The history of anti-Irish racism

The following article appeared as the foreword to Phil Mac Giolla Bháin’s book “Minority Reporter”.

There’s nothing new about anti-Irish racism. In fact, some of the language of racism in general can be found far back in Irish and British history. Gerald of Wales accompanied the anglo-Norman invaders who first subjugated Ireland to rule under the king of England in the 12th Century. He wrote, in The History and Topography of Ireland (PDF), of the native Irish:

“They live on beasts only, and live like beasts. They have not progressed at all from the habits of pastoral living… This is a filthy people, wallowing in vice. Of all peoples it is the least instructed in the rudiments of the faith.”

The stereotyping of the native Irish and the defaming of local culture and practices was accompanied by forced anglicisation and regular military incursions. The Protestant reformation, in particular Henry VIII’s rejection of the Catholic church, gave religious sectarianism a new edge. Despite the missionaries from Ireland who had reintroduced Christianity to Britain after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Irish were now cast as followers of a superstitious and brutal religion – and seen as too stupid to know better.

As the centuries passed, the racist rhetoric continued and expanded to justify the continued repression of native Irish resistance and, from the 16th Century onwards, the plantations of Ireland – a programme of confiscation and colonisation of the land with settlers from England and the Scottish lowlands. The combination of religious rhetoric and land confiscations reached a fever pitch with Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland in the 17th Century. From this point onwards, British colonialism expanded globally.

The lessons learned in Ireland became a template for how to deal with other troublesome natives. As Noam Chomsky put it, in one of the interviews in The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many:

“There has always been racism. But it developed as a leading principle of thought and perception in the context of colonialism. That’s understandable. When you have your boot on someone’s neck, you have to justify it. The justification has to be their depravity.

“It’s very striking to see this in the case of people who aren’t very different from one another. Take a look at the British conquest of Ireland, the earliest of the Western colonial conquests. It was described in the same terms as the conquest of Africa. The Irish were a different race. They weren’t human. They weren’t like us. We had to crush and destroy them.”

The colonisation of Ireland was completed with the Act of Union in 1800, following the defeated 1798 Rebellion. Ireland became an unequal part of the United Kingdom and, as its small economy was suppressed to the advantage of the larger country to the east, a trickle of Irish people began moving to Britain seeking work. The Irish became farm labourers, dock workers, builders and, as the industrial revolution began to take hold, factory workers.

The trickle of Irish immigrants into Britain became a flood with the advent of An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger) in the 1840s and ’50s. Often referred to as the Irish Famine, the death of approximately one million people and the emigration of at least the same number was not the result of natural causes as the word famine implies. On the contrary, the island of Ireland was still exporting massive amounts of food during the same period. An Gorta Mór was a legacy of the colonial policies of the British state, which pushed much of the native population to the rocky land of Connacht, and the laissez faire politics of the British government that prevented any realistic attempts to alleviate the suffering in Ireland.

Irish emigrants ended up across the world, from Australia and South Africa to Argentina and the United States. But many hundreds of thousands went no further than Britain – London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. The immigrants were a gift to the emergent capitalism of mid-19th Century Britain, destitute thousands fed the huge factories and populated the great industrial cities. However, the poverty and lack of education of many of the immigrants fed the historic prejudices.

The Irish lived in ghettos which were often little more than shanty towns. These areas – including Irish Town in Manchester described by Friedrich Engels in “The Condition of the Working Class” or Whitechapel in London described by Rudolf Rocker in the “London Years” – were rightly regarded as barely fit for human inhabitation. However, for many in Britain, the Irish were seen as natural inhabitants of such squalor, unwilling and unable to improve themselves.

Similar conditions in the United States drove many Irish West, to become pioneers of the new territories and gradually to attain new status. There was no such option in Britain and, as a result, new issues emerged. Out of the ghettos emerged new kinds of activism. A new version of the Irish fight for independence from Britain emerged amongst the emigrants in a number of movements that would become known as Fenianism. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) had groups in Ireland and Britain, the Fenian Brotherhood and then Clan na Gael were their equivalent in the United States. At a number of times through their history, these Fenian groups engaged in bombings in Britain – the most notorious of which was the Clerkenwell bombing in 1867 when a botched prison break killed 12 civilians.

Michael Barrett became the last man to be publicly hanged in Britain after he was convicted of participating in the bombing. Despite many doubts over his conviction and campaigns for clemency similar to those in Manchester on behalf of those who became the Manchester Martyrs, Barrett came to symbolise a new aspect of anti-Irish prejudice – the dangerous bomber. So much so that his execution is thought to be the origin of the use of the name Mick as an insulting generalisation for Irish people.

The 1880s saw a new flank in Irish activism that had a more positive effect on British society. The New Unionism wave that turned trade unions into mass organisations for the first time originated in the largely Irish community of East London. The “Matchgirls” Strike of 1888 and the subsequent London Dockers’ Strike that so nearly became a London general strike were solidly based amongst the Irish.

The Irish involvement in the trade union movement continued and produced such legendary figures as Jim Larkin from Liverpool and James Connolly from Edinburgh, both of whom ended up returning to Ireland, the land of their parents. The British trade union movement to this day contains an obvious preponderance of Irish names, including my own – I was born in Dublin, moved to London in 2012 and was, until recently, President of the National Union of Journalists.

The Fenian movement continued on its own path to Irish freedom, partially achieved in 1922, and Republican activities largely disappeared for decades, barring some sporadic actions in Ireland in relation to Northern Ireland. The trade union movement achieved improvements in the living standards of all, particularly after the Second World War. But, for the Irish, many aspects of the old prejudice remained. The treatment of Irish workers has been captured in song, in particular Dominic Behan’s “McAlpine’s Fusillers” written in the 1960s about the treatment of builders working for Sir Robert McAlpline. “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish” signs were still to be seen in 1960s London.

In 1968, as the whole world seemed to be rising up and demanding equality and civil rights, the Catholic community of Northern Ireland did the same – and provoked a violent reaction, first from the Unionist and Loyalist majority and then from the army, originally brought in to defend them. The remnants of the IRA split and the largely Northern Ireland-based Provisional IRA began its campaign against British rule. The Troubles began in 1969.

This had much the same effect on the Irish community in Britain as the IRB’s actions 100 years earlier. Every Irish man or woman was a suspect and, as the cases of the Birmingham Six, Guilford Four, Maguires and Judith Ward showed, any Irish person could be arrested and convicted regardless of whether or not they were involved in IRA activities. Border security in the 1970s and ’80s was notorious in its suspicion of all Irish people and the dehumanising and sometimes degrading actions of officials.

The end of the 1990s created a perfect storm that changed nearly everything. The economy of the Irish Republic was becoming the envy of the world as the Celtic Tiger appeared to break every rule and grow beyond all expectations. Irish emigration, which had been a constant factor since the 1840s, quickly went into reverse as Ireland became a destination of choice for emigrants from other countries, first Nigeria, then China and then Eastern Europe.

At the same time, the Troubles were slowly coming to an end. Ceasefires and negotiations, first secret and then in the open, resulted in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Very quickly, the myths that underpinned the prejudice started to disappear – Irish people turned out to be well educated, cultured and, increasingly, financially well off. Dublin became a favourite stop for English stag and hen parties. Irish accents became commonplace on British television. Everyone loved Boyzone, Westlife and Riverdance.

However, the old myths and prejudices persisted in one part of Britain and this is what Phil Mac Giolla Bháin has been central to exposing and combating. The continued tolerance of racist bile like the ‘Famine Song’ in Scottish football was unacceptable and Phil’s success in creating an international issue out of it is to be commended. The fact that this made him the journalist of choice for people to reveal the state of Rangers’ finances speaks to his professionalism and courage to tread where many others feared.

After the collapse of the Irish economy and the return of emigration as the only option for young Irish people, there is a danger of a resurgence of anti-Irish prejudice. There were hints of it in some of the reaction to the Pope’s visit to the UK in 2010. Catholics were portrayed by some opponents of the visit as being superstition and stupid, a strong echo of the descriptions of the thick Paddy of old. In 2012, an English Defence League splinter group calling themselves the “North-West Infidels” have moved from attacking Muslims to targeting Irish community parades, accusing groups like the James Larkin Society in Liverpool of links to the IRA.

To be very clear, I’m not an Irish nationalist, I’m an anarchist who wants to see the eradication of all borders, not the creation of more. I’m not a Catholic – I have a letter from the Catholic Church to confirm that. And I don’t have a particular dislike of the Rangers football team or most of the fans – I don’t like football at all. As far as I’m concerned, football represents my inability to get the bus home when I lived in Holloway and Arsenal were playing. I don’t care whether a team succeeds or fails, it’s a complete irrelevance to me.

What I do care about it racism and hatred. If you sing a song that expresses your hatred of me and people like me, I want you to stop. If you react to something written with threats of violence, then you deserve to be stopped. I oppose all forms of intolerance and prejudice, whether it be against Irish people, Muslims, LGBT people or any other group. It is the job of an ethical journalist to expose this kind of hatred and prejudice and Phil Mac Giolla Bháin has done it well.


Author: Donnacha DeLong

Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Donnacha DeLong is an NUJ activist, journalist and online communications consultant with more than 20 years' professional experience.

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