An update of an earlier post about anti-Irish racism which may find resonance among others more acutely affected by racism these days.

There is far more tolerance of Irish people today, but tolerance is different to acceptance, because acceptance implies respect.  Racism is the opposite.  Racism puts up a smokescreen between the perpetrator and the victim. Neither can see the other clearly: facts, figures and human relationships become obscured by hatred and ignorance.

In the main the British education system and the national curriculum, has done little to lift the veil by offering positive information about the language, culture and history of those subjugated by the Brutish Empire. If racism is to be challenged, schools have a crucial role to play. 

Here are two dozen little-known facts about the Ireland and the Irish which could be included in the curriculum, followed by some the historic anti-Irish quotes that form what became a grotesque tradition. 

  1. As the official language of Ireland, a Member State, Irish is recognised as a modern European language by the European Union, but is not available as a language option in British schools.
  2. The Irish language is older than Anglo-Saxon, and both Scottish Gallic and Manx are dialects of Irish.
  3. More people, and a larger proportion of the population in the Northern Ireland (where there is a no special provision for Irish language broadcasting), make regular use of Irish than speak Welsh in Wales (which has its own Welsh language TV channel) or Gallic in Scotland (where the British government is funding Gallic Broadcasting Service).
  4. The first Irish parliament is reputed to have been held on the Hill of Tara in County Meath, at least seven centuries Before Christ.
  5. St Brendan the Navigator, a theologian and founder of a school at Clonfert, County Galway, is credited in many different accounts with having ‘discovered’ a new world on the far side of the Atlantic, during the 6th century AD, 800 years before Columbus.
  6. During England’s so-called ‘Dark Ages’, Ireland flourished as a centre of trading, manufacture and scholarship, with universities to which students came from across Europe (avoiding a dangerous route through England).
  7. In the 7th century the English scholar known as the Venerable Bede wrote: ‘At that time there were many of the English nation, both of noble and of lesser rank, who, whether for divine study or to lead a more continent life, had left their native land and had withdrawn to Ireland. Certain among them gave themselves up willingly to the monastic way of life, while others rather went from cell to cell of the teachers and took pleasure in cultivating study. And all of these the Irish most freely received and made it their study to provide them with food from day to day without any charge, with books to read and with free teaching.‘
  8. Early Ireland had its own system of codified laws, the Brehon Laws, which predated Roman law and continued to operate into the 16th century. Based on arbitration conducted by a professional Brehon (law giver) they covered every aspect of personal and social relationships, some more progressive than others.
  9. The last time Ireland was a united kingdom was under Ard Rhi (High King) Brian Boru at the end of the 10th century. He died aged 73 in a battle against Viking invaders.
  10. The Norman Catholic king of England, Henry II, who invaded Ireland in 1171 had the blessing of the only English Pope, Adrian IV (Nicholas Breakspear), and his successor Alexander III (the Italian, Rolando Bandinelli). Henry gave control of Dublin to the burghers of Bristol. The Dutch Protestant king William of England, who invaded Ireland in 1690, was part-financed by Pope Innocent XI (another Italian, Benedetto Odescalchi). The Popes had wanted to bring Irish Catholics to heel, but William of Orange declared the Episcopalian Church the only legal religion, causing mass emigration from Ireland among both Catholics and Scottish Presbyterian settlers, to America and Canada.
  11. The expression ‘beyond the Pale’ refers to the wicker barricades set up by Henry II’s commanders to enclose an area of ‘ethnic cleansing’ around Dublin. For centuries England failed to gain absolute control of the Irish countryside. Even the gentry given land and sent out to colonise it, tended to ‘go native’, marrying into local families and adopting Irish customs and language. 
  12. Henry VIII was the first English monarch to officially call himself ‘King of Ireland’ in 1541. However, the whole of Ireland was only declared to be part of Britain by an Act of Union passed in Westminster under William Pitt the Younger in 1800 and signed off by George III.
  13. The term ‘Lynch law’ originates from 15th century Galway, where the mayor John Lynch FitzStephen passed sentence on and publicly executed his own son for killing a Spanish guest, after local people had refused to hang the murderer and tried to rescue him.
  14. As part of a long campaign to hamper Irish trade England introduced a two-tier currency in 1477, after jailing Irish merchants who used Irish coinage in Bristol. The Irish version was worth 25% less that its English counterpart. Refusal to honour the new currency exchange rate was made punishable by death.
  15. Oliver Cromwell launched an 11-year war in Ireland in 1649, and executed English soldiers who refused to take part. Under his order to drive them ‘to Hell or Connaught’ thousands of Irish people were slaughtered and their lands given to the conquering soldiers. Catholics owning more than 50 acres of land were sent into internal exile in the barren north-west province of Connaught.
  16. Ironically, the term ‘Tory’ originates from the Irish toraighe (a pursuer) after the 17th century dispossessed who took to the hills and engaged in a guerrilla war against the English colonialists. It came to be used a term of abuse against any militant Irish, Catholics or Royalists, including those who opposed the exclusion of the Catholic James II from succession to the English throne. The latter ‘rogues’ were the forebears of the modern Conservative and Unionist party.
  17. Dublin-born Anglican statesman Edmund Burke was elected MP for the city of Bristol in 1774. He lost his seat in 1780 for opposing the penal laws that discriminated against Irish Catholics, and supporting Ireland’s right to engage in free trade. His statue still stands in Bristol city centre. A wise man he defined the role of elected Members of Parliament thus: ‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion’. Other significant quotes of his which hold good to this day include: ‘Bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny.’; ‘ When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.’; ‘It is a general popular error to imagine the loudest complainers for the public to be the most anxious for its welfare.’;  ’The arrogance of age must submit to be taught by youth.’;  ’Superstition is the religion of feeble minds’.
  18. Ireland’s green, white and gold flag owes its origins to the tricolour flown during the French Revolution. The white symbolises peace between republicanism (green) and unionism (gold/orange).
  19. Over a million Irish people died during the ‘Great Starvation’ (1845-51) after the failure of successive potato crops upon which the peasantry depended for food. At the time huge quantities of barley, oats, wheat, vegetables, meat and dairy produce were exported by the British from Ireland to England. In the following decade two million Irish people emigrated, reducing the population by 25%.
  20. The term ‘boycott’ owes its origins to the fate of Lord Erne’s estate agent in County Mayo. Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott became a laughing stock when he complained in a letter to The Times that the locals would not do business with him. For refusing to accept rent from tenants and ordering their eviction, he became the first person to be ostracised under the Irish Land League’s 1880 campaign.
  21. The first woman elected to the House of Commons was the revolutionary Countess Markievicz for Sinn Fein in 1918, representing Dublin St Patricks constituency. London-born Anglo-Irish woman Constance Georgine Gore-Booth had married a Polish artist aristocrat while studying in Paris, and been active in the campaign to rid Ireland of British rule. As an abstentionist she did not take her seat, and had anyway been in Holloway Jail at the time. She went on to serve in Dáil Éireann, the first independent Irish Parliament, outlawed by Britain.
  22. Ireland’s greatest export has been its people, whether as artists, doctors, economic migrants, missionaries, musicians, nurses, political exiles, or writers. As a result more than 100 times the current population of Ireland can claim Irish descent. Anyone who can trace a grandparent born in Ireland when it was under British rule (before the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921) may claim Irish citizenship.
  23. Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which ended “The Troubles’, anyone living in the Six Counties of Northern Ireland is entitled to either British or Irish citizenship or both.
  24. Since the 2016 Brexit vote to leave the European Union, applications for Irish citizenship (and passports) has soared in the UK including, significantly, among UK Members of Parliament.


The roots of British racism may be ignorance and fear, or arrogance and greed; what is really terrifying is how deeply embedded it is, how politicians and the media pander to people’s irrational fears and the human consequences of those on the receiving end. The consistency of language, imagery and attitudes over centuries which they betray should challenge those who think that the (anti-) Irish joke is ‘a bit of harmless fun’.

From TOPOGRAPHIA HIBERNIAE, 1188 (The History & Topography of Ireland) by priest & historian Gerald of Wales (1146-1223): ‘This is a filthy people wallowing in vice. Of all the people it is the least instructed in the rudiments of the faith. They do not yet pay tithes or first fruit or contract marriages. They do not avoid incest.’

From A NEW DESCRIPTION OF IRELAND, 1610by soldier and spy Barnaby Rich (1540-1617): ‘The time hath been, when they lived like Barbarians, in woods and bogs, and in desolate places, without politic law, or civil government, neither embracing religion, law or mutual love. That which is hateful to all the world besides is only beloved and embraced by the Irish, I mean civil wars and domestical dissensions. The wild uncivil Scythian’s, do forbear to be cruel the one against the other. The Cannibals, devourers of mens flesh, do learn to be fierce amongst themselves, but the Irish, without all respect, are ever more cruel to their very neighbours,’

From HIBERNIA ANGLICANA, 1689 by Sir Richard Cox (1650-1733), Lord Chancellor of Ireland: ‘Feuds continued with greatest pride, most hellish ambitions and cruellest desires of revenge, and followed with the most horrible injustices, oppressions, extortions, rapines, desolations, perfidious treasons, rebellions, conspiracies, treacheries and murders for almost two thousand years….‘That we never read of any other people in the world so implacable, so furiously, so eternally set upon the destruction of one another… the Irish have as much reasons to thank God and the English for a more civil and regular government exercised over them.’

From A HISTORY OF IRELAND, 1693by ‘Robert Burton’, pseudonym of bookseller Nathaniel Crouch (c.1632-1725):’The English endeavoured to civilise the people, and to introduce the English laws, language, habit and customs among them, thereby to reduce them to civility, yet such was their rough, rebellious disposition, and their implacable malice to the English, that nothing could attemper, or reduce them to any tolerable patience; so that in all times, as well as when they were admitted into the condition of subjects, as while they were esteemed and treated as enemies, they too all advantages, most perfidiously to rise up and imbrue the hands in the blood of their English neighbours, and Ireland hath long continued a true Alcedama, or field of blood, and a dismal sepulchre for the English nation…’

From THE HISTORY OF ENGLAND, 1754 by David Hume (1711-1776) Scottish philosopher, historian & economist: ‘The Irish from the beginning of time had been buried in the most profound barbarism, and ignorance; and as they were never conquered our invaded by the Romans, from whom all the western world derived civility, they continued still in the most rude state of society, and were distinguished by those vices alone to which human nature, not tamed by education or restrained by laws, is for ever subject. The ancient superstitions … mingled and polluted with many wild opinions, still maintained an unshaken empire over them; and the example alone of the English was sufficient to render the Reformation odious to the prejudices of the discontented Irish. The odd opposition of manners, laws and interests was now enflamed by religious antipathy, and to subduing and civilising of the country seemed to become even day more difficult or impracticable.’

From an 1847 edition of Fraser’s Magazine, a Tory literary journal published in the year of the Great Hunger: ‘The English people are naturally industrious – they prefer a life of honest labour to one of idleness, They are a persevering as well as energetic race, who for the most part comprehend their own interests perfectly, and sedulously pursue them. Now of all the Celtic tribes, famous everywhere for their indolence and fickleness as the Celts everywhere are, the Irish are admitted to be the most idle and the most fickle. They will not work if they can exist without it.’ 

here tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.’

Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), Anglican priest, historian & author of The Water Babies, writing from Ireland in 1880: ‘I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country… to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not see it so much but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.’

Historian and Liberal politician Edward Freeman  (1823-1892) on a visit to America in 1881: ‘[America] would be a grand land if only every Irishman would kill a negro and be hanged for it. I find this sentiment generally approved – sometimes with the qualification that they want Irish and negroes for servants, not being able to get any other,’

Beatrice (1859-1947) & Sidney Webb (185801943), socialist economists and founders of the London School of Economics, writing from Dublin in 1892: ‘We will tell you about Ireland when we come back. The people ate charming but we detest then, as we should the Hottentots – for their very virtues. Home Rule is an absolute necessity in order to depopulate the country of this detestable race.’

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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