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Why Brits Still Don't Get the Irish

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Toothless simpletons, feckless drunks, loll-lipped brutes, cock-eyed swindlers; Like many Irishmen I am acutely aware of the stereotypes made of the Irish. Produced in the Georgian era, popularised in the Victorian, and still accepted in the Edwardian, the Irish were (like Jews, Africans, Asians and Amerindians) viewed, amongst other things, as less than human, an ape-like species, which seemed only intent to bite the hand that fed it, as English newspapermen would have had their readers believe.

Now I believe that most Irish would oblige me when I say that most British either ignore or are ignorant of such superannuated stereotypes, as one would expect of a mostly tolerant, and an increasingly diverse society. But a slight twitch of the nose and you can get a whiff, ever so slight that hangs low and lingers long after the street's been swept clear of the grit and grime of the night before.

In the past year Olympian Daley Thompson and Iceland CEO Malcolm Walker mocked the Irish to some opprobrium (although both did apologise). But it's not just slips of the tongue (or in Julie Burchill's hate-filled columns) where negative Irish stereotypes are publicly perpetuated (and without any touch or irony).

Comedy shows like Mock the Week, Live at the Apollo and Eight Out of 10 Cats have all had British comedians mocking the Irish, normally on account of Dara O'Briain or some other 'Paddy' being present. For the most part the jokes are relatively inoffensive, and, for the most part, tired and lazy (I expect some started out in life as jokes about Pakistanis or Jamaicans). But now and then they can straddle the line in ways in which I think they'd dare not with other nationalities.

In one episode, albeit an old one, of Live at the Apollo the English comedian Jack Dee told jokes about the Irish that had no inbuilt irony (no subtext for moral justification), but rather just mocked the Irish as stupid and shady.

Personally I didn't take much offence, nor did I assume did many other Irish, given there was no controversy afterward. But I felt it did beg a question: Would Jack Dee told the same jokes if they were about Pakistanis or Jamaicans? I dare say probably not, unless of course he was trying to invoke the spirit of Bernard Manning. And so begs another question: Why are the Irish such fair game?

There are two mains reasons why. First, it is in part due to the Irish having quite a dark, often macabre sense of humour, which often expresses itself in self deprecation. The Irish laugh at themselves quite a lot, it's considered quite becoming, and thus aren't as likely to be as offended at jokes at their expense. But a thick Irish skin doesn't excuse what often amounts to casual xenophobia.

The second reason is that many Britons don't quite figure Irish history to be that different from their own. It is. Britain and Ireland aren't on the same side of history (even if one-in-six Britons are of Irish descent). Without wishing to sound too much like some whisker-chinned republican, the Irish are the imposed upon, the ruled; the British, the imposers, the rulers. The British, in historical terms, are more aligned with the French and the Germans; the Irish with the Poles and the Jews. British identity is not informed by signs and adverts that read 'No British need apply'. And thus reason enough for a moment of arrest for a British comedian considering the subject of the Irish.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, history and its legacies determine comedy. History affords some comedians greater exception and excuse than others. Three hundred years of slavery and one hundred years of institutional racism affords Chris Rock more exception than white American comedians. Joan Rivers can joke about the Germans and the Holocaust on account of her Judaism. Who they are contextualises their comedy. Who they are determines where the line is.

There's something subversive, something slightly ironic, and hence something funny in the little guy having a pop at the big guy. There's a suitable subtext. Invert it and it invariably seems like bullying, particularly when you consider their plight and persecution, past and present. It's why the presenters of Top Gear can get away with cheap jokes about Americans, Australians, and the French, and not Mexicans (although Mexico was, unlike Ireland, an imperial power). Yes, it may be a bit of a double standard, but that's the price of an imperial past.

So the Irish aren't really such fair game. Although that's not to say they're off-limits, they're not (no one is). But still British comedians could do well to remember the Irish and their history before giving into cliché and the lowest common denominator.

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