I was temping for a party planners recently, in their panic stricken lead up to a very posh dinner. It was taking place the night before Champions Day at Ascot and all the owners of the horses were invited. I was given a contacts list and tasked with calling guests who hadn't yet confirmed.
Next to me sat a guy called Stuart, who was using a coaster that said, "I don't mean to be elitist but I am." Stuart and I had the following conversation, when he saw I'd called a number in Ireland:
Stuart: Was he VERY Irish?
Me: Um, what's "very" Irish?
Stuart: Did he have a very thick accent? I can't understand most of them.
Me: [taking deep breaths]
Stuart: Could you understand him?
Me [tight little voice]: Mm-hm.
Stuart: Oh well that's good. Some of them, I can't understand a word!
Me [gritted teeth]: My dad's Irish.
Both: [Awkward silence]
Being second generation Irish, without the giveaway of an Irish accent or a stereotypically Irish name, I'm assumed to be English and therefore privy to all the casual slurs.
It's not just the upper class. I recently did a short term contract at a company whose employees were predominantly Jewish. Here's an extract from a conversation two of the guys had, standing right next to me: "and his girlfriend's Irish and she can drink, I mean she's Irish, so she can really drink, like seriously, you know what the Irish are like - they can really drink!" I wondered how they'd have reacted if I'd casually piped up with a few Jewish stereotypes.
Where I'm currently working, there's a guy who picks up the post. He's mixed race, a Londoner. Last week, I thought he said goodnight when he arrived. "Nah," he said, "that'd be Irish, wouldn't it?"
None of this was malicious and I like every one of these guys. But while the exchanges might seem harmless, they are indicative of an ingrained attitude that Irish people are fair game for mocking and stereotypical slurs. The drunken Irish, the stupid, backwards Irish, the bog Irish with accents so thick you can barely understand them. The lazy Irish - or, "lazy Irish c***" as Jeremy Clarkson is reported to have called producer Oisin Tymon when he punched him in the face for not serving his dinner.
As Brian Whelan says, "The unspoken rule seems to be that Irish people are white, so discriminating against them can't be racist." But Irish people have been discriminated against in this country as far back as you care to look.
In Victorian times, the Irish were labelled as "white negroes," and illustrated in newspapers as having "ape-like" faces to back up claims that the Irish were an inferior race.
In the 1950s and '60s, job ads said, "Irish need not apply". There were signs in windows of B&Bs saying, "No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish." Irish people were not only discriminated against - they were viewed as less than human.
When my Dad came over in the '60s, he saw these signs and he remembers Irish people not being allowed into working men's clubs. It's not that long ago.
Jeremy Clarkson punching Oisin Tymon and calling him a lazy Irish c***, is a leitmotif in Irish history: "an English toff assaulting a "lazy" Irish lackey for not doing his bidding."
Simon Kelner, former Independent Editor and self-professing friend of Clarkson, seemed to excuse the incident on the grounds that, "I can imagine Clarkson being irritated by his very name." A contingent on Twitter agreed, "Oisin Tymon deserved to be smacked - if only for having such a stupid Irish name as that."
When Jade Goody mocked Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, calling her "Shilpa Poppadom," it was labelled a race row and treated as an international incident. Why isn't the same respect for cultural identity and heritage afforded to Oisin Tymon?
Clarkson's attack on Tymon hit the headlines, but in fact, Irish bashing is insidious in this country's culture. When people tell Irish jokes or say, "to be sure, to be sure," in a mimicking Irish accent, I'm expected to laugh, along with everyone else. Yet if the fall guy was black or the accent mimicked was Indian, it would be deemed beyond the pale.
It might seem like harmless fun, but the persecution and discrimination Irish people have faced is real. And if UKIP has its way, we could be seeing those signs again: No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish.