Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Where does the stereotype of a drunken Irishman come from? Why has it persisted?
by Kevin Irwin

First, the British never did like the Irish, especially after they tried to take over Ireland, namely by getting rid of the Irish altogether and planting good proper British Protestants over there. Most stereotypes arise as a way to dehumanize a certain sect in order to make it seem more acceptable to hate them or whatnot. Most of human slavery is the result of the slave owners viewing their slaves as less than human and therefore rationalizing their enslavement. So, perhaps the Brits started the stereotype.

Second, when the Irish came in huge waves to America in the late 19th century, most of the people already here didn't like them (because they would take their jobs or whatnot. Some shops even put up signs "Irish need not apply"). So, any number of groups in America might have been responsible for starting the stereotype.

Third, the brawling, drunken Irishman is just as oversimplified a stereotype as the loud, vulgar Texan. Nevertheless, it is true that the consumption of alcohol per capita is higher in Eire than in America or Europe. By one estimate, 10% of all personal spending in Ireland is for alcoholic beverages. Certainly the pub is an important social institution, quite different from the bars in this country.
Some of the greatest scenes in Irish lit. have centered around drinking, which is rarely a major theme but often a secondary one that produces some good writing. On the other hand, drinking has been a source of untimely dissipation for several Irish writers. Notice how often pub scenes are important in the movies and books we will study. The point is that Irish social life centers around the pub,keep-alive many people do their entertaining of friends and family.
Watch for scenes in the movies and books that reflect the Irish attitude toward drinking and socializing in the pub.

However, there is a large percentage of Irish people today (and historically) that are teetotalers (that is, they don't drink at all). I've heard upwards of 30% of the population falls into this category. Perhaps this is due to people giving up the drink after alcoholism or whatnot has ravaged their family.

The Irish are well-known comedians and love to be self-deprecating, so I think a lot of jokes told by the Irish themselves play on this stereotype. Although like any stereotype, the myth of the drunken Irishman can be damaging, I don't think you'll see the stereotype go away anytime soon. This is due to a number of reasons, but mainly due to the fact that the Irish and people of Irish extraction as a whole don't seem to be terribly bothered about it.

The Stereotyping of the Irish Immigrant in 19th Century Periodical by Christine Haug

Immigrating to the United States during the 19th century was not the magical solution for the majority of the newcomers. Many ethnic groups ran into prejudice in America; with stereotyping being a major problem. The Irish especially faced this problem in America, often being depicted as hot-headed, old-fashioned, and drunkards. During the 19th century, political cartoons were widely used to express the widespread negative opinions about Irish immigrants. Often the full stereotype meaning of the cartoon was subtle and could be missed by the casual reader, while other times it was cruelly obvious.

The Irish were stereotyped as uncivilized, unskilled and impoverished and were forced to work at the least desired occupations and live in crowded ethnic ghettos. Irish immigrants often found that they were not welcome in America; many ads for employment were accompanied by the order "NO IRISH NEED APPLY." Throughout the 1800s, as hordes of technologically and agriculturally unskilled Irish immigrants settled in the major cities of the east, several anti-immigrant groups began to develop. Nativists reacted to increased Irish immigration with violent riots and increased demands for limits on immigrants' rights. These nativist groups considered the immigrants as a threat and regarded the Catholicism of the Irish as an alien and rebellious religion and culture. During the mid-nineteenth century anti-Catholic riots struck the major eastern cities and vandalism against Catholic institutions became such a common practice that many insurance companies refused to cover Catholic schools and churches.

Many nativists urged policies that would limit Irish political power and immigrants' rights to vote and to hold public office, to be passed. In 1849 The Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, a clandestine society of nativists, emerged; its members pledged to only support native-born Protestants for public office, to fight the Roman Catholic Church and to support an obligatory 21-year waiting period for naturalization. This society, later reformed into the American party, when asked about their anti-immigrant activities would simply reply "I know nothing," earning them the name the Know-Nothings. This party with its motto "Americans Shall Rule America" won many city and state elections throughout the 1850s and produced a multitude of political cartoons depicting the Irish as a barbaric civilization.

The Beginning: 19th Century Irish Stereotypes

Many of the stereotypes we know about today began in the 19th century. During this time, many Irish immigrants came to the United States. Darwin's Theory of Evolution was a prevalent topic of the day. The struggle for labor between immigrants resulted in violence and discrimination. All of these things helped shape the Irish stereotypes you and I know today.

Back in the 19th century, many people viewed the Irish as an "other" or different race from other white people. 19th century cartoons portrayed the Irish as ape-like and racially primitive. Darwin's Theory of Evolution seemed to explain that the Irish were of a lower life form, not up to the par with the more intellectual white Americans. The Irish were seen as brash, hostile, angry -- all characteristics of a more primitive human form.

Around the same time, a labor struggle existed between Irish Americans and the freed African American slaves. The Irish clung to their occupations fiercely, blocking the attempts of newer immigrants or African Americans to enter them, and earning them a reputation for violence. After 1860, there were several Irish songs about employment advertisements reading, "Irish need not apply", which are now referred to as "the NINA signs." The songs had a deep impact on the Irish sense of discrimination. There is still much debate about whether these ads existed.

Another event that caused prejudice and stereotyping of the Irish was the Know Nothing Movement. The Know Nothing Movement started in the 1850's and its purpose was to oust Catholics from public office. During this time, Catholics, especially Irish Catholics, were seen as hostile to American values, their loyalties lying with the Pope in Rome instead of the American government.

Also during this time, many Irishmen began serving in law enforcement, and thus began the stereotype of the Irish cop. Serving as a cop became (and remains) a family tradition among the Irish. Many Irishmen took to the streets carrying a billy club and rounding up criminals in "paddy" wagons. An interesting statistic about this era was that during the 1850's in New York City 55 percent of those arrested were Irish-born, but 25 perct of the police doing the arresting were also Irish.

Today: Irish Stereotypes Prevail in the Media and Popular Culture

Popular culture is filled with Irish stereotypes reminiscent of the 19th century. Irish cops on TV, Notre Dame: the Fighting Irish, pubs advertising "green beer" and St. Patrick's Day specials (encouraging you to also remember to find a designated driver).

Current Example of Irish Stereotypes: Sports Entertainment

One place in the media where stereotypes abound is wrestling. Wrestling always exaggerates and plays on stereotypes to incite and excite the crowd. You can find the Irish stereotype here as well. Tune in to and episode of WWE's Friday Night Smackdown and you'll find their Irish character, Finlay. Before Finlay comes to the ring his music begins to play, his voice exclaiming "I love to fight!" as a traditional Irish song plays and he storms to the ring, shillelagh in hand. Finlay uses his shillelagh in order to cheat and beat his opponent. He also uses a leprechaun-like partner who hides under the ring, nicknamed "Little Bastard." Little Bastard is an angry leprechaun who Finlay sics on his enemies.

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