Every year, the St. Patrick’s holiday rolls around here in the US, and every year I am less keen on celebrating. I haven’t observed it for about 17 years now, in fact. For many families, it is more about going to church, family time and a big meal including soda bread. That said, there is a huge celebration of the biggest stereotypes surrounding the Irish. From wearing of the green, to green beer, and public drunkenness—just to name a few—amateur hour is more of an embarrassment than a matter of pride. In fact, the American celebration of St. Paddy‘s day, is reviled overseas (see below).
The wearing of the green is from the British the forbidding the Irish from wearing their colors, forbidding their flag and any other symbol of Irishness as they were being subjugated under the crown. So, green has become an obsession for Hibernophilia. Emerald Isle, shamrocks, leprechauns and all that. Get it? Sigh.
The worst part about the holiday is the drinking. For many decades, the Irish were not considered acceptable in polite society. They were portrayed as monkey faced heathens with bright red noses and cheeks, as well as frizzy, curly, orange hair. They weren’t even thought to be entirely human by the dominant Anglos. Sound familiar? One of the ways that Anglo society kept other groups down was painting them as criminal and immoral. For the Irish, that was around drinking and bad tempers.
The film industry was an outlet used to propagate Irish stereotypes from the beginning of the industry. Oddly, in about the 1930s and 1940s it became cool to adopt Irish sounding names as an actor, whether one was Irish or not.
During my undergraduate degree, I examined Irish stereotypes in American culture. This did nothing to endear me to the St. Pat’s, and has really helped me see even more so how awful the holiday really is, as it slips away from the religious feast of St. Patrick (who was himself not a nice character—the snakes he chased out of Ireland were a metaphor for the pagans. So, he displaced the natives and replaced them with those he could beat into the submission of the Catholic church. He was thoroughly anti-Irish. Furthermore, Patrick was not an Irishman. One story has him as a Brit and wealthy. Go figure!). I’d still question the celebration of such a man by anyone from Ireland, but then Stockholm Syndrome has always been a thing, even if it didn’t have a name until late last century.
The Irish are so much more than beer, leprechauns and green. They have a long and rich history that fills out the old ways (faith) and still wends through their culture to this day. Leprechauns and other fae are not the sweet faced cherubs that we’ve turned them into. In Irish lore, they’re vindictive sprites with each their own culture–groups of people who live in the in-between or around tree stands, rings and waterways. From long ago through today, the Irish have produced art and music that rival the classics of Rome. Their cuisine, which is barbarized in corned beef traditions by Americans, has much more depth and variety and is as artful as their poetry.
To read more about the Irish in American society….
“Though it may surprise people of today, the Irish were not considered white by the Anglo-Saxon dominant cultural group of America and were often called similar epitaphs as the African American, reminding them of their place in white society. Dennis Clark and William J. Lynch examine this position in their article “Hollyood and Hibernia: The Irish in the Movies.” Clark and Lynch state that, “Like Irish immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century, Jewish movie producers, vaudeville performers, and songwriters occupied an insecure position between whites and peoples of color…racial cross-dressing acknowledged the ambiguous racial status they occupied,” (Rogin, 1052). Here they are speaking of a two-fold meaning. The Irish, like the Jews, also performed in blackface. The other meaning is in that they portrayed the dominant culture on stage and screen, dressing the part from costume to voice work (smoothing the Irish brogue to sound more Anglo). The Irish were closer to assimilating in that they already spoke English, but were usually barred from such acceptance because of their low income status (98). Still, there existed a “potential ability of Irish-Americans to manipulate their own and other ethnic colleagues and interests and to maneuver skillfully in an American culture with which they were highly conversant,” (Miller, 103). In other words, they had the connection of language and an understanding of Anglo-Saxon cultural norms in order to at least pretend they fit in. Furthermore, their history on the stage provided business connections: “Jewish and Irish performers mixed freely in vaudeville,” providing them with “links for later Hollywood connections,” (Miller, 105). Business connections meant they had a better chance at achieving upward mobility and gaining status through income.
It is well known that the Irish “brought to America a culture rich in theatrical tradition, in which music, folk dancing, and storytelling proved happy assets to the stage and screen, as the country gradually accepted popular dramatic entertainment,” (Miller, 99). Despite this rich tradition, which should have garnered them more respect, “the Irish, along with blacks, became the most commonly mocked group…caricatures of Irish politicians, fire brigade commanders, and saloon owners…prejudicial posturing that passed for dramatic presentation of the Irish,” (Miller, 99). Some of the familiar stereotypes portrayed of the Irish included: “the bumbling servant, the braggart fortune seeker, the reckless lover and the wild Irish girl,” also, “the drunken boyo, the braggart greenhorn, Brigid the clumsy maid, Tim the dumb cop, and Paddy the burly laborer” (Miller, 100). Under the studio system, Irish actors were often pigeon-holed into a few basic genres: “The Gangster Film—since the Irish were the nation’s prime contenders for criminal eminence throughout the 1920s…archetypal lawless urban Irish thug…The Military Film…movies in which the Irish were invariably enlisted men…courageous, patriotic, but basically dumb and dogged fighter…The Irish Family Film—the raucous Irish domestic scene…about feuding Irish families….The Adventure Films…the Irishman as dashing, devil-may-care swashbuckler…The Cowboy Film…always a tough cavalry sergeant…his charges, enlisted men all, were inevitably heavy-drinking, saloon-busting Irishmen. The Religious Film…the Catholic priest as a two-fisted, charming, often musical figure who fought or sang his way into the souls of his flock. The’ Old Country’ Film…often romantic, unrealistic portraits of Irish life,” (Miller, 105-106). Stock images of the Irish faded after the studio system dissolved sometime during the 1950s, most likely due to an opening in positions on the creative end (Miller, 111). Clark and Lynch assert that despite the offensive nature of these roles, they were “seldom consciously offensive” (Miller, 100). That notion is key to understanding how stereotyping and marginalizing comes into power. As Benshoff and Griffin mention, race ideas were “allegedly scientific,” and “highly dependent upon social, ideological and historical concepts,” (Benshoff, 47, 48). In other words, white privilege formed ideas about race, for it was their perspectives and ideas that decided such concepts at the time (and some rightly argue that is so to this day), but not everyone held these ideas with cruel intentions.
Some examples of this concept are how the dominant group stereotyped “both Jews and Irish as boorish, loud, stubborn, crude and given to humorous mishandling of the English language,” (Miller, 100). Their control of the mainstream of society saw that this “tradition of the stereotyped stage Irishman continued through the studios’ heyday, and even during their decline it was never really expunged,” (Miller, 100). After all, it was what they believed about the Irish and the players could not sell a role that was unbelievable. Stereotyped images of the Irish can still easily be seen today.
Although the “Irish were reflected on the screen, often simplistically and at best, as in the Irish Freedom films, ambiguously,” they were employed “behind the scenes…as writers, promoters, agents, directors, and publicity men,” (Miller, 107). Sometimes, the groups themselves helped the concepts of stereotypes to be propagated. For instance, negative impacts from outside of film included Irish Catholic vigilance system (Production Code), who annoyed moviegoers for decades with their attempts to censor content. Also, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) and Senator Joseph McCarthy (Miller, 108-109) left a painful legacy behind that only proved the widely held ideas of boorish and stubborn Irishmen.
Yet, despite the negative images, studios demanded actors who sounded Irish, (Miller, 100-101). Irish names “were acceptable on movie billboards,” (Miller, 101). This sounds strange, considering the experience of blacks and Jews, who had to hide their identity or stand in the background. The reason behind it was that “the Irish were common coin in the country, and their names were generally pronounceable,” (Miller, 101). Clark and Lynch are saying that because such enormous numbers of Irish immigrated to the United States, their numbers insisted on greater deference. This deference did not extend to telling fair stories about the Irish or considering them outside of an Anglo-Saxon interpretation of identity. This identity had been long forming, with roots in the old world, from which both groups had long ties.
Though the Irish held positions in the studios and could, like the Jews, have control over their image, that did not happen. They go on to point out that “script writing…never drew sufficient exercise of talent or attention to bring to the screen the keen realities of Irish-American experience,” (Miller, 102). The talent wasn’t drawn because writers were instead hired “to provide stock scripts,” not write enduring classics that would be lauded for all time (Miller, 102). Yet, there are enduring examples of the Irish in both those who worked behind the scenes as well as in front, (Miller 103). John Ford is one example, a well-known and beloved director (Miller, 103). Still, the examples are results of assimilation. The John Ford cannon of cinema is a list of films that contain all the above stereotypes and forward the ideology of the nation, and Ford was an Irishman.
By the time of this article, there were no films that “even tried to comprehend the huge subject of Irish immigration and its implications,” (Miller, 109). Clark and Lynch lament “the Irish have become more assimilated into the American mainstream, it is just possible that they may have lost some of their individuality and their color,” (Miller, 111). Fortunately, cinema has been leaning toward telling stories centered more on individual experience and highlighting the obstacles the underdog must overcome. I would argue that we now have such a film as Clark and Lynch were looking for. Gangs of New York (2002) is the tale of the Irish in America. It gets into all the ugly details of life in the Five Points, using stereotypes to draw in the audience with something familiar and then challenging that ideology by contrasting it with the Anglo-Saxon oppressor that drives the narrative of the story. It basically says, if the Irish were ugly, then so too were the so-called Americans who abused them. Far and Away (1992) attempted to do the same, but it’s more light-hearted approach seemed to miss the mark and fall into the same vein as the John Ford Irish films before it. It is arguably
inspired by Ford’s films. After all, Shannon is the ditzy Bridgette, though moneyed and far more educated than her love interest. Joseph is just another stubborn and boorish Irishman. What’s more, the entire film is about how Joseph must tame the wild Shannon and seek his due on the frontier. Gangs, though it makes use of stereotypes, gives a history and meaning to why they exist. It is the circumstances and the world that molds the few opportunities
that make Amsterdam’s behavior. Neither does he seek to tame Jenny, as much as rescue her from her fate, the fate of all of the Irish in Five Points who live at the mercy of Bill ‘The Butcher.’ Jenny thus becomes symbolic of Ireland, under threat of the English and following a bad path because all other opportunity has been denied her.
In viewing the images of the Irish on the screen, I am often struck by the persistent stereotypes. I even laughingly call the images and songs attached to this group racist. They’re not painful, but do strike an uncomfortable cord. I find that it echoes the sentiments of the Jewish filmmaker in poking fun at their cultural group and how some view this as self-hatred. I think that this is indicative of both groups being just on the edge, neither fully accepted nor fully rejected by the White social structure…”
Read more about Race and Ethnicity and get my citations here.
Don’t believe me? How about hearing what the Irish have to say…
“It’s a shame, America, that of all you could’ve inherited from us, you choose our excessive drinking and a kitsch celebration of nothing.”
“The annual green smug drinkfest that is St Patrick’s Day is back. Here is why it sucks.”
“Listen, the leprechauns. The goddamn leprechauns. We’ve got to stop with the leprechauns.”