Opinion: Are We Our Own Worst Enemies?
The world loves the ‘Drunken Irish’ stereotype. American television shows are regularly speckled with charming Irish characters that drink too much and are usually dodgy crooks, bumbling idiots or borderline psychopaths.
We’ve been watching them for years, although due to a global failure to master the Irish accent they’re usually the descendents of an Irish emigrant like Mayor Joe Quimby in The Simpsons or Peter Griffin in Family Guy. The most recent Irish addition to American screens is Rory Flanagan who plays a dim Irish teen from a tiny village on Glee, while It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia centres around an Irish bar run by a group of drunken fools looking to make a quick buck.
Jack Donaghy in 30 Rock is of Irish descent and, while he’s cunning, smart and successful, he’s also a little too fond of scotch. He even refers to his ancestors as “a bunch of mud farmers and sheep rapists” and, when his siblings appear, they tend to be truer to the stereotype. The show’s main character, Liz Lemon, has a recurring love interest in Dennis Duffy, an alcoholic waster who again has an Irish background.
There is regular uproar on this side of the pond regarding our portrayal, but do we really have any right to be affronted? How can we criticise a global perception when we’re indulging the stereotype ourselves?
Graham Linehan, one of our great Irish exports, toddled over to the UK to peddle his wares and has done more to hurt the Irish reputation than he has to help it. Fr Ted centres around idiot priests, backwards country people and drunks. Black Books has Dylan Moran at the helm portraying Bernard Black, a chain-smoking, angry, ranting drunk. And even Chris O’Dowd in The IT Crowd plays a backwards type, who is socially stupid and comes across as a bit of a perv. If the man wasn’t so bloody hilarious, and if those shows weren’t so fantastic to watch, he’d deserve a good shaking.
Now, this piece isn’t a criticism of the quality of shows like these; I’m not saying I don’t laugh like a maniac at Linehan’s programmes, or enjoy watching the other shows mentioned above. But in the long run, are we just doing harm to ourselves by sitting back and embracing these characters?
While the Irish stereotypes remain strong across the Atlantic, the UK has actually been doing its part to quell the misconception and in recent years, significant Irish characters created by British writers have moved away from being drunken idiots.
We’ve had Jim Moriarty on the BBC’s Sherlock played by Irish actor Andrew Scott. Moriarty is Sherlock Holmes’s arch nemesis, completely deranged and equally brilliant. Another BBC show, Being Human, saw Aidan Turner playing Irish vampire John Mitchell during its first three seasons. Sure, he might have occasionally lost the plot and gone on a bloody rampage, but for the most part, he was a stand-up guy with a good sense of humour and a decent heart. The new Irish portrayal, as talented, sadistic killers, might not seem like the best step forward – but I’d rather be an evil genius than an inebriated fool.
Irish involvement in crime and crime fighting is something American shows have dabbled in over the years, with many cop characters being of Irish descent – although this is mainly a reflection of the cultural experience in areas such as New York and Boston.
In recent years Criminal Minds has featured a recurring Irish ‘baddie’ who was joined by some more criminal compatriots during the most recent season. You get the feeling that, once leprechauns are taken out of the equation, American knowledge regarding Ireland revolves around Guinness and the IRA.
Let’s not forget, of course, that Ireland is a small fish in the pond of stereotypes. Americans themselves suffer from the “fat, loud and stupid” image – but then, they also have a mass of characters from sitcoms and dramas that contradict that misconception and show that the country has a massively diverse population, made up of millions upon millions of personalities, just like any other country. That’s a privilege afforded to few other nations.
The Japanese character is a workaholic, the Italian is involved in the mob and the token east-Asian character is a computer geek, while the British representative is usually snobbish and stuck-up and the Indian is an overly polite retail worker.
But when we have the rare opportunity to dispel misconceptions about our own culture, like Linehan has in the UK or O’Dowd is now getting in Hollywood, shouldn’t we take it rather than opting for the easy route and capitalising on the cheap laughs derived from a jaded stereotype?
It’s something to think about.