Anti-Irish imagery: Then and now

Derogatory representation of the Irish is nothing new. It’s been around for centuries and many negative stereotypes still permeate how the nation is depicted today. Let’s explore cartoons of the past and present, as well as what the future may hold.

The origins of anti-Irish cartoons

Anti-Irish imagery often brings to mind the Famine-era cartoons published by Punch magazine or those drawn by American cartoonist Thomas Nast. However, it dates back much further.

Anti-Irish political cartoon titled “The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things” by Thomas Nast (1840–1902), published in Harper’s Weekly on 2 September 1871.

“The baneful and blood-stained Monster …”. The quotation is from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Charles Stuart Parnell is depicted, with ‘his monster’ which represents the Fenian movement.
The cartoon is anti-Irish propaganda and is a reference to the Phoenix Park assassinations.

Negative stereotypes, slurs and depictions of a people can help validate colonisation, bloodshed and other demeaning treatment – and treating the Irish as lesser humans has been happening in Britain since the Middle Ages.

In the US, research also suggests that negative attitudes toward the Irish were normal long before Thomas Nast’s time. When American historian Dale Knobel analysed letters, speeches, literature, songs and theatre, it’s clear that these stereotypes existed well before the Famine.

However, the words used to describe the Irish became more offensive by the 1850s. Descriptions like ‘pugnacious’, ‘ignorant’ and ‘quarrelsome’ changed to more negative physical portrayals like ‘lowbrow’ and ‘coarse-haired’.

Cartoons went from showing the Irish as harmless dimwits to ape-like beasts. While it’s true that the Irish often debarked coffin ships ragged, poor and sickly, this pervasive narrative painted them as something to fear.

Irish Land League outlawed Britannia protects Hibernia (Ireland) from anarchy with the Force of Law by John Tenniel for Punch Magazine

It was also at this time that ape-like images of the Irish gained more prominence in England. This coincided with the British government blaming Irish people for the Famine, as well as its resistance to political movements calling for the overthrow of landlords and Home Rule.

One Punch cartoon shows an admirable Britannia protecting Ireland from anarchy, which takes the form of an ape-like Irishman. The idea that the Irish were an inferior race can also be found in scientific literature*.

Drawing by: H. Strickland Constable. 1899, Ireland from One or Two Neglected Points of View

Irish stereotypes in modern media

There’s still no shortage of offensive Irish stereotypes in the media. Whenever the Irish make positive or negative headlines, outdated stereotypes aren’t far behind.

When The Banshees of Inisherin was released last year, it received 14 Oscar nominations. While some felt the film portrayed Irish people as petty and dim, this was nothing compared to the stereotypes wheeled out at the Oscars.

Jokes about drinking and fighting were heard within minutes. During the ceremony’s opening skit, comics depicted the film’s stars speaking incomprehensibly. This was topped off with the punchline: “Wow! And they haven’t even started drinking yet.”

Host Jimmy Kimmel also joked during his opening monologue: “Five Irish actors are nominated tonight. Which means the odds of another fight onstage just went way up.”

Some people lodged complaints with the US Federal Communications Commission for the offensive joke. But Kimmel only apologised to viewers about bringing an imposter Jenny the Donkey on stage – not his quips about the Irish.

Offensive Irish cartoons haven’t gone away either. In 2017, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party made headlines when it agreed to support Britain’s Conservative Party in government. Cartoonists had a field day.

The Daily Mail’s Mac, who has offended many groups with his artwork, portrayed the DUP as drunks, despite the fact that many of its leading members are teetotallers. This isn’t the first time the newspaper’s cartoons fed into the drunken Irish stereotype.

More recently, British newspaper The Times caused controversy with its cartoon of US President Joe Biden’s visit to Ireland. Biden, who has Irish roots, is depicted as a leprechaun with a pint of Guinness. Although, in reality, he doesn’t drink alcohol.

What the future holds

Stereotypical depictions of the Irish have leaked into newer technology and media too. As our research highlighted last year, predictive search data shows that many misleading perceptions of the Irish still prevail worldwide – and search engines aren’t helping.

When you type ‘the Irish are known for’ into Google, the search engine automatically presents a selection of the most common searches – most of which associate the Irish with fighting, drinking and holding grudges.

Continuing on this campaign in 2023, our researchers used the most popular AI image generator to illustrate an ‘Irish man’. The result was like something from Punch: ape-like and heavy-browed.

Studies have already shown that Google algorithms and AI systems tend to discriminate against women and people of colour. White people are overrepresented in image data, while suggested autocompletes and ad targeting often conform to stereotypes.

AI’s representation of the Irish probably isn’t intentional, unlike content of the past. However, it should be more accurate – and there is hope. Tech companies are being called out and face greater scrutiny all the time. Ensuring greater diversity among AI creators, researchers and databases should help.

In terms of AI, if data is scraped from the internet with no oversight, it is possible that offensive cartoons could influence AI systems. MIT already scrapped its AI training datasets because they included discriminatory images and photos labelled with slurs. Hopefully, it can figure out a way to create prejudice-free databases.

* “Scientific racism misuses science to promote false beliefs that some ethnic and racial groups are superior to others.”

Since it opened, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum has worked hard to challenge the negative stereotypes associated with Ireland and its people. To understand the true character of the Irish, visit EPIC today.