When the news broke, earlier this year, that a new sitcom called London Irish had been commissioned by Channel 4, you could hear hackles rising from Liverpool to Kilburn. When it was revealed that the programme would depict the adventures of "a hard-drinking, hard-living ex-pat community of young Northern Irish twentysomethings who live in London… it's not easy navigating their way through London life, when they're too drunk to know where they're going, or remember where they've been", the fur started to fly.
Resident Irish leapt to Twitter to voice their disapproval. Channel 4, said Meghan Rice, "would NEVER get away w/such blatant #RACISM if was about black or Asian people!" Kate Bones huffed, "I'm shocked the writer is Irish. We need to move on from old clichés & stereotypes. This is backwards. Tell a real story!" Other émigrés hastened to point out that they and their friends were nothing like the quartet in the clips that Channel 4 provided, and scoffed that they expected to see characters up to their elbows in Semtex or standing in holes in the road.
For people of Irish extraction, like myself, it felt oddly familiar. Irish people have, with good reason, always been touchy about their portrayal by the English. The Irishman as thick, drunk and confused? Look no further than the army captain Macmorris in Henry V, Shakespeare's only Irish character, who lurches about asking, "What ish my nation? Ish a villain, and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal." The Irishman as violent, bestial and low-browed? Check out successive copies of Punch in the mid-19th century, where he's portrayed as Paddy O'Caliban, an ape in a hat. Irishmen as Fenian terrorists, engaged in gun-running and bombing? You can find them, remarkably, in the 1937 Will Hay comedy Oh, Mr Porter! set in the Ulster town of Buggleskelly.
Growing up in London in an Irish family in the late Sixties and early Seventies, at the height of the Troubles in Belfast and the bombing of offices and stores in the heart of London, was an uncomfortable business. My parents were middle-class medical people, in no danger of being taken for seditionaries or zealots, but they could have been forgiven for feeling paranoid. After a bombing, the Jak cartoon in the Evening Standard showed a mob of country yokels with comical hats and razor teeth hurling bombs at each other; the caption read simply: "THE IRISH." And as the sexual revolution continued its merry way (miniskirts, the Pill, Mary Quant's pubic hair, The Stones singing "Let's Spend the Night Together," Women's Lib,) comedy writers looked for repressed, un-liberated people to laugh at – and found Catholics.
Me Mammy started life in 1968 as a Comedy Playhouse pilot and was so popular it ran on BBC1 for three years. Written by Hugh Leonard, it starred Milo O'Shea as an Irish businessman called Bunjy Kennfick, who lives in a posh flat in Regent's Park, runs a successful company and goes out with his secretary Miss Argyll (the horse-faced-but-sexy Yootha Joyce). He has a good life. The only snag is that his devoutly Catholic mother (Anna Manahan), reluctant to give up her son to the fleshpots of London, has come to live with him, and thwarts his every move away from the Ten Commandments.
It was very funny. The draconian mammy had a cupboardful of plaster saints to which she prayed in times of stress. David Kelly played the camp Cousin Enda, always being kicked out of the "Little Brown Brothers" for unspecified demeanours. I was intrigued by my parents' reaction. They watched every episode, alternating between amusement and tutting disapproval. They were evidently pleased to have a show about modern Irish people on primetime British TV; also pleased that Milo O'Shea's character wasn't a drunkard, a dimwit or a bomb-maker. But they clearly felt that, in the comic tension between the lecherous Bunjy and his hellfire-proclaiming mammy, Irish people in general were being laughed at. Like many Irish, they weren't sure the English audience were laughing at the same things they were.
I met Graham Linehan, co-creator of Father Ted, in 1995. He told me he was launching a sitcom about three Irish Catholic priests living on a remote island off County Galway. "That's very niche," I remarked in my incisive way. "You can't expect a huge audience for Irish-Catholic-priest humour, can you?" "Ah well," said Linehan in his phlegmatic way, "We'll see…"
Three seasons of hilarity and massive success followed. On paper, Father Ted was a virtual orchestra of stereotypings. It had the bird-brained Father Dougal, the drunken, foul-mouthed psychopath Father Jack, the tea-obsessed Mrs Doyle and, in Father Ted himself, the Irishman as spiritually impoverished and financially unscrupulous dreamer of success, fame and women. Yet nobody ever complained that the show offered a most unedifying view of Ireland. Why? Because its comic tone was so broad, its humour so surreal and its slapstick so hilarious, it ceased to be a show about Irish character or "Irishness".
Mrs Brown's Boys proved more problematic, but more for critics than viewers. Irish journalists hated Brendan O'Carroll's character, the nosy Irish matriarch who runs a fruit and veg stall in Dublin's Moore Street market and punctures the everyday dreams of her family with the hatpin of her caustic wit; it was too redolent of "dear dirty oul' Dublin", of sentimental songs and after-hours fiddle music in the pubs of Baggot Street – a world notionally left behind by the Celtic Tiger economy. Mrs Brown's Boys, said the Irish Independent's TV critic, was the kind of TV show "that makes you vaguely embarrassed to be Irish".
The public, both in Ireland and the UK, begged to differ. They saw instead a sitcom about a family and its problems, and laughed at the rude but clever jokes. The show's Irish quotient falls away as surely as the awareness that you're watching a man in drag.
And so the long history of Irish comic prejudice culminates in London Irish. Is it as stereotypically awful as the Twitterers feared? Actually no. True, it begins with a pub chat about how the difference between English and Irish binge drinking, but otherwise, it has nothing to do with received views of "London Irish". The characters aren't Irish-Irish, they're from Northern Ireland (the show is written by Derry-born Lisa McGee) and therefore in the UK. The London they inhabit isn't recognisable as London, let alone an English ghetto such as Kilburn or Archway; it could be anywhere. There's much swearing, much talk of shagging, much worship of vodka, jokes about prosthetic limbs, homosexuality, and the ethics of snogging the corpse at a funeral. But the quartet of young people whose adventures we follow are just… people.
It's often funny, in a rather shocking way ("All black people are sound – Oprah, Barack, Peter Andre…") and sometimes just shocking, as when they use a three-year-old boy as a comic foil for sex jokes. When it comes to stereotyping, however, the only victims are Londoners: one Sloane-Rangerish blonde woman convinced that she and Packy are betrothed, and one chinny public schoolboy who is gay but pretends to court the fuming blonde Niamh.
The only drawback to being Irish in London, it turns out, is not knowing the answers in the pub quiz. Otherwise, the show suggests that national bigotry is a thing of the past, though you can find individual characters insufferable or stupid. As Niamh says at one point: "People aren't likely to associate us with terrorism any more. More likely with Louis Walsh."
'London Irish' is on Tuesdays at 10pm on Channel 4Reuse content