Caffrey’s Irish Ale/New York

I’ve used, on and off, for years an advert for Caffrey’s Irish Ale to talk about semiotics.

You probably remember it: reflections of a New York street, four guys walking down it, tenement blocks, metal fire escapes, yellow cabs, and then a heaving bar where people talk and argue and drink and one of them orders a beer whilst the others play pool. One of them knocks back a pint, and the camera pans around him and there’s a shift from the noisy bar to a green landscape with an abandoned boat, a long-haired woman, a priest leading a group of hockey players, old men in a bar, a skinny horse bolting down the street past a laundrette, bicycles abandoned in a ginnel,.. And back in the bar the young men look at each other.

Get a room.

There’s a shift in the music, too, from House of Pain’s “Jump Around” (1992), with its sampled fanfare and screeches, to something more Irish, more “Danny Boy”. As Brown notes, “Caffrey’s Irish Ale amalgamates cutting-edge brewing technology with cod-Celtic iconography to concoct a brand new old-fashioned beverage” (Brown 2001, 461). There’s more to this than meets the eye.

I’ve always wanted the students to pick at the signifiers, to gauge the indexicality of the various details and above all to note the two contrasted paradigms, New York and Ireland. And what a cliched Ireland it is, “an ersatz amalgam of Yeats’s Celtic Twilight, Ford’s The Quiet Man and Flatley’s Lord of the Dance (Brown 2000, 143). What precisely have they put in his beer? It should be a familiar enough pattern State A is transformed into State B via product X. Flattery, fear, transformation. Gain these qualities.

Except, of course, a curiosity as to which state is preferable. Some of the students seem to prefer New York, despite the bustle, the violence, the barely repressed homosexuality… and meanwhile that horse was clearly destined for glue and what is that priest up to and who fell off their bikes? Anthony Patterson, Stephen Brown, Lorna Stevens and Pauline Madaran, academics in Northern Ireland, all viewed the advert and analysed it, coming to rather different readings. the two women “place the city and the lads tenderfooting around it in a subtopic context” (Patterson et al 1998, 742), whereas the men wanted to experience New York.

And that Irish music… it’s familiar but it’s not “Danny Boy”. It’s a cue by Carter Burwell for the Irish-American gangster pastiche Miller’s Crossing (Coen brothers, 1990). Not authentic Irish at all. So…

Nicholas Caffrey established a brewery in Dublin in 1776, not that far from the Guinness premises on the Liffey. A descendent, Thomas Richard Caffrey, went to a brewery in Belfast, once owned by Clotworthy Dobbin, to learn the trade and married the late owner’s youngest daughter. The brewery was rebuilt on Glen Road, Andersontown, West Belfast, and passed through a number of Caffreys before the brewery was sold to the Ulster Brewing Company in 1950. In 1964, the Ulster Brewing Company was acquired by Charrington United Breweries, which itself merged with Burton-on-Trent’s Bass in 1967. The Irish Ale was launched in 1994, and proved to be remarkably successful, selling as much as could be brewed.

The Caffrey family had thrived in Ireland when it had been part of the United Kingdom, with the existing brewery staying in the United Kingdom with the establishment of Northern Ireland. Glen Road is close to the Falls Road, one of the epicentres of the Troubles. I’ve no idea what the politics of the Caffrey family were, but the faux Irish identity drawn on by a company based in the English Midlands is awkward.

In 2000, when changes in the law over brewing and pub ownership came in, Caffrey’s was sold to InterBrew. In 2001 it was sold on to Coors, who in 2001 acquired the American import rights from Carling. Coors was an American company, Carling Canadian, so again there is a mix of faux Irish and American in the brand’s history. Meanwhile, Coors eventually shifted emphasis to Killian’s for their Irish beer of American choice; in effect this boosted Guinness sales.

There are clearly national connotations which Caffrey’s wanted to associate itself with – maintaining an ambiguity as to whether drinking it will make you nostalgic for an Ireland you were never really part of or aspire to a hip New York you could never be part of.

I still wonder what the pint must have been spiked with to make him have such a vision.


  • Brown, Stephen (2000), “Tradition on Tap: the Mysterious Case of Caffrey’s Irish Ale”, The Marketing Review, 1(2), pp. 137-63.
  • Brown, Stephen (2001) “Marketing for Muggles: Harry Potter and the Retro Revolution”, Journal of Marketing Management, 17(5-6), pp. 463-79.
  • Patterson, Anthony, Stephen Brown, Lorna Stevens and Pauline Maclaran (1998) “Casting a Critical ‘I’ Over Caffrey’s Irish Ale: Soft Words, Strongly Spoken”, Journal of Marketing Management, 14(7), pp. 733-748.