Sham-Rocks, Plastic Paddies and Bar Brawls: Challenging the populist status quo

In 2019, “Saturday Night Live” aired a skit about an Irish date show that portrayed contestants as inbred knuckleheads with a reduced worldview and a propensity toward marrying their cousins. And it stood out like a sore thumb. Stereotypes are increasingly being shunned as the lowest form of humor, and remarkable progress has been made combatting typecasting (retiring the Sambo image and removing headdresses from all depictions of Indigenous people, for instance). Yet, hidden in a strange, oblique shadow, the Irish remain prime fodder for comedians — even self-professed social dogooders such as “SNL.” Can you imagine the same show broadcasting a sketch where, let’s say, an African American restaurant made its trade in fried chicken and watermelon? Neither can I.

So, why the Irish? It’s an intriguing question. The home of Europe’s oldest surviving literary culture, birthplace of Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats and Van Morrison, Ireland has been known as Land of Saints and Scholars for centuries, a cauldron of inspiration overflowing with thought and creativity. But despite the island’s extensive contributions to art and learning, Ireland has largely been reduced to the home of craic, blarney and roguish drunks, violent men in balaclavas, potatoes, sheep and oppressive religious figures. Not a pretty picture, and not one that benefits any of us. 

The prevailing consciousness outside the island is misapprehension manifested in slurs that flirts with xenophobia in an all too acceptable fashion. ‘Paddy’ has become a name synonymous with idiotic buffoonery, the ancient symbolism of the shamrock desecrated as just another emblem to be used by sports teams, and the history of the island projected through the warped veil of conquest. As with all stereotyping, these warped anti-Irish perspectives have their origin in outside influence, particularly the bigotry of English (and later, British) Empire, and the rise of the Protestant ruling class in the 17th century. 


Coming to the states, these caricatures were compounded by a typically hostile Anglo-American population, and cartoons of the Irish in the late 19th century portray the population as anthropoidal dimwits. Yet the Irish persisted, giving the country 22 presidents, the architect behind the White House, and pioneers such as Sam Houston and Davy Crockett.

The problem is that the stereotyping is neither localized nor restricted to everyday social banter. In February 2010, English journalist and then director of the Centre for Social Cohesion, Douglas Murray, posted a reactionary, anti-Irish opinion piece in British newspaper The Daily Telegraph that prompted readers to post derogatory slurs, unmolested. Back home, failed Democrat hopeful and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has come under criticism for his alcohol-centered treatment of Saint Patrick’s Day, while each year Walmart belittles Saint Patrick’s Day with endless t-shirts proclaiming crass notions such as: “The Irish Triathlon — Drink, Drink, Vomit.”

This is not to say that the Irish are unable to laugh at themselves, but the humor such as that popularized by “Father Ted” and “Give My Head Peace” must be properly understood; it is dark comedy that exists as an intelligent response to detractors and so must be viewed with that in mind. Strife continues in our backyard, with the 30 years of troubles in Northern Ireland lending weight to the notion that the country is unstable hellhole of political dogma and hard social division. Again, this is not our doing, but is the result of the occupying influence of the British Empire. These unhealed wounds still seep suspicion and tension on both sides of the debate, while an overwhelming number of unaffiliated parties resolutely focus on isolated disparity. This localized sense of distrust feeds into a tragic lack of a single voice, where sporadic terrorist attacks putrefy within the void.

In the light of this climate, it is time to challenge the misconceptions. Broken down into its basic, but by no means comprehensive components, modern Ireland can be seen in three distinct, but closely related personalities: the independent and progressive Eurozone of the Republic; the closely guarded, but highly colorful North, forever uncertain of its prescribed Westminster governance; and the shared history of scholarly prowess, accomplished artistry and globally celebrated hospitality. To the outside mind, Ireland is a complex affair, which understandably lends itself to the simplifying process of caricature, but we must not encourage such lazy thinking. While it persists, the resulting impression of Ireland, once the balance is struck, will continue to be a moronic land of joviality undermined by internal dispute, and due to its restrained global presence, one that can be affectionately patronized.

And herein lies another problem: the uneasy relationship behind Ireland, the Industry and Ireland the Island. Ireland the Industry is the cartoon of Ireland, embodied in the palatable, plastic Paddy with his slow-poured Guinness, wooden pipe and flat cap. He is a jolly figure, whose friendliness is interpreted as idiocy, and his regional focus as charmingly backward. Such is the force of this prescription that Ireland has been reduced to making an industry out of the caricature, a desperate measure for a desperate situation. But this must not be interpreted as acceptance, for the pragmatist is not unfamiliar with the realist.

Ireland the Island is the proud, but brow-beaten, alter-ego of Ireland the Industry. It acknowledges the issues that have cloaked its counterpart, and constantly battles with the problems involved. It understands that it cannot change the populist perspective of Ireland, but rather wishes to inform outsiders, and invites them to experience the real Ireland. The vibrant revival of the Irish language and celebration of Irish music, dance and arts in all forms should be acknowledged as they are things that, in theory, should be championed across the four provinces. 

This article does not wish to advocate external censorship or excessive political correctness, but to consider whether the concept of plastic paddies and bar brawls is as true a reflection of Ireland, just as the painting of other nationalities by their prescribed stereotypes. Instead, consider this an invitation for both inhabitants of the island and outsiders alike to reconsider Ireland without the lazy cloak of prejudice, and to form a sustainable and fair impression of Ireland that future generations can be proud of.