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Step Right Up spacer Issue 4
Step Right Up - Harp Lager
by Paul Moore
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It is perhaps fitting that the first bottle of Harp lager went on sale in Northern Ireland in June 1960. The cultural revolution that would bring sex and drugs to the streets and cul de sacs of Parochial Ville was just about to be launched and the drink that Guinness hoped would fuel this new movement, the drink that would be the constant companion to every form of debauchery the young could muster, was to be Harp. The black stuff, beloved of flat caps and serious male connoisseurs of beverages served in pint glasses would always be the real thing, but here was a modern drink, a lighter confection that would appeal to both males and females in this brave new world.
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While Smithwicks grounded you in rural Ulster, as you skipped over turnstiles with two tired-looking dogs, and while Guinness assumed the world would never question the notion that it was, indeed, good for you, Harp was always an urban liquid, grounded in weekend reveries, student drinking rituals and carrier bag etiquette. It was the key icon in young male drinking culture. For culture it was. Not a culture in the sense of a community linked by language, religion or place, but a culture that was the very epitome of the definition coined in the same decade by that great social commentator Raymond Williams when he suggested that culture was ordinary, culture was every day lived experience.
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One of the advertising slogans for Harp was 'Have you heard the call yet?' and many were those who heeded the call, an almost religious determination to down as many pints of the golden nectar which tasted, as one disciple on the internet opined, as though it was made from spent Armalite bullet casings. Even the distinctive Brian Ború harp that emblazoned each bottle and tin articulated the ambiguity inherent in any young person growing up during the so-called Troubles - whose culture is it anyway? All you were sure of was that each drop was 'brewed in Ireland - naturally'.
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And it was the 'naturally' that was crucial. Here was a marketing strategy that hoped Harp would become the natural drink for young people, establishing a friendship that would then be taken into marriage and later life because unlike other drinks 'Harp - stays fresh to the bottom of the glass'.
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Perhaps it is the case that Harp only really works for cultures that are developing. This might explain the fact that it is now brewed and is selling in huge quantities in Nigeria. There the advertising message is more staid, with overt references to the lager's bigger brother, Guinness, and campaigns that extol the apparent virtues of qualities such as strength, friendliness, responsibility, reasonableness and intelligence. Qualities which, one might hazard a guess, would not get you far on a late Friday night in Shaftsbury Square.
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Ironically, as the older, staid brother that is Guinness became the trendy tipple for both sexes, Harp advertising became more and more desperate. Huge billboards filled with gigantic ice-cold pints lose their romance somewhat on a wet gable wall in Dungiven (or wherever), and television ads filmed late at night in quarries with painfully hip young men and women who were more at home with alcopops, were passé before they left the digital editing suite.
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But it probably is a part of our culture; the part that accepts that adolescent boys and girls of a certain age will need to experience the bitter taste of an easily available, inexpensive initiation into an adult world of wine, whiskey and weekend waffle. And some of them never really grow out of it. So for me, to quote a famous advertising campaign - 'Time for a swift exit - time for a cool, sharp Harp'!
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Step Right Up - Harp Lager
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