Shakespeare ‘created Irish stereotype’
by Paul Colgan

TO BE, or not to begorra. Shakespeare and fellow Elizabethan dramatists were responsible for creating the stereotype of the drunken Irish Paddy, scholars believe.

New research on how Ireland and the Irish were depicted on the stage 400 years ago has revealed that they were portrayed by British playwrights as lowly upstarts and even shamrock-eating savages from a wild, inhospitable country. It was a caricature that was to endure for centuries.

Shakespeare referred to the Irish as “rough, rug-headed kernes”, the equivalent of unkempt barbarians with a fighting disposition. An Irish savage with a “bloudy devilish hand” is blamed for slicing the throat of a character in Shakespeare’s The History of Sir John Oldcastle. Contemporaries depicted the Irish as impetuous serfs who lived mostly on shamrock.

Stephen O’Neill, a lecturer at the Department of English at University College Dublin, said these were the first known examples of the Irish stereotype presented to mass audiences. Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, and Ben Jonson, all contemporaries of Shakespeare, portrayed Ireland and the Irish in a similarly unflattering light.

When Shakespeare was alive, England’s colonial drive in Ireland was being frustrated by regular uprisings by natives, most famously led by Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone. In Marlowe’s play, Edward the Second, there is a reference to “the wild O’Neill, with swarms of Irish savages”, living uncontrolled in English colonies on the island.

Portrayals of the Irish as inadequate savages may have been intended to feed popular belief in English supremacy, scholars believe. “Plays were used as a kind of soap opera, and also as a form of news,” said O’Neill. “The characters could elicit a range of responses from an audience — they did not necessarily alleviate anxieties about the Irish, nor were they merely laughable. But they depicted the Irish as threatening and uncivilised.”

Patrick Bishop, author of The Irish Empire, a book on the Irish abroad, said that Elizabethans would have come into contact only with Irish men and women from the bottom of the social scale. “There were some condescending compliments to them, that they were good gardeners, or good with horses,” said Bishop. “But references to the Irish in that period were all abusive — and they often still are. The Irish then, were regarded as traitors at the back door.”

O’Neill, whose doctoral research is based on the representation of Ireland in the literature of the renaissance, said Irish characters may have worn thick black wigs made of flax. They spoke in broken English, in contrast with the elegant verse of noble characters from England or mainland Europe.

Shakespeare’s only Irish character is Macmorris, an army captain who appears in Henry V. He almost starts a fight with another captain, announces there “is throats to be cut”, and asks “What ish my nation? Ish a villain, and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal.”

Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair includes a character called Captain Whit, a bawdy officer who leaves others to do the fighting. “He’s not referred to as being Irish, but it would have been clear to the audience he was, since his accent throughout is what we would call ‘stage Irish’,” said O’Neill.

In later plays, following the end of the nine years war in Ireland in 1603, Irish characters were often depicted as footmen, and represented the new, domesticated Irishmen. Dekker, a renowned playwright and satirist of the time, included Bryan, an Irish footman who spoke broken English peppered with Gaelic, in his play The Honest Whore, Part II.

Abusive typecasting of the Irish changed only in recent years — with economic success. Bishop is currently researching the role Irish pilots played in the RAF in the second world war. “Even though they were much admired by colleagues, they were still put into the benign stereotype — they were hotheaded and impatient,” said Bishop.