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A Resurgence Of Anti-Irish Racism In The United States – Or Harmless Stereotyping?

“The usual Irish way of doing things”, an 1871 caricature by Thomas Nast

When most people speak of racism against the Irish they automatically think of Britain and more specifically England. The history of anti-Irishness in our Anglo-Celtic neighbour is a long one, with Medieval roots. It was the Norman-French invasion and conquest of Britain in the 11th and 12th centuries that gave it real impetus. Up to that time Ireland and England generally enjoyed close relations. From the 6th century onwards northern English aristocrats regularly married off their children into the Irish (and Scottish) royal houses in the hope of cementing alliances with the dominant Gaelic powers of the Irish Sea region. Ironically when the Norman-French lord William the Bastard took (stole?) the throne of England it was to the Irish that the indigenous English turned for help. Harold Godwinson was the last native English king of England until his death in the Battle of Hastings in 1066 fighting the Norman-French invaders. But in his youth he had lived for a time as a political exile in Ireland, while his sister Edith of Wessex, the wife of Edward the Confessor king of England, was noted as a fluent Irish-speaker. Returning to England Harold maintained his family’s strong links to Ireland, securing from his allies a mixed Irish and Scandinavian-Irish force which fought alongside the English at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, three weeks before the catastrophe at Hastings.

Following the death of Harold at the hands of the Norman-French his sons and their supporters fled to Ireland seeking refuge with the powerful magnate Diarmaid mac Maoil na mBó, the king of Laighin. From there the English exiles launched several attacks on “Occupied” England using Irish and Scandinavian-Irish fleets and armies, striking across the southern counties (one target was the affluent sea-port of Bristol whose mercantile classes later became closely associated with the Norman-English campaigns in Ireland). Eventually the exiled English princes disappeared from the pages of history, possibly blending into the milieu of Irish aristocratic families after a brief sojourn in Scandinavia. Another irony is to be found in the outside chance that the descendants of the last native English king of England may be living in Ireland.

Anti-Irishness on the island of Britain took a firm hold with the paranoia of the Norman-French ascendancy which displaced the English nobility. For them Ireland was a political, military and economic rival, and they looked on at the Gaelic-Scandinavian trading networks that dominated the region with envy – and avarice. The country was also increasingly a place of refuge for anti-Norman interests, English, Scottish and Welsh. The latter in particular filled the Irish royal courts as petitioners for military and financial aid including such notables as the Irish-born Gruffydd ap Cynan, later king of Gwynedd, and the exiled Rhys ap Tewdwr, king of Deheubarth. Even some Norman-French lords looked to forge bonds with their Irish counterparts, the seditious activities of the powerful de Montgomery brothers, Arnulf de Montgomery (Earl of Pembroke) and Robert de Montgomery (Earl of Shrewsbury), leading indirectly to the Norman-British incursions into Ireland of the late 12th century, culminating with the invasions of 1169 and 1171.

The Norman-British and later British wars in Ireland gave official form to the anti-Irish bigotry that has forever since plagued Irish-British relations. Over the centuries as printing became widespread and what we now recognise as popular culture emerged, be it literary, artistic or theatrical, discrimination or hatred towards all things Irish became the norm in Britain. Even the advent of radio, film and television had little effect on this regressive ideology. Only in the last two decades did overt anti-Irishness become frowned upon – at least in the liberal left media. Yet even here quasi-racist opinion pieces or articles on the Irish are not unknown and matters relating to Ireland seem forever slanted as if through a distorting mirror. Hostility and disdain towards the Irish is a subconscious undercurrent throughout much of British society in the same way that anti-Semitism is felt if not always expressed in Europe (at its most banal the otherwise inexplicable dislike in England for people with red hair or “gingers” stems from the stereotypical image of Irish people in 18th and 19th Britain, a sort of lingering folk-memory).

Unfortunately wherever the British went their prejudices went with them. The United States, despite its origins and later development, retained a strong British influence in its founding language, culture and religion that made animosity to the Irish inevitable. The presence of so many English colonists along with their Protestant religious beliefs meant that Irish settlers and their Roman Catholic faith were at best distasteful, at worse positively provocative. These attitudes were given a militant infusion with the later migration of Scots-Irish (or Ulster-Scots) settlers from Ireland. Shaped by the conflict-ridden Anglo-Scottish colonial plantations in Ireland the Scots-Irish brought with them a ready resort to bloodshed wrapped up in a puritanical Protestant fundamentalism that created a seismic shift in the emerging American society. For a significant number of these new Americans to find the old Irish (and Catholic) foe in their new home was unacceptable and they developed an intolerant culture of Irish people that persists in some parts of the United States to the present day.

These two factors, more than anything else, blossomed into the anti-Irish racism that became so dominant in American society in the decades surrounding An Gorta Mór or the Great Famine in Ireland of the mid-1800s. During the American Civil War the Confederacy was notable for the high levels of Scots-Irish descendants participating in the Confederate forces and government, whereas the newer Irish filled the ranks of the Federal armies (and thereby assured entry to wider acceptability in American society). Radical anti-Irish and anti-Catholic groups like the Native American Party or the Know-Nothings and the later the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) traced their origins to these times.

It has often been said that when John F. Kennedy was elected to the White House in 1961 the moment had been reached when Irish-Americans were finally accepted as American. Looking back at those rose-tinted times through the myth of the new Camelot, however tarnished around the edges it has subsequently become, the whirlwind of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice Kennedy’s successful candidacy whipped up in the United States has long since been forgotten. If you think the indignation and outright hysteria that greeted the election and presidency of Barack Obama is something new think again. It finds eerie parallels in the administration of JFK.

Over the last five decades anti-Irish (or Catholic) bigotry in the US was largely relegated to the fringe. It rarely manifested itself, except through a sort of vague mockery or satire. Even when offensive stereotypes of Irish people were presented it was not always with prejudicial intent. Simple ignorance, more often than malice, was to blame when offence was given. If the makers of the American televisions series, Sons of Anarchy, were told that their Irish characters and storylines are racist (which they explicitly are) no doubt they would be astonished. Of course, being unaware of being racist is itself no excuse. Unthinking or unconscious bigotry isn’t any more acceptable than the self-conscious kind. Though, in fairness, one should mention that the Irish psyche is so twisted by years of British colonial rule and a self-loathing felt by many that Ireland’s public service broadcaster, RTÉ, actually shows the grotesquely offensive Sons of Anarchy on late night television. But then RTÉ has long been little more than a subsidiary of British TV stations like the BBC and ITV.

Recently though discriminatory views in the United States about Ireland and the Irish have found a new, if extremely fertile, ground to take seed in. The American Christian Right have embraced and promulgated a series of bizarre theories about Ireland as the “greatest enemy of Israel in the Western world” that have gained a wide audience. In particular militant Protestant fundamentalists, some of whom have links to the separatist British Unionist minority in Ireland, have taken to the internet in their trollish droves to disgorge gigabytes of misinformation wrapped up in this conspiratorial nonsense. Regardless of fact or reason, in clear contradiction of known history, they distort, misrepresent and falsify Irish and Jewish relations to such an extent that in some quarters unbelievable lies have become accepted truths. Their falsehoods are now beginning to insinuate their way into the mainstream of American news media and politics – yet few challenge them.

That serious matter I will return to soon but for now, this. From CBS News a clearly unimpressed movie review of the sequel “Taken 2” by a staff writer with the Associated Press, starring the Irish actor Liam Neeson. Here is an excerpt:

“There was something primal about “Taken,” a father putting all his brains and brawn into saving his little girl, and doing it with startling ferocity and ingenious trade-craft. Neeson just looks like he’s yawning his way through a light workout here, using one big Irish paw to snuff bad guys and holding the other one out to the studio for his paycheck.”

Big Irish paw? Considering the infamous 19th and 20th century representations of Irish people in Britain and the United States as simian-like creatures, apes and monkeys or sub-human Untermenschen, this is hardly the best choice of words to use. Would Denzel Washington be referred to as dispatching his enemies with his “big black paw”? One imagines not. A passing simile, obviously made without malicious intent, yet still revealing of the English language and American culture as it views Irish people.

10 comments on “A Resurgence Of Anti-Irish Racism In The United States – Or Harmless Stereotyping?

  1. James Todd

    For my part, I have never seen any genuine hatred against the Irish in the United States. Not to say that it doesn’t exist somewhere, but I have never seen it personally. Now, I have seen plenty of stereotypical depictions of the Irish that would likely be perceived as offensive to Irishmen, but they’re born out of ignorance, not bigotry. I have seen plenty of Hibernophilia here though, and not just among Irish-Americans. Generally, there exists a nationwide affection for the Irish based around stereotypes that many Americans find admirable and endearing. These are a readiness to fight if slighted, a propensity to drink as a means of merrymaking and a more realistic world view revolving around common sense and folksy wisdom. These are stereotypical views of the Irish and could easily be seen as offensive, especially the bit about being prone to alcoholism and not being very “book smart”. But my point is that it’s not meant as an attack on the Irish, the way these stereotypes were used shortly after the Great Famine when native Irish emigrants poured in. They’re more like ways to express a general affection for the Irish in the absence of any actual knowledge of them, if that makes sense. A reliance on common sense, traditional knowledge, a love of drink, and a readiness and even eagerness to fight are all thought of as generally admirable traits by the average working-class American, and the Irish – stereotypically – possess all of them.

    I am not excusing American ignorance. The use of stereotypes born from American ignorance of other cultures has facilitated the hatred of many other peoples, such as Mexicans and Arabs. Invariably Mexicans are always portrayed as unskilled laborers that cannot speak anything other than Spanish, and Arabs are portrayed as either Bedouins or Islamist terrorists. The way that the Irish are portrayed in the American media is a result of that exact same ignorance. However, in the case of the Irish, I can honestly say that – among most Americans – it is associated with affection, not fear or hatred.

    That said, I’m not sure if affection for a people and culture based on stereotypical views of said people and culture rather than actual knowledge of them, is much better than racist bigotry. Depends on how you look at it I suppose.


    • Hi James.

      Saw the movie review of “Taken 2” online, was struck by the odd animal imagery of a “big Irish paw” used by the critic,and just sat down and rambled away on the keyboard for five minutes or so. I don’t believe the reviewer meant any harm in his choice of words, I just found it a striking phrase to reach for. Especially given the historic resonances in it. The British actor-comedian Steve Coogan made a very deliberate joke in a BBC TV sit-com he did about Irishmen with “big red hands like slabs of meat”, which was very much a British racist image of Irish workers up to the 1980s and beyond. Since the racist code was instantly recognisable it helped you understand the character he was playing. Since he himself is of Irish parentage he cleverly knew how to shape audience expectations, subverting and ridiculing the latent racist views in the process.

      I quite agree, most offence stems from ignorance not bigotry. Watching that TV show Sons of Anarchy and its grotesque Irish characters and storyline was like watching something from British TV of forty years ago. It was utterly bizarre. Of course more bizarre is that Irish TV broadcasts it too, despite the general disdain it is held in over here.

      In recent years I have found that representations of Irish people in American TV shows and movies have become increasingly stereotypical, but in a decidedly nasty way. Several Irish actors, directors and producers have recently commented on the Anglophile nature of Hollywood and the US entertainment industry and how it is harder to present Irish people in stories where they are not idiotic, violent, drunken or plain psychopathic.

      I agree with pretty much everything you say. However the Ireland versus Israel theory is one that has emerged amongst the extreme Christian Right in the US and it is gaining hold. If you peruse the outer edges of the Tea Party movement, Birthers anti-Islamists and the like, there is an awful lot of anti-Irish stuff going on. And this is now going mainstream.

      I will hopefully write some more on this soon.

      As always, thanks for the Comment 🙂


  2. Sharon Douglas

    Its always good to be aware and pay attention to trends, but sometimes, do we actually look for things by which to be offended? Look forward to further musings, as always, nonetheless.


    • Maybe so, in relation to the movie review, but the Sons of Anarchy and some other recent US drama efforts? The Irish characters are quite grotesque and certainly, in the view of most people here, simply racist in tone.

      And look at this article. The views are are coming directly from bloggers and columnists on the extreme Christian Right in the US.

      However, I do tend to ramble on. Start on one thing and divert off onto something else 😉

      Thanks for all the Facebook likes and shares. Much appreciated 😀


  3. Willie Davison

    Have just come across this article by chance when looking for something else. I think it is a bit simplistic to put such a heavy burden of blame on Scots-Irish settlers in the U.S.A. for alleged anti-Irish “racism.” After all these people only left Ireland for colonial America because they suffered discrimination at the hands of the Anglican establishment. They were strong supporters of the American revolution, those of this community at home later formed the backbone of the United Irish rising in the north of Ireland.
    Of course, many of them fought in the Confederate army during the Civil War ; this is hardly surprising as they were heavily concentrated in the Southern Appalachians. Those based in the North, in states like Pennsylvania, were prominent on the Union side, Generals like McClellan, McDowell and Grant himself were either wholly, or partly, Scots-Irish.
    We of this origin seem to be regarded as a handy scapegoat.


    • Fair comment, Willie, you make some worthwhile points.

      Of course it would be unfair to blame an entire “ethnicity” (if one can use that term?) for anti-Irish sentiment in the US, and I do point to its English origins too. However the union of the Scots-Irish communities, Protestant fundamentalism and “old world” attitudes as it manifested itself in parts of the US did make for a toxic mix. But you are certainly right to point out that it these are not the only historical Scots-Irish narratives.

      A recent analysis of the membership of the US-based Irish Republican Army or military wing of the Fenian Brotherhood during the Fenian Invasions of Canada in the late 1800s reveals a Protestant religious makeup of between 30-35%. Judging by the surnames many of these would have been Scots-Irish.

      Studies of the Scots-Irish do tend to place an emphasis on the violent nature of their societies or communities, coupled with the religious core.

      Thanks for the Comment.


  4. John Wylie

    Sorry bud, but the Ulster Scots were present in America long before the Irish Catholics. The Ulster Scots were the backbone of the American Revolution 50 years before darn near any Irishman(Catholic) set foot on the continent.


    • Thanks for the Comment, John, but I’m afraid you are incorrect.

      The first people from the island of Ireland in the Americas were Irish slaves (the so-called “indentured”), dating from the 1600s. Virtually all were Roman Catholic (with a few notable exceptions), and most were monolingual Irish speakers. During the 17th century over 75% of all migrants from Ireland to the US were Roman Catholic. And all of these early immigrants defined themselves as simply Irish, with any further qualifications of “ethnicity” being derived from religious beliefs, surnames, etc.

      The term Scots-Irish only came into popular use in the mid-to-late 19th century and as a separate identity, such as we would recognise now (or is claimed now), it only gained wide acceptance in the very late 19th and later 20th centuries.

      Since the British colonial population in the north-east of Ireland was so diverse in origin, with up to a third of the settlers being English, the terms Scots-Irish or Ulster-Scots are highly debatable. A better term might be British-Irish. There are of course many Irish families of Scottish ancestry with an entirely Gaelic identity, pre-dating the Plantation of Ulster, who resent the occasional use of Scots-Irish as somehow synonymous with British colonisation in Ireland.


  5. John Wylie

    The presence of so many English colonists along with their Protestant religious beliefs meant that Irish settlers and their Roman Catholic faith were at best distasteful, at worse positively provocative. These attitudes were given a militant infusion with the later migration of Scots-Irish (or Ulster-Scots) settlers from Ireland. Shaped by the conflict-ridden Anglo-Scottish colonial plantations in Ireland the Scots-Irish brought with them a ready resort to bloodshed wrapped up in a puritanical Protestant fundamentalism that created a seismic shift in the emerging American society. For a significant number of these new Americans to find the old Irish (and Catholic) foe in their new home was unacceptable and they developed an intolerant culture of Irish people that persists in some parts of the United States to the present day.”

    This quote from your article is incredibly inaccurate. You are insinuating that Irish immigrants arrived in America before the Ulster Scots, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Ulster Scots mainly came to America before the Revolutionary War during a time when there were almost no Irish colonists. And the few Irish colonists in America at the time were, almost to a man, Protestant. In fact, there was no semblance of Irish culture or identity in America until their potato famine on early-mid 19th century. Now, my question for you: Are you just that uneducated on the matter of American history or are you trying to convince your readers of your constant revisionist history?


    • The answer to your last question, John, is neither. Some 75% of immigrants to North America from Ireland in the 1600s were Roman Catholic by faith and ethnically Irish or Anglo-Irish. Most would have been monolingual or bilingual Irish-speakers. The so-called Scots-Irish formed a minority of immigrants from Ireland and continued to do so until the early to late 1700s when the position was reversed and they formed some 70% of immigrants until around 1800 (and it is worth bearing in mind that a minority of those would have been bilingual Irish-speakers as well).

      Of course the difficulties of analysis of early emigration patterns to North America from Ireland is compounded by defining what exactly is Scots-Irish. Many were of mixed marriages and antecedence (hence the blending of RC and Protestant Irish regardless of ethnic or geographical origin outside of a few heartland areas in N. America). You seem to be confused by the modern(-ish) term “Scots-Irish”. Throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries all immigrants from Ireland were simply “Irish”. Scots-Irish as some sort of distinct designator dates from c.1870 and does not reach popularity until the mid-1900s.

      You are simply and factually incorrect in your assertion that there was no Irish culture or identity in North America until the mid 19th century. All available documentary evidence (and there is plenty of it) points in the opposite direction. Thanks for the Comment anyway.


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