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

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive / Marketing Research Executive

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company is the UK's leading...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager / Section Manager - Airport Security

£40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a critical role within the secur...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45-55k

£20000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The company is an established, ...

Recruitment Genius: E-Commerce Manager - Fashion Accessories

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Here’s why I’m so full of (coffee) beans

Jane Merrick
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn