Anti-Irish Sentiment in Modern Britain

My previous article considered anti-Irish sentiment in early modern Britain, beginning in the sixteenth century with depictions of the Irish as wild, barbaric and backward, a stereotype that was maintained in the modern period. Irish immigration to Britain in the nineteenth century saw a renewed anti-Irish attitude, moving away from eighteenth-century humorous “paddy” depictions of the Irishman toward repetition of older stereotypes of the Irish as barbaric, uncivilised and inhuman. The monstrous, simian Irishman that had been manufactured during the previous century returned in the nineteenth in full force. This period also sees the emergence of a new character, the “Irish Frankenstein”, playing on the Victorian fascination with Shelley’s novel to further dehumanise the Irishman. The twentieth century echoed earlier stereotypes of Irish stupidity and violence with revived vitriol toward Irish immigrants prompted by sectarian violence in Britain. The Irish burlesque spans centuries, with depictions of the drunkard paddy enduring even today.

Nineteenth Century

The Victorian period was one of particularly rabid anti-Irish sentiment due to the political circumstances. As Roger Swift has highlighted, Britain was the destination for the very poorest Irish emigrants who could not afford passage to North America or Australia. What characterised the Irish Victorian immigrant, then, was extreme poverty. Irish immigrants tended to establish slums or ghettos such as the Little Ireland ghetto in Manchester, which boasted some of the worst living conditions in Victorian Britain. An 1836 report titled Report on the State of the Irish Poor in Great Britain described the Irish as “a less civilised population spreading themselves, as a kind of substratum, beneath a more civilised community”. Three centuries since Holinshed’s Chronicles, the report indicates the persistence of stereotypes of the Irish as uncivilised. Coupled with the influx of poor Irish migrants, several outbreaks of typhus occurred during the early nineteenth century in Britain and Ireland causing hundreds of thousands of deaths, particularly among the lower classes where overcrowding and poor hygiene allowed the disease to spread more easily. When an outbreak occurred in England in 1847-48, typhus was referred to by some as “Irish fever”. This epithet is reminiscent of a disease outbreak in the late fifteenth century of a yaws or syphilis-like disease referred to as Morbus Gallicus (“French Disease”) by Italians who mythicised the disease’s origins as resulting from cannibalism committed by French soldiers during the siege of Naples. In both cases, the name of the disease indicates where the blame is placed for the outbreak. Furthermore, the blamed groups were associated with the disease because of the disdain felt towards them. Although there may have been some truth to the assumption that Irish immigrants brought typhus with them, there had been two previous outbreaks of typhus in Britain prior to the Great Famine. The fact that this already established disease was blamed on Irish immigrants indicates an undercurrent of anti-Irish prejudice which found expression in blame for the typhus outbreak.


irish tempest

Irish Tempest, 1870 (Punch)

In addition to immigration, the formation of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in 1858 in response to British rule in Ireland prompted anti-Irish rhetoric. The perceived threat from the IRB was expressed in cartoons during the period, in which the Irish Fenian is a monster or villain. Punch magazine displayed a particularly rabid anti-Irish attitude, with cartoons such as The Irish Frankenstein, which presents the Irishman as a cloaked and masked monster, dagger in hand dripping with blood, with a gun behind his back. The skull and crossbones poster on the floor emphasises the violent nature of the Irishman, who scowls while a frightened Englishman looks on. Another piece from 1869, also titled The Irish Frankenstein from The Tomahawk depicts a horrifying Irish Fenian Monster. The Irish “Tempest” from an 1870 edition of Punch likewise portrays the Irishman as an object of terror; like the Frankenstein he is depicted as not quite human, much like Caliban in Shakespeare’s Tempest. Caliban is also thought by Prospero to be a devil, reiterating sixteenth and seventeenth-century ideas about the Irish as anti-Christian or satanic. Moreover, Punch’s “Tempest” and Tomahawk’s Frankenstein appear decidedly ape-like, a familiar trope to anyone who has studied anti-Irish or indeed anti-African cartoons in U.S history. An 1881 piece in Punch even presents the Irishman with large lips which were often used in caricatures of Africans during this period. Though simian depictions of Irishman are less common in British sources, they serve a similar purpose; in animalising the Irish, they are characterised as a different, inferior species. The Irish are effectively dehumanised through such depictions, in the same way that they are when they are drawn or described as monsters. In a period where ideas about evolution were taking off, depicting another group as ape-like also had overtones of scientific racism. Simian depictions, such as an 1861 cartoon, also from Punch, which depicts the leader of The Young Ireland Party as an ape, serve to present the Irish as buffoon-like.  An 1881 cartoon from Judy likewise refers to the Irish American as a “newly discovered beast”, the “Dynamite Skunk”. Again, the Irish are animalised and described as monstrous, the effect of which is to provide a rationale for their continued subjugation in Ireland as well as their exclusion from British society. The depictions are a symptom of xenophobia, but also serve to encourage it.

The colonisation of Ireland also informs several of these cartoons. The dynamite-skunk, for example, is caged, proudly presented by a British policeman. The indication is that the dynamite-skunk, a beast though it may be, has been brought under control in the same way that Ireland had by the British. Punch’s Times waxwork cartoon likewise presents the Irish, though anarchical, as a relic of British colonialism alongside other conquered peoples. The Irishman is a literal waxwork, actively dehumanised, added to the collection as a colonial possession alongside other dominions. The assertion that the Irishman belongs in the Chamber of Horrors mirrors earlier rhetoric on Irish violence and suggests that the Irish are among the most brutish of the colonised. He appears with symbols of insurrection, weapons and dynamite; the dynamite representing the bombing campaigns undertaken by Fenians, with the dynamite-skunk being another example of the use of this motif. The Irish waxwork is also a subject of curiosity among the other waxworks, emphasising the difference in British and Irish culture, effectively alienating Irish people from British culture and tradition. Along with depicting the Irish as inhuman, whether monstrous or simian, this acted as a means of othering them, perhaps to discourage any sympathy for the Fenian cause. However, these portrayals are typical of those stereotypes established in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, indicating that these representations were not merely a response to the Fenian threat. While nineteenth century depictions do not have the burlesque tone of those of earlier centuries, certainly influenced by the political atmosphere, they were part of a long-established trend of anti-Irish sentiment in Britain.


Anti-Irish sentiment was also evident in the way that the Irish were treated during the nineteenth century. This was the era of The Great Famine (1845-9), which killed an estimated one million Irish, and Ireland’s population fell by nearly a quarter due to a combination of starvation, disease and emigration. Traditional histories have claimed that the Famine was simply the result of over-reliance on potato crops and subsistence farming and that, subsequently, when potato crops were destroyed by fungus Phytophthora infestans, the Irish were doomed to starve. However, these histories ignore the reasons why the poor Irish were so reliant on the potato; because large swathes of the best and most fertile land had been confiscated under British rule. Penal Laws effective from the eighteenth century had seen Irish Catholics largely dispossessed of their historic land. By the end of the century, ninety-five percent of the land in Ireland was in Protestant hands under the ownership of the Church of Ireland, the “sister-church” of the Church of England. The famine then was at least exacerbated by British policy in Ireland during this period, which in itself was inherently anti-Irish. British reactions to the famine further showed anti-Irish attitudes. An editorial in The Times in 1846 repeated stereotypes of the Irish as lazy, suggesting that the Irish were responsible for their own starvation because the government would have provided aid had the Irish been prepared to work:

Alas! The Irish peasant has tasted of famine and found it was good…There are ingredients in the Irish character which must be modified and corrected before either individuals or the Government can hope to raise the general conditions of the people…For our own part, we regard the potato blight a blessing. When the Irish cease to eat just potatoes they must become meat eaters. With the taste of meat will grow an appetite for more meat; with this appetite comes a readiness to earn the money to pay for the meat.

This piece played on already-established stereotypes of the Irish to justify a lack of British intervention in the Famine. It has been suggested that such inaction was deliberate; Tim Pat Coogan has even labelled Famine a genocide, which would certainly indicate the highest level of anti-Irish sentiment during the modern period. This has been a matter of contention amongst historians, and is too complex an issue to be considered in full as part of this article. However, I would argue that anti-Irish sentiment was at least a contributory factor to the impact of the Famine, government inaction being in part due to ambivalence toward Ireland. Moreover, attitudes such as those displayed in The Times suggest that the Famine was not met with a great deal of sympathy by some, and was used to further perpetuate anti-Irish stereotypes.


Twentieth Century

Anti-Irish sentiment in the twentieth century was again bolstered by the political atmosphere. Representations of the Irish in the earlier portion of this period were informed by anxieties about Home Rule, responses to the Easter Rising of 1916, and the later Irish War of Independence (1919-1921). A 1921 cartoon in Punch, for example, sees the Lady Ireland pleading with St Patrick to rid the country of the last snake titled “murder”, while the saint laments “the Saints, my daughter, help those who help themselves”. This cartoon is indicative of the tendency to present the Irish as wholly murderous and Anglo-Irish conflict as a one-sided affair, a thread that continues well into the latter half of the century where the IRA become emblematic of Irish Catholic villainy. It also has overtones of the oft-repeated stereotype of the Irish as lazy, echoing comments about the Irish famine as the result of an unwillingness on the part of the Irish to help themselves. Tensions with Ireland in the early twentieth century also led to ill-treatment of Irish soldiers. According to a 2004 government report there was an anti-Irish bias in the British military during the First World War,

evening standard

Image from the Daily Express, 1982

exemplified by the higher rate of court martials carried out in Irish regiments compared to all others and inconsistencies in the criteria applied for a court martial decision for Irishmen compared to soldiers of other nationalities.

The 1960s and 70s saw increased xenophobia and violence toward the Irish in Britain, prompted by further immigration from Ireland coupled with further outbreaks of violence from paramilitary groups. A 1979 report indicated that this period saw the publication in the British press of the nineteenth-century cartoons discussed previously, particularly following Derry civil rights marches in 1968. A 1972 cartoon from the Daily Express encapsulates the longevity of Irish stereotyping, depicting what is presumably a grandmother addressing her granddaughter with the dictum, “Ever since I was your age, dear child, things have got progressively worse – except of course for the Irish, who couldn’t.” This period also saw a resurgence in the xenophobia directed toward Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century; it is during this period that contemporaries report racist signs appeared outside pubs, hotels and rental spaces reading “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish”. While the existence of such signs has been questioned by some due to lack of available photographs and reference to them in debates on Irish affairs, there is ample oral evidence from Irish and Caribbean immigrants that the signs did exist. Xenophobia towards Irish immigrants was also evident in the media; a cartoon in the Daily Express in 1971, for example, depicts the Prime Minister reading a book that reads:

    Before Independence

    The Irish fight to kick the hated British out of Ireland.

    After Independence

    The Irish rush to emigrate to live with the hated British.


The caption of the cartoon reads “What frightens terrifies the Prime Minister is that if the Troubles don’t stop, the REST of the Irish will emigrate to Britain,” indicating xenophobic attitudes toward the Irish. This cartoon follows British responses to the famine by minimising the impact of the Troubles on Anglo-Irish relations and characterising the Irish as opportunists.

A common theme among media depictions of the Irish in the 1970s and 80s is a conflation of the Irish with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), thereby emphasising the violent nature of Irish people. A 1982 cartoon from the Evening Standard features a mock film poster titled “The Irish” with the tagline “The ultimate in psychopathic horror”. This was not a new development for this period, nor related only to the activities of the IRA. It echoes depictions of Irish violence from the previous centuries, as seen in the Irish Frankenstein. Unusually, this cartoon also references the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Defence Force (UDF), who were Protestant rather than Catholic groups, indicating an anti-Irish rather than anti-Catholic bias. However, Ulster Protestants considered themselves to be British rather than Irish. This could be a deliberate misnomer designed to associate all Irish with all terror groups or a misunderstanding of the complexity of Irish identity. Despite the conflation of Republican and Loyalist groups in the media, there was an obvious legal bias against Irish Catholics, evidenced by the fact that Long Kesh, a British detention centre that housed paramilitary prisoners, held 94.6 percent Republican prisoners. Police bias towards the Irish in Britain was also revealed by the Commission of Racial Equality (1997), citing numerous examples of Irish people being treated unfairly, including an admission from a police officer himself confirming that young Irish men in particular were routinely stopped on the basis of their ethnic background. The commission also found that stereotyping also had a part to play in police discrimination, with police dismissing calls from Irish complainants based on their presumed (incorrectly) drunkenness. Seventy-nine respondents also reported being subject to anti-Irish jokes that frequently, echoing eighteenth and nineteenth century stereotypes, portrayed the Irish as stupid. The Commission also presented reports of Irish people being called “Paddy” or “Pat”, particularly by employers. Overall the Commission concluded that the responses collected indicated that “anti-Irish racism is endemic in British society.” While the Commission focused only on the latter half of the twentieth century, its findings echo those of anti-Irish rhetoric that stretches back even into the early modern period.



Anti-Irish sentiment in Britain has been a constant since the early modern period. While some depictions were responses to the changing political atmosphere, the same stereotypes resurfaced time and time again. The present is no different. A 2017 cartoon in the Daily Mail depicted the then-rumoured partnership between Theresa May’s Conservative party with the DUP of Northern Ireland in typically anti-Irish fashion. The piece relied on long-established ideas by painting the “Irish” DUP as drunkards who could be won over by the promise of “Free Guinness for Life”. The great irony, of course, being that the DUP do not consider themselves Irish but British and general rally against excessive drinking. The media’s tendency to confuse Irish national identity endures. The UK government’s decision to enlist the support of the DUP in the first place demonstrates British ambivalence towards Northern Irish identity politics, while media responses to Corbyn’s alleged links with ex-IRA members as part of a smear campaign demonstrate that IRA violence still has the capacity to elicit anger and hatred among the British public. That the DUP’s links to the Troubles go largely ignored indicates once again that anti-Irish sentiment will always be tinged with anti-Catholicism.


Written By Enya Holland



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