Rear Window: Punch lines that kept the Irish in their place: Taking the Mick

FECKLESS, stupid, drunken, combative and relentlessly talkative, the Irishmen of Victorian Punch cartoons merge together into a stereotype that has proved enduring.

Former colleagues of Trevor McAuley at Auto Alloys Foundry in Blackwell, Derbyshire, had similar ideas about the Irish. 'Typical thick Paddy,' they said, and 'That's Irish logic' and 'What else can you expect from an Irishman?'.

Mr McAuley (who happens to come from the heart of Paisleyite Co Antrim and describes himself firmly as British) won pounds 5,900 damages last week after satisfying an industrial tribunal that such remarks, endlessly repeated in the workplace, amounted to racist abuse. He was the fourth Irish person to win a case of this kind in the past year.

Contempt for Irish people and their habits has a long history in Britain. Gerald of Wales, visiting Ireland in the 1180s, wrote of a barbarous, filthy and irresponsible people who 'think that the greatest pleasure is not to work'. In the 17th century, Fynes Moryson lamented the squalor and drunkenness of Irish life, even in the Anglicised towns of Dublin and Cork. His rooms, he noted, 'were scarce swept once in a week, and the dust then laid in a corner

was perhaps cast out once in a month or two'.

But it was surely Punch and its satirical rivals in the 19th century that sculpted the foolish, idle figure of fun whose descendants stand behind the Auto Alloys insults and the Irish jokes of today.

Even before Darwin, the Punch cartoonists knew the Irish were a lower order of human; the arrival of the theory of evolution merely provided the explanation.

'Mr MacSimius', slack-jawed, dim-eyed and hirsute, is shown declaring: 'Well, Oi don't profess to be a particularly cultivated man meself; but at laste me progenitors were all educated in the hoigher branches.'

A Punch writer in the 1860s described 'a creature manifestly between the Gorilla and the Negro'. This is the 'Irish Yahoo', a climbing animal which 'may sometimes be seen ascending a ladder with a hod of bricks'. Only the ability of this beast to utter articulate sounds, the writer explains, proves that 'it is a development, and not as some imagine, a degeneration, of the Gorilla'.

They were not all beggars, bricklayers or bogmen, but where Punch encountered the better sort of Irishmen or women they were invariably unwitting wits, pouring forth a stream of charming solecisms - the Irish Gent to his housemaid, after a row with a caller: 'The next time you let that man in you're to shut the door in his face.' Or the Irish Visitor to his host, while observing a summer shower: 'Ah, now this is welcome. An hour's rain like this will do more good in five minutes than a week of it.' Whole books of 'Mr Punch's Irish Humour' were filled with this stuff.

To English readers who knew the Irish only as rootless, troublesome navvies, small-time terrorists or the distant, lumpen victims of famine or rural hardship, it was doubtless reassuring to learn that these people were prodigal idiots. If they were poor or hungry, or if their homes and their countryside were overcrowded, it was because they refused to improve themselves. Money or sympathy, it was clear, would be wasted on them.

Late in the century Punch learnt to be kinder and even gave its support to Irish Home Rule, but it was by then a little late.

In the 1880s, the magazine referred more warmly to 'Hibernia, the Cinderella sister of Britannia and Caledonia'. As Professor Roy Foster, the historian, has pointed out, 'neither Mr Punch nor his cartoonists ever followed through the implication of the metaphor: that Britannia was therefore Hibernia's Ugly Sister, exploiting her at home and keeping her from the ball'.

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