Does it matter if the Irish are portrayed globally as a bunch of belligerent drunks? Does it matter if we're called two-fisted drinkers with bad tempers and bad attitudes to match?
I like to think that those questions answer themselves, but I realize not everyone agrees with me. I'm not asking the question to hear people agree with me though, I'm asking because it's a worthwhile debate.
This week's somewhat mixed reaction to the AOH's successful request to the Bed, Bath & Beyond chain not to stock items deemed culturally offensive to the Irish has assured me that it's time we reviewed the persistence of enduring Irish stereotypes and ask who exactly created them and who do they serve?
It's not hard to find some interesting answers. The image of the impulsive Irishman who'll either laugh or cry at the first few notes from a fiddle has a very long history. We know what he looks like from countless films. He's a teary eyed sentimentalist, a slave to his emotions, ruled by his impulses, his words are blarney, his actions are shenanigans, his commitments are pure malarkey.
Half man, half leprechaun, he's subject to inexplicable fits of temper and then inexplicable fits of delight. He’ll dance or he’ll fight or he’ll dance-fight. Apparently, he's us, the Irish. Take one or more elements and just add whiskey. If you believe the last two hundred years of racial stereotyping, that is.
One of the earliest depictions of the Irish was written by Giraldus Cambrensis, more commonly known now as Gerald of Wales. Born around 1146 AD, he made his first visit to Ireland in 1183 some years after his own family had played a prominent role in the invasion of the country.
They say that nothing prevents a man from grasping the root of an issue like the knowledge that his paycheck depends on it. That seems to have been the case with Gerald. His travels in Ireland were not extensive but his conclusions certainly were, influencing scholars and the English monarchy for centuries to follow.
Increasingly jaundiced versions of what Gerald found in Ireland were found by the centuries of Englishmen who followed him: the Irish were barbarous, they lacked civility. 'Their greatest delight is to be exempt from toil, their richest possession, the enjoyment of liberty,' he scoffed. The nerve of these people, enjoying their own nation.
Historically, confiscating your neighbors land and freedom was greatly aided by implying they were too lazy and too undeserving of it themselves. Gerald was one of the early examples of this covert propaganda paradigm.
Centuries later the Elizabethan English poet Edmund Spenser refined the broken portrait, in between quelling endless uprisings against his plantation. For some inexplicable reason the County Cork locals resisted him. He repaid them by writing one of the most damning portraits of a people ever committed to print.
Spenser condemned their nomadic herding practices, their religion, their social and familial organization, their poets, even their hair and dress, he left nothing out. The indigenous language and customs of the Irish must destroyed, if necessary by violence he wrote. For his troubles he was run off the land he had earlier purloined, dying in exile (or rather at home) in England in 1599.
But the undisputed golden age, if you will, of anti-Irish caricature and propaganda was the 19th century. It's the century that set the standards that are still applied to us globally. It was also the worst experience in the history of Ireland. It's not an accident the two portraits are linked. The diminished portrait of the Irish in the mid 19th century has come to define us in the eyes of our detractors then and now.
As the Irish starved they were already being mocked for their poverty, for their pathetic dependence on the goodwill of the nation that was ruthlessly exploiting them, for their paupers’ subsistence diet, for their inconsolable despair in the face of a near extinction event, for their religion, for the post traumatic stress symptoms that they lived with having endured the greatest European catastrophe of the 19th century, and for the spikes in alcoholism and addiction that accompany unimaginable trauma. With the arrival of the Great Hunger came the arrival of the drunken Irish ape man.
Arriving on these shores utterly destitute, the Irish found themselves feared for their numbers and hated for their faith.
Reeling from the unspeakable disaster that tore them from their homeland, they found themselves further dehumanized courtesy of nativist hordes who resented their presence and their threat.
In Ireland, I think we're still largely the children of the 19th century, still reflexively reeling from boom to bust, from British empire to European Central Bank. The Great Hunger is our Year One, our ancient past travels toward it and much of our present stems from it. We're the offspring of blast victims, which makes us both conservative and malleable. We're the first part of the global portrait, but we’re not the only one.
Here in America it's been a different story. Here the Irish have found a foothold and a new destiny. They have prospered in the aftermath of disaster, they have ascended to dizzy heights politically, socially, economically.
But the truth is despite our success here, for a sizable section of this nation we will always be what we were first portrayed as over a hundred and fifty years ago. Half destroyed, shivering dipsomaniacs. Knuckle dragging thugs. Spud guzzling halfwits. Unreliable and uncouth urchins. Priest ridden papists. Subhuman slobs. Take your pick and just add whiskey.
When Irish Americans see t-shirts that proclaim “After three more drinks I'll be Irish” or “Ironic Sober Irishman T-Shirt” they can laugh it off; that's their right, if they so choose. But for those who don’t it isn't a question of over-sensitivity to a minor provocation, it's a question of the debt that we owe to our Irish ancestors, the ones who endured the hateful taunts and lit our way.
It's important to remember how much that kind of needling rhetoric – snideness with a hint of steel behind it – blighted their lives and futures. They traveled a hard road, it’s fitting we should remember them. For them it wasn't a t-shirt, it was a life sentence.