English Colonization and the Stereotype of the Irish Male

Stereotypes of Irish males have been associated with barbarism and drunkenness.  Since the start of colonization of Ireland by the British, there has been an ulterior motive to presenting the Irish as drunken fools; that motive was to dispossess the Irish of their land so the English can implant their citizens and the Scottish citizens living under English rule. Historically, we can recognize these stereotypes in the works of late 16th century English writers. John Derrick and Edmund Spenser represent the Irish culture as antithetical to the English culture in their writings on the Irish. In the twentieth century we can see how two Irish writers attempt to grapple with stereotypes of Irish men. James Joyce and Seamus Heaney both complicated the Irish stereotype by presenting male Irish characters in a distinctly human context which makes the reader get a fuller picture of why these people are who they are. It is not a direct response to the English stereotyping which happened during the colonization of Ireland, but it is a wrestling of the means of representation from those with an economic motive by those who want to honestly present the Irish world.

John Derrick wrote verse and carved wood into a story about how the Irish needed to be reformed from their Catholic ways by an arbiter from the Queen. It is based on Sir Henry Sidney, the Lord Deputy of Ireland sent by Queen Elizabeth to quell the problems in Ireland. In the wood carvings he represents the Irish as barbarous, uncivilized, disorderly, and animalistic. There are two points within the story that I would like to point to: the feast and the armies. There is a carving of an Irish feast with these lines beneath it: “These thieves attend upon the fire, for serving up a feast;/ And Friar Smellfeast sneaking in, doth preach among the best/who plays in Romish toys the ape, by counterfeiting Paul;/For which they do award him then, the highest room of all.” Clearly this writer is not a fan of Irish Catholics, to the point where he will title the head of the feast ‘Friar Smellfeast’. It is insulting and it depicts Irish culture as dirty and uncivilized. In the carving the Irish are doing all of the cooking right beside the table, there is a dog eating right beside the table, a man is pulling his ass out right beside the table, and the table itself is slanted and looks like just a large slab of wood. This goes against the British ideals of having a kitchen where all the work is done; it doesn’t fit with the hierarchical mindset of the English. Now onto the armies; there are two wood carvings which depict armies, one is the British army and the other is the Irish army. The British army is lined up in orderly formation, all of their uniforms are the same, they all have guns, and they are marching in lines to go fight the Irish. The Irish army is not in any formation, they have no guns, only spears, they don’t have any armor, and they all look disheveled. It is a subtle contrast which presents the Irish as underequipped, which wasn’t false, but it also presents them as being wholly different than the English in many respects. In these carvings we can see the beginning of the animalistic, drunken, and barbarous stereotypes of the Irish starting to solidify.

Next we can take a look at Edmund Spenser’s “A View of the Present State of Ireland.” This was written at the very end of the 16th century. This presents the Irish as licentious, murderous, thieving debauchers. It is written directly after the Desmond Rebellions, where the Irish acted out against British colonization. The work as a whole calls for the destruction of the Irish so that the British can take over the whole country. The point I would most like to emphasize is the paranoid tone that Spenser has. He represents the Irish as always doing wrong, for example in his description of Irish clothing he attempts to reason every way in which this works in favor of an Irish person doing wrong. Here is how he describes it:

“The inconveniences that thereby do arise are much more many: for it is a fit house for an outlaw, a meet bed for a rebel, and an apt cloak for a thief. First, the outlaw being for his many crimes and villainies banished from the towns and houses of honest men, and wandering in waste places; far from danger of law, makes his mantle his house and under it covers himself from the wrath of heaven, from the offense of the earth, and from the sight of men. When it rains it is his penthouse, when it blows it is his tent; when it freezes it is his tabernacle…Likewise for a rebel it is as serviceable; for [when he]…lurks in the thick woods and straight passages, waiting for advantages, it is his bed, yea, and almost all his household stuff. For the [woods are] his house against all weathers, and his mantle is his cave to sleep in…Lastly, for a thief it is so handsome, as it may seem it was first invented for him; for under it he can cleanly convey any fit pillage that cometh handsomely in his way, and when he goes abroad in the night in free-booting, it is his best and surest friend…he can in his mantle pass through any town or company, being close hooded over his head…[and] may under his mantle go privily armed without suspicion of any; carry his headpiece, his skene or pistol if he please, to be always in readiness.”

In this passage we can see how Spenser is narrowing the perspective of the use of the mantle to strictly negative terms.  He does not give concession to any positive or practical views of it and therefore ends up sounding paranoid.  This Irish stereotype is primarily wild, suspicious, and malicious.

Next we can take a look at James Joyce’s story, “Counterparts” which is now a part of the collection titled Dubliners. The story is about a man who works as a copier in a law firm. He transcribes legal documents. His boss is constantly breathing own his neck and yelling at him. He feels lots of stress. He ducks out in the middle of the day to chug a beer at the nearest pub. The man, named Mr. Farrington is supposed to represent a stereotypical middle class Irish Catholic. He is hyper masculine and described in quite a grotesque manner. The name Farrington is a play on the Irish word for man, Fir. His name can be interpreted as Mr. Man.

In the end of the story Farrington expresses abject rage at his life. He ends up going home and beating his children. The events leading up to it paint a narrative of a cog in a machine attempting to be as ineffectual as possible. He recognizes the futility of his life just before returning home. His day goes as such: At work his boss yells at him fairly violently, twice, once in front of the whole office. Then he decides to pawn his watch in order to get drinks, throughout the evening he feels dejected, emasculated, frustrated, and ends with abject rage at the fact that he did not even get drunk.

Let’s look at a key moment in the story when he feels abject emasculation followed by extreme rage:

“When Paddy Leonard called him he found that they were talking about feats of strength. Weathers was showing his biceps muscle to the company and boasting so much that the other two had called on Farrington to uphold the national honour. Farrington pulled up his sleeve accordingly and showed his biceps muscle to the company. The two arms were examined and compared and finally it was agreed to have a trial of strength. The table was cleared and the two men rested their elbows on it, clasping hands. When Paddy Leonard said “Go!” each was to try to bring down the other’s hand on to the table. Farrington looked very serious and determined.

The trial began. After about thirty seconds Weathers brought his opponent’s hand slowly down on to the table. Farrington’s dark wine-coloured face flushed darker still with anger and humiliation at having been defeated by such a stripling.

“You’re not to put the weight of your body behind it. Play fair,” he said.

“Who’s not playing fair?” said the other.

“Come on again. The two best out of three.”

The trial began again. The veins stood out on Farrington’s forehead, and the pallor of Weathers’ complexion changed to peony. Their hands and arms trembled under the stress. After a long struggle Weathers again brought his opponent’s hand slowly on to the table. There was a murmur of applause from the spectators. The curate, who was standing beside the table, nodded his red head towards the victor and said with stupid familiarity:

“Ah! that’s the knack!”

“What the hell do you know about it?” said Farrington fiercely, turning on the man. “What do you put in your gab for?”

“Sh, sh!” said O’Halloran, observing the violent expression of Farrington’s face. “Pony up, boys. We’ll have just one little smahan more and then we’ll be off.”

A very sullen-faced man stood at the corner of O’Connell Bridge waiting for the little Sandymount tram to take him home. He was full of smouldering anger and revengefulness. He felt humiliated and discontented; he did not even feel drunk; and he had only twopence in his pocket. He cursed everything. He had done for himself in the office, pawned his watch, spent all his money; and he had not even got drunk. He began to feel thirsty again and he longed to be back again in the hot reeking public-house. He had lost his reputation as a strong man, having been defeated twice by a mere boy. His heart swelled with fury and, when he thought of the woman in the big hat who had brushed against him and said Pardon! his fury nearly choked him.

His tram let him down at Shelbourne Road and he steered his great body along in the shadow of the wall of the barracks. He loathed returning to his home. When he went in by the side- door he found the kitchen empty and the kitchen fire nearly out. He bawled upstairs:

“Ada! Ada!”

His wife was a little sharp-faced woman who bullied her husband when he was sober and was bullied by him when he was drunk. They had five children. A little boy came running down the stairs.

“Who is that?” said the man, peering through the darkness.

“Me, pa.”

“Who are you? Charlie?”

“No, pa. Tom.”

“Where’s your mother?”

“She’s out at the chapel.”

“That’s right…. Did she think of leaving any dinner for me?”

“Yes, pa. I –”

“Light the lamp. What do you mean by having the place in darkness? Are the other children in bed?”

The man sat down heavily on one of the chairs while the little boy lit the lamp. He began to mimic his son’s flat accent, saying half to himself: “At the chapel. At the chapel, if you please!” When the lamp was lit he banged his fist on the table and shouted:

“What’s for my dinner?”

“I’m going… to cook it, pa,” said the little boy.

The man jumped up furiously and pointed to the fire.

“On that fire! You let the fire out! By God, I’ll teach you to do that again!”

He took a step to the door and seized the walking-stick which was standing behind it.

“I’ll teach you to let the fire out!” he said, rolling up his sleeve in order to give his arm free play.

The little boy cried “O, pa!” and ran whimpering round the table, but the man followed him and caught him by the coat. The little boy looked about him wildly but, seeing no way of escape, fell upon his knees.

“Now, you’ll let the fire out the next time!” said the man striking at him vigorously with the stick. “Take that, you little whelp!”

The boy uttered a squeal of pain as the stick cut his thigh. He clasped his hands together in the air and his voice shook with fright.

“O, pa!” he cried. “Don’t beat me, pa! And I’ll… I’ll say a Hail Mary for you…. I’ll say a Hail Mary for you, pa, if you don’t beat me…. I’ll say a Hail Mary….””

In this passage we can recognize the way in which Farrington functions as a mere cog in this bigger wheel which is fueling society. As a man, he doesn’t live up to the standard; he is neither smart nor strong, he cannot make enough money to support himself, let alone his family, he is unable to raise his children properly, and worst of all he is outraged at the fact that he did not even get drunk after a night of drinking. All of these explicate the way which Joyce believes the reasoning behind these characters existing in the real Irish world. This angry Irish male who partakes in alcoholism and domestic abuse does so because he hates his life and his world. This world is created by the capitalist systems implemented by the British and are clearly controlled by those who have maintained the power in these systems. Joyce is presenting his idea of what the stereotypical Irish middle class male Dubliner is like in this story, and in all honesty, it is just sad. Joyce does not view the middle class fondly, and he sees many issues with the systems that keep the Irish middle classes in place.

In the second half of the twentieth century, Seamus Heaney wrote “Casualty” in response to a friend of his father’s dying in a bombing done by the IRA.  This character is a fisherman who was a regular at Seamus Heaney’s father’s pub.  Seamus recounts how he remembered this man not having to say a word, but just gesture towards the high shelf in order to get a drink. This is in line with the stereotype of the drunken Irish peasant. He toils away on his boat each day, then sits in the pub and drinks. Heaney complicates this character by recounting how he asked about poetry when Seamus was back home from University. This is an encounter which makes Seamus a bit uncomfortable. He also recounts a time when he joined the old man on his boat. These moments remind the reader that this often stereotyped character is as complex as any other human being. He brings his lifestyle to the reader in a way that most people would tell a story of a relative.  Heaney puts the reader into his own perspective and relates a sort of overview of the fisherman character. He also explains how the troubles are affecting everyone in the area, and how this old character will not listen to the writing on the wall and he walks write into his own death. In similar fashion with Joyce, we must consider how this mans ritualistic life caused him to go out that night. Seamus Heaney’s lines explicate it: “He had gone miles away/For he drank like a fish/Nightly, naturally/Swimming towards the lure/Of warm lit up places./The blurred mesh and murmur/Drifting among glasses/In the gregarious smoke./How culpable was he/That last night when he broke/Our tribe’s complicity?”

From this passage we can see how Heaney is complicating the stereotype by using a cliché, drank like a fish, and then follows it with this intensely human ritualistic desire for company. He asks the question of culpability but it is clear that Heaney sees the man as guiltless because the fisherman was to follow his patterns no matter what. That is not to say that this man is always predictable, because Heaney includes another bit from when he came back from school in the lines that follow the ones previously quoted, they are as such,: “’Now, you’re supposed to be/An educated man,’/ I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me/The right answer to that one.’” This fisherman is not a stereotype, and it does not appear that Heaney is attempting to respond to stereotypes directly, but it should be noted how contemporary Irish poets present Irish characters.

Humans are complicated, and the presentation of culture is always subjective due to the inherently complex nature of each individual’s character in relation to a larger culture. From the contrast of works presented, we can see how early English colonists and later English perspectives of the Irish were often driven by economic or imperial motives, whereas we can see Irish writers attempting to present Irish people as humans with considerations for the systems which they live under. Both Irish writers present their characters in their natural environments and leaves the reader with room to question why the character acts the way they do. On the other hand, the English writers have an agenda which make them attempt to sway their reader towards a pro-imperial perspective.



Works Cited

Derricke, John. Image of Irelande. S.l.: Book On Demand, 2013. Print.


Heaney, Seamus. “Casualty.” Field Work: Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979. Print.


Joyce, James. “Counterparts.” Dubliners,. New York: Modern Library, 1926. Print.


Spenser, Edmund, and James Ware. A View of the State of Ireland: Written Dialogue-wise Betweene Eudoxus and Irenæus. Dublin: Printed by the Society of Stationers, 1633. Print.


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