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.