Sheela-na-Gig aka Jeanne Rathbone

Anti-Irish racism.

I was invited on to Newsnight when they were covering an item on Irish Jokes which were rife at the time but often trivialised as harmless ethnic humour that abounds the world over. The usual disclaimer is that it is natural and human nature to make fun of ‘other ‘ groups whether it be those from another village, town, city, country, ethnic group or tribe. However, it is usually about depicting said group as stupid thickos. So when it came to anti-Irish humour it was pointed out that within Ireland there are Kerrymen jokes – so that’s allright then!

Here is some background on the situation in Britain for the Irish.  Even in the nineties there was still plenty of anti-Irish sentiment in Britain.  This was abated later with the ‘peace process’ in northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. Such sentiment had existed for as long as the English/British were an invasive colonising force in Ireland. Wikipedia entry:  “Negative English attitudes to Irish culture and habits date as far back as the reign of Henry II and the Norman conquest of Ireland. In 1155 the Papacy issued the papal bull Laudabiliter which granted Henry II’s request to subdue Ireland and the Irish Church.”

‘Nothing but the Same Old Story’

Nothing but the same old story: the roots of anti-Irish racism  documented this in the 80s after a decade of virulent anti-Irish racism. Here are some quotes: The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.

-Charles Trevelyan, head of administration for famine relief, 1840s

Ireland is like a half-starved rat that crosses the path of an elephant. What must the elephant do? Squelch it – by heavens – squelch it.
- Thomas Carlyle, British essayist, 1840s

The 1862 song, “No Irish Need Apply”, was inspired by NINA signs in London and later travelled to America.

This excellent piece by Ann Rossiter makes the comparison with anti-Islamic racism Nothing but the Same Old Story? – Left Curve

Now in May 2010 there is a call for ‘Show racism the red card’ to challenge anti- Irish hatred in soccer in Scotland which has persisted and in February 2010  Douglas Murray who is director of the United Kingdom’s Centre for Social Cohesion has defended his decision to invite and allow Irish jokes on his Daily Telegraph newspaper blog. Up to 70 jokes have been placed on the blog in what has been described as “an orgy of Irish bashing jokes.”

This institute was founded “to promote human rights, tolerance and greater cohesion among the U.K.’s ethnic and religious communities and within wider British society.”

Here is a response to that from Irish Central an American-Irish magazine by Niall O’Dowd:  “The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs has already complained about the absurdity of an alleged civil-rights worker openly encouraging such bigotry.

And bigotry is what it is. If you lived in Britain as I did during the 1970s, the vicious strain of anti-Irish sentiment was no laughing matter.

Everywhere from tabloid media to television comedians to construction workers among whom I worked were “Paddy” jokes depicting us as thick, dumb and lazy.” he wrote.

In England anti-Irish racism was rife because of the ‘troubles’ and the jokes were the acceptable face of it. I was involved then in initiatives to counter the ugliness of the press like the Sun and Evening Standard and in getting an Irish dimension into the multicultural curriculum.  Our telephones were tapped then, too.

I had my own experiences of my children’s school’s Headmaster telling Irish jokes at a parents evening. A Headteacher come steaming in to a presentation that a friend and I were doing on St Patricks day in her child’s Primary School Honeywell. She had reacted when we showed our little Irish flag along with other artefacts and started shouting that she wanted no ‘indoctrination’ going on in her school. Another funny one was when we were being introduced by the Head of Latchmere School John Bartholomew who asked the children to put their hands up if they ever told Irish jokes. Almost all hands were raised enthusiastically,  including John’s. Then he proceeded to say that it was wrong to tell Irish jokes and why and those little hands soon came down quickly!

Anti-Irish racism was not always seen as racism and taken seriously. Nor were the experiences of Irish people in Britain seen as been any different from white British. It was often a hard struggle to get the needs and position of the Irish in Britain to be seen as part of the general fight against racism.

However, during the eighties with help from the GLC and other local authorities who were trying to tackle inequalities the experiences of the Irish along with other black and ethnic groups were begun to be documented and pointing up areas which needed to addressed because of endemic racism.

The Irish, like other emigrant and black people, were discriminated against in many areas of social life. They were disproportionately over-represented in certain areas of deprivation and under represented in politics, big business and the professions.

The Irish experience and demographic was and is  quite different from other ethnic groups. For instance, more Irish women had immigrated despite the stereotype of an Irish immigrant as a male building worker. Because we were white we were not always perceived as being migrants who were discriminated against and were disadvantaged compared to the indigenous population.

The origins of racism are rooted in colonisation and an assumed superiority by the coloniser. Imperialists usually present themselves as civilised and cultured compared to the natives of the country invaded. The British Empire was extensive when Victoria was Queen and Empress. Ireland was her first colony and America, Africa and India and others places were invaded and exploited. Exploitation, expansion of lands is usually the main purpose for colonisation. This has often been justified as bringing civilisation and prosperity to backward countries! In the case of Ireland, besides exploitation it was for reasons of security that the British invaded. Ireland was perceived as  a threat because it might make alliances with other European countries especially Roman Catholic ones.

To justify their presence in Ireland the British instigated anti-Irish prejudice and presented themselves as a superior civilising influence. As Ireland rebelled against British domination the more they were vilified. Their language, culture and religion were different to the British and it had to be rubbished or destroyed as in the case of our language.  Hence Ireland became a problem for Britain and the fightback from Ireland came to be called ‘The Irish Question’ and later ‘The Troubles’. Britain ensured that Ireland was under-developed. The industrial revolution was not extended to Ireland or its infrastructure developed.

At the same time, as the Irish continued to emigrate from an impoverished Ireland to Britain the relationship between Britain and Ireland after partial independence was called a ‘special relationship’ and the Irish like other Commonwealth citizens were encouraged to come and work in the aftermath of WW2. But the Irish had been coming in numbers since the time of the famine and were relegated to the bottom of British society and to slum areas. As the Irish migrants were mainly Catholic the British government allowed them to build their churches and some schools as a way of containment.

When the IRA fightback, which began in northern Ireland where anti-Catholic prejudice was institutionalised and was extended to Britain, anti-Irish prejudice  became endemic again especially as it was cloaked in anti-Irish ‘humour’ and the perception of the Irish as potential terrorists. Phones were tapped and dossiers kept on Irish people.  In the 8Os, when we had a phonecall about a bomb in our garden from Column 88 – a section of the National Front- the police were not interested when they heard my Irish accent! Things are different now as it is the Muslim community who are the focus of prejudice and suspected of terrorism.

Ireland has gone through a phase of boom- called the Celtic Tiger- followed by bust as the recession hits Ireland – a small micro economy- very, very hard and emigration restarts as the Irish diaspora continues all over again.

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