Still taking the mick: A Channel 4 sitcom has provoked outrage for portraying Irish twentysomethings as feckless binge drinkers

But, says John Walsh, his ancestors have long been represented by comedy cliches on British TV

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.

'Father Ted' was a virtual orchestra of stereotypings (Channel 4) 'Father Ted' was a virtual orchestra of stereotypings (Channel 4)  

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 4

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own