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

Share
Related Topics
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'.

(Graphics omitted)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal  

What is 4Chan? And why does it threaten women like Emma Watson?

Memphis Barker
Chuka Umunna was elected MP for Streatham in 2010  

Could flirty Chuka Umunna be worth a punt for Labour’s top job?

Matthew Norman
Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum