The Toxicity of Taxonomy- Stereotyping the Irish

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

For years I had confidently attributed one of my favorite quotations to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All generalizations are dangerous including this one”. It seems it was not Emerson. Some have claimed it for Mark Twain because he often wrote witty things like that. Now, it seems that the favourite is Alexander Dumas but am not sure whether it was père or fils.

The most dangerous generalizations are those about race.

Can’t you take a joke, you Irish thicko?

A very dear friend of mine keeps sending me e-mails with titles like “You’ve got to love the Irish”. These e-mails are compilations of “Irish jokes”.  My secondary response, after the initial “racist bitch” was: “Why have you got to love the Irish?” Her reply was: “Because they are so dumb”.

I patiently explained to her that, although the jokes did indeed illustrate elements of  stupidity, they were actually made-up stories and were not evidence of stupidity in the real world. Indeed, if the jokes are constructed by an Irish person, they often demonstrate ans Irish person getting the better of someone else through faux naïvety.

Call me literal-minded, pedantic if you must. “Political correctness gone mad” some will cry.

My very first (and very mild) comment on an Open Salon  post many years ago caused the poster to call me a nasty little troll in public. His ‘real-life-friend’ (RLF)  applauded him and, when I objected, said that I was mentally ill. As evidence on OS of my unsurpassed genius became  unassailable, RLF began to court me with endless praise and urged others to read my brilliant work. He called me wise and witty. Unfortunately, he found it impossible to address me without adopting a stage-Oirish accent. I asked him why he did this, why my mere Irishness was so irresistibly risible to him. I asked him if he would ever contemplate addressing his hero Obama in the tones of a nigger minstrel. He fell out with me again and called me “prickly”.

Where is my sense of humor for God’s sake!?

George Bernard Shaw, in his essays, warned English tourists not to visit Ireland because the Irish were determined to resist English illusions about them: “it is a point of honour with the Modern Irishman to have no sense of humour”. Modern Ireland was in full reaction against both servility and the construct of  the “stage Irishman”.

In this essay I will mainly be concentrating on the fraught Irish/British relationship, but there is a good deal of literature about  Irish identity in the USA.

In an essay entitled “Passing from Light into Dark,” in the Journal of Multimedia Studies, John McClymer  set out to “deepen and complicate the ongoing scholarly conversation about race, ethnicity, acculturation, and their interrelationships”. He compared the acculturation of other European immigrants in the USA with the Irish experience. “Becoming ‘American’  meant entering a culture in which European and other nationality groups contended with each other — as well as with their Yankee ‘hosts’ — for pride of place. It was a culture which insisted upon the salience of ethnic stereotypes. In 1883, for example, the first Swedish Directory, a compilation of all the names, addresses, and occupations of Worcester’s Swedes, contained this joke, in Swedish. The priest asks:

‘Patrick, the widow Murphy says you stole one of her best pigs.
Yes, Father.
What have you done with it?
I slaughtered it and ate it up, Father.
Oh, Patrick, what will you answer on Judgment Day when you stand face-to-face with the widow and her pig and she accuses you of having stolen it?
Father, did you say the pig will be there?
Yes, of course I said that!
Well then, I would answer: ‘Mrs. Murphy, now you have your pig back!’

Few of the Directory’s readers had been in the United States for more than a couple of years. Yet they were already learning ‘Pat and Mike’ jokes. This suggests that ethnicity itself was a form of acculturation rather than an alternative to it.”

Seeing the funny side of genocide

Someone called David Price did a post on Open Salon titled “Solution to the Irish Problem”. Please  join his imaginary friends  and read it for your enlightenment.

The solution to the “Irish problem” was to send all the Irish to Holland where they would be incompetent enough to flood the place and subsequently perish by drowning. Imagine someone writing a post entitled “Solution to the Jewish Problem” or “Solution to the African-American Problem” in which the solution consisted of extermination of a race by drowning. Hitler had a “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem”.

Racism and misogyny

People who are prejudiced against one group will probably be prejudiced against another.
An Open Salon  blogger calling himself  XJS and Me (who had written posts about his friendships with “negros” and his sexual relations with an under-age girl)  weighed in with remarks like “Don’t worry- Padraig is having his period”. “I also attempted to find pics of Plaidrag C and was constantly directed to sites listing proctologists.”

“plaidrag mumbles and whines: ‘I don’t love misogyny, homophobia, racism, plagiarism and bad grammar.’ Proof that the whiny little baby hates itself’.”

“I’m surprised that an Irishman wouldn’t understand when someone is teasing them and think they’re attempting to pick a fight. I guess your mind doesn’t work without a sufficient amount of I spell my name with the letters of the alphabet.”

I replied: “There you go again with the racial stereotyping. You have no idea whether I take alcohol or not. Many Irishmen take a pledge of abstinence by wearing a Pioneer pin. I am living in Sri Lanka where Buddhist precepts forbid alcohol. You assume things about me without any knowledge because of my racial origin. That is what is called racial prejudice.

Why should an Irishman be expected to take it? The Irish sense of humor is meant to include taking insults from ignorant bigots. If they object they are lacking in a sense of humor, like those uppity ‘negros’.”

History of the Irish stereotype.

Although he was Irish, Edmund Burke was no Irish separatist. Nevertheless, he  questioned the common English view that the Irish were rebellious and emotional children. He saw in English stereotypes of the Irish, projections onto a neighbouring people of elements which the English denied or despised in themselves. He empathised with India and prophesied the end of empire even before it had fully formed.  In the House of Lords,  he said in 1794: “I do not know a greater insult that can be offered to a man born to command than to find himself made a tool to a set of obscure men, come from an unknown country, without anything to distinguish them but an usurped power…”

Matthew Arnold opposed Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill because the “idle and imprudent Irish” were too infantile to govern themselves. According to Declan Kiberd, Arnold did not allow lack of knowledge to prevent him considering himself an authority on Ireland. “He was the ultimate surveyor, the Celt the consummately surveyed”. Even those who actually studied the Irish at close hand in later years were often guided by his unsubstantiated theorising. The stubborn complexities of real life had to be shoe-horned into Arnold’s simplistic schema. As Declan Kiberd put it, recalcitrant reality  “had to be converted back into a more familiar terminology of books over facts. And yet it was with the tyranny of facts that Arnold had proclaimed the Celt quite unable to cope!”

Anti-Irish behaviour was a part of British life from the Middle Ages and the stereotype was a long time in the making (remember Shakespeare has a comic Irishman, Captain Macmorris,  in Henry V). The mid-Victorian years – between the Famine and the emergence of the Home Rule movement – witnessed by far the most intense examples. In his book, The Eternal Paddy, Michael de Nie examines anti-Irish prejudice, Anglo-Irish relations, and the construction of Irish and British identities in nineteenth-century Britain. The Eternal Paddy offers a detailed analysis of British press coverage of Ireland over the course of the nineteenth century. This book traces the evolution of popular understandings and proposed solutions to the “Irish question,” focusing particularly on the interrelationship between the press, the public, and the politicians.

De Nie claims that British press opinion about the Famine was profoundly influenced by ideas about Irish incapacity. The very Irishness of the Irish was the reason for their problems. The remedy was to encourage the Irish to be more British. Ireland needed to become a country of industrious, well-fed farmers, free of peasant superstition and fecklessness and of grasping, wasteful landlords.

Declan Kiberd has written: “The stereotypical Paddy could be charming or threatening by turns. The vast numbers of Irish immigrants who fetched up in England’s cities and towns throughout the 19th century found that they were often expected to conform to the stereotype: and some, indeed, did so with alacrity…Coming from windswept, neolithic communities of the western Irish seaboard to the centres of industrial England, many found it easier to don the mask of the Paddy than reshape a complex urban identity of their own. Acting the buffoon, they often seemed harmless and even loveable characters to the many English workers who might otherwise have deeply resented their willingness to take jobs at lower rates of pay”.

The stage Irishman

The “stage Irishman” made an appearance in the novels of Charles Lever  and Samuel Lover (sitting alphabetically on my bookshelf – Lever and Lover) as well as in the theatre. Mackatawdry, Mackafarty,  Phaelim O’Blunder and  Bet Botheram O’Balderdash were characters created to portray the Irish as buffoons.  Playwrights from Ireland created similar  characters to ingratiate themselves with the London audience. However, a recurrent strategy of the Anglo-Irish writers was to subvert the stereotype by allowing their characters to defeat others with comical aplomb while pretending to be stupid.

Dion Boucicault developed a more sympathetic stereotype in his sentimental melodramas (one of his characters provided Flann O’Brien with one of his many pseudonyms, Myles na Gopaleen).  Somerville and Ross  wrote a series of books set in the 1890s  that became a TV series starring Peter Bowles in the 1980s. My Irish father did not live to see the series but would not allow the books in the house. It is significant that the TV series was a co-production of Ulster TV and Radio Telefís Éireann, epitomising the complicity of the Irish in their own stereotyping. In one episode at a servants’ ball,  a groom called  Slipper says  that ‘The English and the Irish understand each other like the fox and the hound,’ to which a lady replies, ‘But which is which?’ The answer is, ‘Ah well, if we knew that, we’d know everything!’ Somerville and Ross provided a rural buffoonery  that pre-echoes some of the attitudes of affectionate indulgence combined with  amused superiority that one still finds today in some jokes about “the Irish”.

My enjoyment of one of my favourite films, Bringing up Baby is somewhat marred by the “comic” antics of Barry Fitzgerald.

Irish people did not take these distortions lying down. A movie called Smiling Irish Eyes (1929) was taken off at Dublin’s Savoy after demonstrations led by the actor Cyril Cusack and a future president of Ireland. Hitchcock’s version of Sean O’Casey’s  Juno and the Paycock   was burnt by crowds in Limerick in 1931. Cusack’s daughter Sinead, Mrs Jeremy Irons, is currently appearing in that play at the Royal National Theatre in London.

There have been protests in Ireland recently about a video game  called Red Dead Redemption . One of the characters in the game,  the town drunk, is called “Irish” and is, the game says, “usually found stumbling around and getting into trouble with sober townsfolk while attempting to talk his way out”.

Anti- Irish cartoons.

In his essay “Paddy and Mr Punch”, Irish historian, Roy Foster, describes how the satirical magazine Punch from the 1850s on, in its cartoons, described the Irish as bestial. “Bestial”  was closely related to races with darker skins  and John Beddoe’s ideas on skin colour were influential in finding “negrescence” in the Irish and Welsh.

A charming piece in Punch: “A creature manifestly between the Gorilla and the Negro is to be met with in some of the lowest  districts of London and Liverpool by adventurous explorers. It comes from Ireland, whence it has contrived to migrate…When conversing with its kind it talks a sort of gibberish. It is, moreover,  a  climbing animal, and may sometimes be seen ascending a ladder with a hod of bricks…The somewhat superior ability of the Irish Yahoo to utter articulate sounds, may suffice to prove that it is a development, and not, as some imagine, a degeneration of the Gorilla.”

When a scheme was hatched in 1852, to set up an Irish sugar beet industry, Punch compared the Irish  with the “lazy West Indian Negro”.  “See vomited from hundreds of ships , to crawl like wingless vermin over the country, tens of thousands of Irish, the sons and daughters of beggary; the blight of their own land, and the curse of the Saxon”.

Perry Curtis in Anglo-Saxons and Celts, published in 1968,  just as the British army was moving into Northern Ireland, offers the thesis that Victorian caricaturists had a deliberate intent to portray the Irish as subhuman and therefore deserving of oppression. Punch’s cartoons became more virulent as the Irish turned to violence in response to their oppression. An Irish  beggar approaches John Bull: “Spare a thrifle, yer Honour, for a poor Irish lad to buy a bit of…a Blunderbuss with”.

In 1971, Curtis published  Apes and Angels: the Irishman in Victorian Caricature (1971). Its central thesis was that Victorian anti-Irishness was fundamentally racist. According to Curtis, an American, images of the Irish in political cartoons underwent a change from  harmless, whiskey-drinking peasants to  apelike monsters threatening  law, order, and middle- class values.

Mass Irish migration coincided with industrialisation, Catholic emancipation, Fenianism, Irish agrarian violence and the struggle for political independence. All of these made the Irish Other appear threatening. The incoming group provided a ready-made scapegoat for the disease, overcrowding, immorality, drunkenness and crime of the urban world.

Catholic chapels were attacked in 1882 and Irish iron workers driven from Tredegar in Wales. “Every Irishman who showed himself out of his house was stoned, and his house, in many cases, gutted, his furniture being thrown out and destroyed,” according to one police report. Similar incidents have occurred in more recent times in reaction to the Birmingham and Guildford pub bombings. I recall sitting in the Irish Club in Gloucester  with my sainted aunt who was on a visit with her son and his wife. Our pleasant evening was marred by a brick being thrown through the window.

Patronising preconceptions

Even in high-flown literary criticism, patronising stereotypes can be found. The fiery Irish poet and critic Tom Paulin (he has been called an anti-Semite for his strong views on Palestine) takes  the highly esteemed Canadian critic, Hugh Kenner, to task. “For Kenner, Ireland is a paradise of speech, a land flowing with soft and honeyed words. He believes ‘that the mind of Ireland is held by the reality of talk,’  … What Kenner terms ‘an Irish Fact’ .. is something that exists only in the mind of the beholder or on the tongue of the talker. The result of this conception of Paddy the Big Mouth is a critical prose which first wraps itself in a rebarbative stage-Irishness and then tries to insinuate that it is really ironising its own loquacity”.

Paulin’s view is that Kenner is adopting a prose style that “exports Irishness to Britain and America, an essentially comic and servile style that reduces all Irish people to clowns falling about in the darling haze of barroom chat and overworked anecdote.”

Yeats’s stated mission for the Abbey Theatre was, Paulin believes, more noble than this exalted Paddywhackery. Yeats’s mission statement: “We will show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and of easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the home of an ancient idealism. We are confident of the support of the Irish people, who are weary of misrepresentation, in carrying out a work that is outside all the political questions that divide us”.

Contemporary representations of Irishness

Mary Hickman of London Metropolitan University  and Bronwen Walter of Anglia Ruskin University have done extensive research in this area, some of it commissioned by British and Irish government bodies.

Professor Hickman has argued that the Irish have been victims of the myth of a British homogeneous white society, that all people who were “white smoothly assimilated into the ‘British way of life’ and that all the problems resided with those who possessed a different skin colour. Different skin colour was taken to represent different culture.” According to Professor Walter: “Hybrid identities of people of Irish descent in England are denied by the ‘white’ mainstream but persist in private interstitial spaces of resistance”.

The myth of white assimilation  ignored the problems that the Irish could encounter in Britain as, when it suited the host population, they  were perceived to have the same advantages. Johnny Rotten’s autobiography is entitled No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish. The title refers to a sign which appeared outside many lodging houses. . My father encountered prejudice when he first went to England in the 1930s. Prejudice persists today as the difference of the Irish is demonstrated by representing them  as drunks and fraudsters in newspapers and  television programmes. Retail entrepreneur, Phillip Green, head of the BHS and Top Shop empire, said of The Guardian’s financial editor, Paul Murphy, when he carried out an investigation into Mr. Green’s accounts, that the Irish were illiterate.  Paul Murphy was born in Oldham and was brought up in Portsmouth. This is an example of  continued racism against the Irish in Britain and stereotyping by name.

Hickman argues that the negative perception of Irishness throughout the years in Britain has created a lot of pressure on the Irish. Their need to assert their identity and their difference has been largely ignored in mainstream British society. Living in the country of the ‘coloniser’ and the negative imaging around the former ‘colonised’ have contributed to their  difficulties. Frantz Fanon wrote  that colonialism must not be understood simply as an economic or a political process but also as a psychological and an ideological one.


Like Roy Foster, Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton recognises that “not all stereotypes are pejorative or patronising”. “The Irish were never just gorillas with gelignite.” “When the English middle classes of the day desired a mode of sensibility less martial and frigid than that of their autistic rulers, it was often enough to the Celtic fringes that they turned”.

Although the Irish might have been seen as a threatening Other their closeness to England could make them unthreatening given the right circumstances. As Eagleton says: “It would be surprising if people who have shared roughly the same cultural and material circumstances over long periods of time did not manifest some psychological traits in common.”  Just as  an English visitor, if not dissuaded by GBS, would find Ireland ineffably foreign but also at the same time reassuringly familiar.

All in all, it is a complex fate to be Irish. England is seen as the old enemy and oppressor but many of us have English as well as Irish blood. The proximity of the two nations means that their history and culture are intertwined. Most Irish people living in Ireland speak English and watch English TV. England is covered with a rash of “Irish” theme pubs.

Irish Historian Diarmaid Ferriter is not sympathetic to the protests about Red Dead Redemption.  “Irish emigrants developed reputations for drinking too much, be it in London or in America. Most Irish characters in early 20th century film were fiery and drunk, and that was 100 years ago. Even in the late 1950s, the Irish prime minister,Sean Lemass, made an official complaint to the BBC about plays and television programmes portraying the Irish as drunks. I don’t see how we can get all pious with it. The difference now, though, is that Ireland trades on the drunken stereotype and therefore should not be surprised when it is picked up by popular culture.”

Prejudice certainly does still exist even on Open Salon. It is of that sneering kind which sets out to condescend and humiliate and then says “can’t you take a joke”. On the other hand, there was a period, it may have passed, when it was fashionable to be Irish.