Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Irish butt of English racism for more than eight centuries

Wednesday 20 March 1996 01:02 GMT

Anti-Irish racism is as old as the 12th century: it is not the result of IRA terrorism, says a study published yesterday.

Even Irish jokes go back at least to the 16th century and chroniclers as long ago as 1187 were attacking the Irish for their filth and ignorance.

Dr Mary Hickman, director of the Irish Studies Centre at the University of North London, says in her book, Religion, Class and Identity, that since the Anglo-Norman invasion in the 12th century the English have tried to justify their attacks on Ireland by racism. She said yesterday: "Many people assume that current English hostility or discrimination towards the Irish is the result of events in Northern Ireland so they see it as regrettable but understandable."

Dr Hickman, who is conducting a nationwide study of discrimination against the Irish for the Equal Opportunities Commission, argues that Ireland is important to the security of England and successive generations have tried to justify invasion and colonisation by stereotyping the Irish as wild and uncivilised.

The Pope sanctioned the Anglo-Norman invasion on the grounds that Ireland was alleged to be only nominally Christian. Dr Hickman says: "The evidence for dominating Ireland has involved lengthy discussions on the Irish national character directly linked to notions about the Celts as a "race" or the Irish as a nation.

The emphasis prior to the 16th century was on the paganism, superstition and barbarism of the Irish. Before then, Dr Hickman says, the caricature concentrated on their wildness and savagery.

From the reign of Elizabeth 1, the English began systematically to colonise Ireland and the stereotype became more detailed: in particular the notion of the Irish as "stupid" became common. "Most of this was designed to show how English rule could be used to benefit the Irish," says Dr Hickman.

An anonymous contemporary of Shakespeare included a very ignorant and wild Irishman in the play Sir John Oldcastle, based partly, scholars think on MacMorris in Henry V.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the stereotype changed: the half- human savage became a figure of contempt. In the 19th century more details of the stereotype, such as idleness and drinking, were filled in.

English attitudes to the Irish are closely connected to anti-Catholicism. Dr Hickman's book points out that a separate system of Roman Catholic schools grew up because of the hostility of English working class parents to having their children educated alongside Irish children. It was not the case that the Catholics insisted on their own schools.

A spokesman for the Commission of Racial Equality said they had commissioned their study because there was mounting concern about discrimination against those of Irish origin in the workplace and at schools.

t Religion, Class and Identity; Mary J Hickman; Avebury; pounds 37.50.

Words from the history of a nation's prejudice

12th century: "A most filthy race ... sunk in vice, a race more ignorant than all other nations of the first principles of the faith ... They pay neither tithes nor first fruits; they do not contract marriage, nor shun incestuous connections" - Giraldus Cambrensis.

18th century: The Irish are "buried in the most profound barbarism and ignorance" - David Hume.

1836: Irish immigration into Britain "is an example of a less civilised population spreading itself as a substratum beneath a more civilised community" - parliamentary inquiry into the Irish in Britain.

1930s: "They (the Irish) have settled into the closest poor quarter and turned the settlement into a slum" - J. B. Priestley.

1950s: "No Irish need apply" - lodging house notice.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in