Redheads and Rebels? The Truth Behind Irish Stereotypes
Where do Irish Stereotypes come from?
The Irish must be one of the most stereotyped groups of people on the planet. There are the semi-positive ones: leprechauns, red heads and being great storytellers. Then there are the negative ones: heavy drinking, tendency to violence and being stupid. But where have these stereotypes come from?
Like most groups, the Irish have been stereotyped by others, not themselves. Believe it or not, we don't think of ourselves as cheery, guiness-guzzling leprechauns - that's how other people have protrayed us. Both the England and the USA have seen heavy Irish immigration over the years, and it is in these countries that many of the stereotypical ideas of the Irish have been formed.
But how true are Irish stereotypes really? Read on to find out.
1. The Irish are heavy drinkers. Truth rating: 8
Historical records of the Irish love of alcohol date from ancient times, when Roman historians noted the Celtic people's particular love of wine. And there is unfortunately a notable genetic tendency towards alcoholism among the Irish, in common with other groups such as the Scottish, Scandanavians and Native American peoples. So there may in fact be a sad grain of truth to the stereotype that the Irish don't know when to stop drinking. Added to that is the strong pub culture in Ireland which continues to this day - this results partly from our famously wet weather which discourages healthy outdoor activities, and partly from a strong cultural idea that drinking alcolhol is an essential part of socialising.However, there are Irish people who don't touch alcohol, and others who drink lightly (like myself!). So it doesn't do to generalise.
Overall this stereotype gets a truth-rating of 8 out of 10. I've travelled a lot and my native Ireland is definitely one of the stronger drinking cultures I've encountered. However I've knocked a couple of points off because plenty of other people drink a lot but don't get stereotyped!
2. The Irish are all red-heads. Truth rating: 2
I'm not completely sure where this stereotype started, but I reckon Maureen O'Hara playing a feisty red-head in 'The Quiet Man' embedded it in popular consciousness. Irish tourism videos continue to hire red-headed models despite the fact than the vast majority of Irish people have dark hair. Red hair comes from Scandinavia, and was not originally native to the island.
I have given this stereotype a truth-rating of 2, not zero, because there are some Irish redheads due to Viking settlement on the island in the Middle Ages. So although there aren't redheads everywhere you look in Ireland, we do have more than many other European countries.
3. The Irish are hot-tempered and quick to fight. Truth rating: 4
Most of the Irish people I know are the friendliest, mildest people you could ever hope to meet. The stereotype of the fighting Irish seems to have arisen in response to a wave of Irish immigrants into America in the later nineteenth century. On almost the bottom rung of society, the Irish gained a reputation of fighting fiercely to keep any advantage they had managed to gain. Added to that most likely was the British impression of their 'rebellious Irish' subjects. Britain ruled Ireland for seven centuries and there were indeed various rebellions against a rule that the native Irish saw as illegitimate and unfair.
So this stereotype gets a 4; the Irish are certainly capable of fighting - they are not buddhist monks - but not are not necessarily more inclined to violence than any other group.
4. Irish have 'the gift of the gab'. Truth-rating: 9
The 'gift of the gab' means the ability to spin a great story - regardless of factual truth. In my experience living here, the Irish are great at this. Everyone on this island is a natural storyteller. There is a rich tradition of myth and legend in Ireland, and it often seems we prefer a good story to factual accuracy. What you need to understand if you are not from Ireland, is that this is not the same as lying - in Ireland everyone knows when someone is 'spinning a yarn' (telling a good story that isn't true). It is considered good entertainment, not an attempt to deceive anyone - though it can confuse visitors!
This gets a truth-rathing of 9 because in all my travels I have never met storytellers like the Irish. Added to this is Ireland's great literary tradition - Ireland has four Nobel-winning writers. Not bad for a small island!
5. The Irish are stupid. Truth rating: 0
This is probably the most racist myth spread about the Irish. In the nineteenth century and continuing into the twentieth, the Irish were caricatured as a lesser race than other Europeans, and as ape-like and stupid. In the past, through poverty the Irish struggled to have access to education, but they were perfectly intelligent. Today Irish graduates are employed all over the world and many international companies are based in Ireland because of the highly-educated hard-working population.
6. The Irish love potatoes. Truth rating: 7
This is pretty true of older generations, who grew up on potatoes as a staple food, and who like to eat them every day. As one person I was chatting to recently put it: "The Irish talk about potatoes the way other people talk about wine. We are potato connoisseurs!" Older folk in Ireland can discuss at length the best potato-growing areas and the best season for certain varieties. Potatoes became the staple food of the Irish because they grew easily in our wet climate and because a small plot of potatoes could feed a family for a year.
However, I have given this stereotype a truth rating of 7 because it is going out of date. The Irish have embraced world food culture and our supermarkets are full of Asian, Italian and Spanish foods nowadays.
7. Ireland is the land of Leprechauns. Truth rating: 3
There are many stories about a whole range of supernatural beings in Ireland. I have no idea why Leprechauns have become world famous, while almost no one has heard of the 'Tuath de Danaan', the 'pooka', the 'fir dearg' or any of the others. Maybe the Lucky Charms advertisments had something to do with it! Truth rating is 3 because while there are various Irish stories about Leprechauns, there are many other Irish fairies who deserve not to be forgotten!
What I have learned from exploring the stereotypes about the Irish is that stereotypes can be based on a small grain of truth which is exaggerated, or they can also be based on racist ideas which have no truth at all. Because I know how many Irish stereotypes aren't true, it helps me to remember not to stereotype other people. At the end of the day, I firmly believe that it is best to treat everyone as an individual. As an Irish person,in my experience, a lot of people in other countries find it hard to believe I'm not a big drinker. "But you're Irish!" they protest. I just shrug my shoulders and order another mineral water....
Irish movies for realism
How the Irish have been portrayed in movies
Movies have played a big role in creating and re-inforcing stereotypes about the Irish. Since The Quiet Man was released in the 1950s, Ireland has provided a steady stream of stereotypical characters for movies.
There is the loveble alcoholic, encompassing most of the extras in The Quiet Man, Waking Ned and Leap Year. The red-haired firebrand imortalised by Maureen O'Hara in The Quiet Man. The bare-knuckle fighter as seen in Far and Away, Snatch and The Quiet Man. Hollywood thrillers have frequently cast actors doing poor imitations of an Irish accent in the role of terrorist bad guy - though the peace process has put a stop to that. And then there is the long-suffering mother such as in Angela's Ashes or Brenda Fricker in My Left Foot (and just about every other role she's ever been offered since).
However, there are also some movies about Ireland, whether made by the Irish or others, which offer a less stereotypical vision of Irish life. They are simply good movies with strong scripts, that happen to have Ireland and Irish history as their dramatic backdrop. Examples of good Irish dramas include The Wind that Shakes the Barley, In the Name of the Father, My Left Foot, Hunger and the Crying Game. For warm-hearted comedy try Inside I'm Dancing or Mickeybo and Me.
The Quiet Man: Story of a Redhead and a Rebel
Fun movies about Ireland