 “I’m surprised – I expected more to happen since Riverdance… I would have thought that we had sown the seeds for a younger generation, because of all of the travel, the different cultures in Riverdance; … I think what is happening at the moment, and maybe this is what has always happened, is that it is driven by the individual.  And the landscape and the scene is very much set by an individual…” (Doherty: Keohane, ND)

There is no monetary prize in dance competitions, so for dancers seeking a career, Irish dance shows like Riverdance act as a realistic career development path with opportunity to travel. (O’Connor 2003, p. 134). Irish dancers have seen their cultural hobby become professional careers; popularity has lead to Irish dance schools growing in number and many school leavers have the opportunity to create cultural professions by joining one of the many Irish dance shows which exist today thanks to Riverdance, or by completing a formal teaching qualification (TCRG) and opening an official school linked to CLRG or similar organisations. 


Dorgan, S. (2006) How Ireland became the Celtic Tiger. Executive Summary Backgrounder. The Heritage Foundation No. 1945. Available at <http://www.peterbloecker.de/celtictiger1.pdf> (accessed 30 April).

Keohan, K., Kavanagh, D., Kuhling, C. (n.d.). The Creative Scene of Riverdance: Artrepreneurship and the Celtic Tiger; Cork: University College Cork.

Henry, C. (2007). Entrepreneurship in the Creative Industries: An International Perspective. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Lee, J. and Casey, M. (2006). Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States. New York: NYU Press.

Murphy, A. (2000). The ‘Celtic Tiger’ – An Analysis of Ireland’s Economic Growth Performance. San Domenico: European University Press.

O’Connor, B (2003). ‘Come and Daunce with Me in Irlande’; Tourism, Dance and Globalisation in  Irish Tourism. Clevedon: Channel View Press.

Wulff, H. (2008). Dancing at the Crossroads: Memory and Mobility in Ireland. Stockholm: Berghahn Books.

Wyndham, A. (2006). Re-Imagining Ireland. Virginia: University of Virginia Press.


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