(Reading time main text: 10 mins.)
Current media news reports quote James McClean, a player for the English Football League club Stoke City and for the soccer team of the Irish State1, protesting against being subjected to anti-Irish racism and his wife Erin also, not so much on her own behalf but in consideration of her three children. McClean points out that while other kinds of discrimination are rightly opposed, anti-Irish racism goes largely ignored by British society and by the football profession. Despite its existence for 800 years and its persistence today, anti-Irish racism has long been neglected in the study of racism and the struggle against it.
James MacClean, who comes from Derry, has been made a controversial figure by his refusal to comply with the expectation that he wear a Remembrance Poppy, which he correctly sees as a promotional emblem for the British Army. As a result he has been subjected to sectarian Loyalist abuse and anti-Irish abuse targeting him and his family.
The origins of anti-Irish racism can be traced back to the writings of Anglo-Norman Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) in the latter half of the 12th Century. Coming from a background of Norman feudal culture and a comparatively recent history of conquest of large parts of Celtic and Saxon Britain2, Gerald found little to admire in Gaelic culture3 or society and much to deride. The feudal Norman visitors were encountering a culture of clan ownership of land, of election of clan leaders and greater kings who might not be first-born, of a Christian clergy that was not celibate and in which women could own their own property before, during and after marriage with the right to divorce. A culture shock indeed.
The writings of Gerald helped justify the 1169 opportunistic invasion of Ireland at the invitation of a resentful overthrown Irish king. With that beachhead well-established and the Irish Vikings of Dublin evicted by Richard de Clare, “Strongbow” in 1170, anti-Irish racism served to justify the official invasion of Henry in 1171 backed up by the authorisation of Pope Adrian IV with the Papal Bull Laudabiliter, a 1155 letter of ecclesiastic authorisation, to bring the semi-independent Irish church to the Gregorian Reforms.4
Despite the early scorn and distaste of the Norman invaders for Irish culture, within less than two centuries they were becoming integrated with it to such an extent as to cause alarm among the English Normans. The latter drafted a number of laws forbidding elements of that integration, the most infamous being the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366, forbidding the Irish Normans from adopting native Irish customs, forms of dress and use of the Irish language; they had become “more Irish than the Irish themselves”, their critics in England complained. Inside the “Pale”, the central enclosures of the occupiers’ power, the Statutes could be enforced but not outside and so Ireland remained essentially Gaelic in culture, with some cultural transference from the Normans.
For the conquest to be secure, Ireland needed to be conquered entirely and plantations of people seemed the way to achieve this: send in settlers, give them expropriated land which they they would have to defend. This was the approach of the Tudor monarchs of England and to a requirement that the settlers would be English-speaking they added the new religion, that of the Protestant Reformation. Settlements had to be capable of defence5 and no “mere Irish” should be employed.
Dispossession, plantation and oppression continued through the 17th Century under Cromwell and King William and through the Penal Laws thereafter up to the 19th.
The native Irish (Gael) and now also the Norman Irish (Gall-Ghael) were the enemy surrounding these settlements outside the Pale, they had been dispossessed and would no doubt recover their lands and their sovereignty if given the chance. And they were by far the majority. Justification for conquest and dispossession required an appropriate ideology and this was found in the assumed superiority of the occupiers’ religions, language, culture and polities. And the natural corollary to that was an ascribed inferiority to everything among the natives: language, religion, cultural habits and mores, dress … Naturally practical physical measures were required also: oppression, discrimination and repression of resistance.
The Irish were characterised as savage, child-like, emotional, untrustworthy (they agreed to treaties when beaten but broke them later6), superstitious, violent (they kept resisting the lawful authority or even uprising), drunkards, dirty ….
Following the scientific breakthrough of Darwinism came “Social Darwinism” and some Victorian pseudo-anthropologists placed the Irish as a Celtic Iberian race below the Teutonic (with which of course they identified the English) but above the “African Hottentot”. The Irish and Latin “races” were described as of “feminine” nature: emotional, weak, charming at times, unintelligent, needing to be controlled; while the “masculine” Anglo-Teutonic “races” were strong, measured, logical and obviously the right ones to be in control.
Irish uprisings increased the sense of insecurity of the conquerors and occupiers and intensified their efforts to justify their oppression and repression of the Irish so that Victorian Britain during Fenian campaigns churned out jokes against the Irish, along with nasty tales and horrible caricatures in popular newspapers. But not just popular newspapers: as the Irish starved in the Great Hunger of the mid-19th Century while their produce fed the British industrial revolution, the London Times, newspaper of record for the British ruling class, exulted in an editorial that the the Irish (survivors) were leaving and that soon an Irishman would be as rare in Ireland as the American Indians on the North-East Coast of the USA.
EXPORTING ANTI-IRISH RACISM
Not surprisingly, a central ideology such as anti-Irish racism accompanied the British wherever they went, despite the number of Irish in their armies and administrative layers. Boston, Massachusetts was particularly known for ant-Irish prejudice and discrimination and that may explain why the Irish community there was reportedly so clannish and defending its hard-won turf against all comers, including unfortunately competition from those considered even lower than the Irish, African Americans7. The anti-Irish ideology made itself felt in the white-ruled colonies, later Dominions of Australia, New Zealand and Canada too.
A strange case of the dissemination of this virus was its export to Scotland, a nation although of Celtic origin, heavily settled by Normans and Saxons, and incorporated into the United Kingdom in 1707. This was in particular of Ulster origin and took the form of anti-Catholicism. The English occupation had consciously stirred up religious sectarianism in the 1790s in order to break up the growing unity of Protestant Irish of various backgrounds with the Catholic vast majority which was framed in a republican project for greater independence. An important part of that subversion was the creation of the Orange Order in Loughgall in 1795, which became active in helping to suppress the United Irishmen uprising of 1798 and especially in repression afterwards, both against Republican Protestants and Catholics in general. As the Republican element among the Protestants decreased dramatically due to repression and emigration, the Order concentrated almost exclusively on oppression of Catholics and repression of resistance, a role it plays to this day.
But with the decline of the Ulster weaving industry in particular due to Ireland entering the UK in 1801 and British preferential treatment of their own production, many Ulster emigrants came to Scotland and were in competition for work, with the Orange Order being used to infect the already widely Protestant Scottish society against the Catholics which meant essentially, against the Irish. That has continued to this day (see References) and finds its expression in an often violent rivalry for example between soccer football teams of “Catholic” and “Protestant” background8, in Orange marches celebrating the victories of King William in Ireland and in discrimination in other areas such as policing too.
ANTI-IRISH RACISM IN THE 20th AND 21st CENTURIES
Anti-Irish racism was whipped up again during the 1916 Easter Rising and Irish war of Independence (1919-1921), and not just against the Irish in Ireland but against the Irish in Britain, in the USA9 and in Australia10. It raised its ugly head (and bared its teeth) again during WW2 (inflamed by the IRA campaign in Britain and Irish state neutrality) and again during the recent 30 years’ war.
In the 1970s anti-Irish articles, jokes and cartoons abounded in the British press and to this ideological offensive was added the 1971 weekly program of The Comedians (“stand up comedians”), of which a huge proportion of their material was anti-Irish racism, depicting the Irish in particular as stupid. I was London myself during that period and remember that a “comedian” only had to say “There was this Paddy on a building site” and the audience would be already laughing. Bernard Manning was the most infamous of those but there were many, many others.
Those jokes and others were repeated not only by comperes and club comedians but of course also at work, in school, at college and in universities. They represented a deeply degrading ideological offensive on a cultural level against the whole Irish community.
Apart from the Comedians TV program, a number of media personalities made racist jokes about or references to the Irish without any apology from the media or repercussions from their employers. Angus Deaton, for a long time presenter of Have I Got News For You, the popular British TV comedy news and current affairs commentary show, made a joke about the Irish (although participant Paul Merton, who said his mother was Irish, riposted brilliantly). Caroline Aherne, a comedienne who brilliantly played the biting chat-show character “Mrs. Merton”, was one of the few to speak out publicly against the racist “humour” but both her parents were Irish. Billy Connolly, Scottish comedian of Catholic Irish background, while discussing comedy, admitted to having told an anti-irish joke once when feeling lonely on stage, which he regretted. To the urbane Irish presenter Terry Wogan’s great credit while judging a popular British TV talent show, he declared anti-Irish jokes were not funny.
1974 saw the introduction of the Prevention of Terrorism (sic) Act and the framing and incarceration of two score innocent Irish people. Apart from raids on homes, spurious arrests without warrants, detention without charge and oppressive interrogations, thousands were questioned at ports and airports, often made to miss their flights at the latter. Though the charges falsely alleged involvement in “terrorist acts” the basis was Irishness, in a way very reminiscent to “Muslim” being considered sufficient justification today.
If a good working definition of racism is “discrimination against and disparaging of another ethnic group from a position of power”, then the Irish should have had no problems in gaining recognition as being racially oppressed and discriminated against. However, so many insisted that the Irish could not qualify because they were “white”. But in fact there already existed a “white” ethnic group which was widely acknowledge as having been discriminated against for centuries – the Jews. That however was explained by some as being a “religious discrimination” at root and not “racism”. The basic fact of the matter was and is that it did not suit the British ruling class or their intelligentsia to admit to anti-Irish racism – and not just because of guilt but for very practical reasons: they are still in conquest-occupation of nearly one-fifth of Irish territory. And the Irish diaspora is the oldest ethnic minority in Britain as well as, until recently perhaps, the largest11.
The British Left, the leading parts of which have either gained access to management of the British State or aspire to do so, for the most part have denied or minimalised anti-Irish racism. It took Liz Curtis to put together a popular illustrated booklet on anti-Irish racism and the Irish in Britain Representation Group, founded in 1981 to campaign against it. The IBRG made official complaints to and about the media and picketed WH Smiths12 until they stopped selling “Irish mugs” with the handle inside. While supporting general equality, the IBRG made complaints to local authorities about racist measures that impacted upon the Irish and sought to have an Irish ethnicity identification choice in the British Census, which was eventually successful.13 An approach of theirs to the GLC convinced the Council, under the leadership of Ken Livingstone, to withdraw all their advertising from the London Evening Standard until the latter apologised for publishing an anti-Irish racist cartoon. The Editor refused to apologise and never again received any advertising from the GLC14, at a revenue loss to the newspaper estimated at £2 million.
Mostly the Irish community fought the racism on their own, without the support of most of the British Left or the liberal-social-democratic elements. Even after the 1965 Race Relations Act the widespread feeling was that whether one was for or against the Act, it did not apply to the Irish. The Act specifically excluded shops and boarding houses (i.e places where notices declaring “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish”) were widespread but they were included in the 1968 Act15. The 1976 Act was more comprehensive but the assumption of inapplicability to the Irish continued. It appears that it was not until the Killian case against the British pharmaceutical retail chain Boots in 1989 that an Irish person was successful in taking a case for discrimination16 under the 1976 Act.
The anti-Irish racist offensive mostly petered out at the end of the 1990s but flared up again in the British media during the whole Brexit saga. In 2015 Jeremy Clarkson flew into a rage with an Irish co-producer of the Top Gear show, abused him racially and punched him in the mouth. It is a virus or bacteria living deep in the British mainstream psyche; it recedes at times only to be reactivated whenever the British ruling class — or sections of the chattering class — perceive that the Irish are not acting in the best interests of Britain, whatever they perceive those to be.
1In the world of soccer football, there are two “national” teams competing for the championships: “Republic of Ireland” and “Northern Ireland”, a clear example of intrusion of politics into sport, for Ireland is one country and was recognised as such even by the English invaders (the inventors of soccer) from 1169 until they partitioned the country in 1921. Thus what is mostly recognised as the Irish national team has to compete against another team from a part of its own country in order to progress in championships!
2England suffered a Norman invasion in 1066 which gradually extended over the whole of Britain, the south-east of which had been already conquered by the Saxons.
3He admired Gaelic decorative art as expressed in illuminated manuscripts and harp-playing, describing them as “the work of angels”, almost expressing incredulity that they could have come from Gaelic culture. It is unlikely that he learned the Irish language, perhaps conversing with natives through the medium of Latin or an interpreter.
4The Gaels, who earlier had a pantheistic religion moderated by the druidic order, had been largely Christian by the 5th Century; furthermore the transition to Christianity in Ireland was not imposed by conquest and appears to have been largely voluntary; in addition the Christian monks recorded a great many of the pre-Christian myths and legends. During the Early Middle Ages the Irish Church sent out missionaries to many parts of Europe, establishing monasteries similar to universities as far away as Asia Minor.
5Hence the layout of triangle, square or diamond town centres of settler origin in Ireland, rather than native layout of lines of housing following road or river crossing and backing up behind, or congregating around harbour, fort or monastery. See also the design of even the small Protestant churches which look built to be used as forts, with strong doors and narrow windows, some even like arrow-slits.
6Compare this with the long history of conquerors, certainly including the English, repeatedly violating treaties they had made when victorious!
7Of course Boston was far from being the only US City where anti-black racism was the norm in Irish communities but it was perhaps the worst. Of course Irish anti-slavery, labour and civil rights workers also existed, some of them very prominent in their field.
8e.g supporters of Glasgow Celtic v. Rangers, of Hibernians v. Heart of Midlothian in Edinburgh.
9The British intelligence services were well aware that the Irish insurgency was receiving substantial concrete and moral assistance from the Irish diaspora in the USA.
10It had existed there before from in particular English settlers but reached hysterical proportions when two attempts to impose conscription in WW1 through referendum – because they feared to impose it otherwise – failed, a fact which was attributed by many to the Irish element in the (white) Australian electorate.
11Certainly the largest national diaspora
12 British equivalent of Easons in Ireland
132001; the opposition did not come from the British establishment alone but also from middle-class black activists keen to keep anti-racism as their preserve solely.
14The GLC was abolished by the Thatcher Government in 1985.
15Which was not applicable in the Six Counties, despite being a part of the UK
16 As in the early successful cases where the complainant was Irish, it was about discrimination in employment; later there were many about abuse at point of service as well of as employee.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
General history of Anti-Irish Racism
Nothing But the Same Old Story: Roots of Anti-Irish Racism, Liz Curtis, (1984) GLC; 1996 Sásta reprint)
Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature, L. Perry Curtis (1971, republished 1996 by Smithsonian DC
Ireland: The Propaganda War ; the British Media and the Battle for Hearts and Minds, Liz Curtis, (1984) Pluto Press; 1998 Sásta update and reprint)
The Irish Community – diversity, disadvantage and discrimination, Bronwen Walter, 1999 https://www.runnymedetrust.org/bgIrishCommunity.html
Anti-Irish Sentiment in Modern Britain: https://theyorkhistorian.com/2018/03/18/anti-irish-sentiment-in-modern-britain/
Snippets across the centuries: https://sheelanagigcomedienne.wordpress.com/anti-irish-racism/
Swift, Roger and Sheridan Gilley, The Irish in Britain, 1815-1939. London: Pinter, 1989.
Swift, Roger and Sheridan Gilley, The Irish in the Victorian City. London: Dover, 1985.
The use of the ‘cartoonist’s armoury’ in manipulating public opinion: anti-Irish imagery in 19th century British and American periodicals: https://www.jstor.org/stable/41932626?seq=1
A very rare occasion when a letter of mine was published by the Irish Times:
MORE RECENT OCCURRENCES FROM PROMINENT BRITISH COMMENTATORS
2005 — comment on decades of anti-Irishness in the Daily Mail: https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/anti-irish-newspaper-plans-to-launch-edition-here-26213160.html
Jeremy Clarkson and anti-Irish racism: http://littleatoms.com/society/jeremy-clarkson-and-being-lazy-irish-britain
Daily Mail, 2017: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/art-and-design/apes-psychos-alcos-how-british-cartoonists-depict-the-irish-1.3149409
Julie Burchill, 2018: https://london.eater.com/2018/1/26/16933806/julie-burchill-anti-irish-sentiment-nuala-es-mag-restaurant-review
John Cleese: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/john-cleese-has-a-faulty-sense-of-humour-about-the-irish-1.4294487?mode=sample&auth-failed=1&pw-origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.irishtimes.com%2Fculture%2Fjohn-cleese-has-a-faulty-sense-of-humour-about-the-irish-1.4294487
Tony Abbot, leader of Australian Liberal Party at the time (2011): https://theconversation.com/the-problem-with-jokes-about-irishmen-2370
CAMPAIGNING AGAINST ANTI-IRISH RACISM
James McClean and wife Erin speak out against threats and anti-Irish comments received by them and against their children: https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikemeehallwood/2021/02/15/anti-irish-racism-condemned-as-james-mccleans-wife-shares-social-media-threats-against-their-children/
A year-by-year record of many activities of the IBRG, regular campaigner against anti-Irish racism: https://lipsticksocialist.wordpress.com
Battle to have an Irish category in the British census: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-20095-8_7, Chap 7.2, paragraph 2.
GLC banning adverts over anti-Irish cartoon in the London Evening Standard: https://books.google.ie/books?id=fVcGDAAAQBAJ&pg=PT94&lpg=PT94&dq=GLC+ban+on+advertising+evening+standard&source
Asian man who won first successful case against racial discrimination in Britain mentions anti-Irish racism: https://eachother.org.uk/racism-1960s-britain/
British media racist cartoonist JAK: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Jackson
1977 comment: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/irish-suffering-in-britain-is-more-than-just-racist-jokes-1.85448
Exclusion of the irish from the anti-racism mainstream paradigm: https://discoversociety.org/2019/03/06/is-anti-irish-racism-still-a-problem-you-can-bank-on-it/
Commenting on anti-Irish Racism in Scotland
James MacMillan: https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12398473.composer-celtic-fans-should-feel-free-to-sing-republican-songs-james-macmillan-claims-sectarianism-rules-out-pride-in-irish-roots/
Neil Lennon: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2018/nov/02/neil-lennon-sectarianism-racism-hibernian-scotland
Event against anti-Irish racism in Scotland cancelled after threats: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/anti-irish-racism-event-cancelled-as-venue-receives-threats-of-violence-k2wdjxl3z