Friday, 21 November 2014

"The Celtic Contagion": Victorian England's Antagonism Toward Irish Immigrants

They are Irish, all of them; Irish, every man, woman, and child. Glance down these narrow courts and filthy alleys that open upon you at every step, and again and again you recognise the race; "there abides he in his squalor and unreason, in his falsity and drunken violence, as the ready-made nucleus of degradation and disorder." Alas! that is should be so; that centuries of neglect - of wrong legislation - should have reduced a people capable of so much to so low an ebb as this; to be a plague-spot upon the garment of her more fortunate sister - a breeder of paupers for a land that has already far too many of her own. Let us take a group, - a fair sample of this unfortunate and improvident class. It is a family picture, and one that it pains the heart of the philanthropist to witness. The man who comes first, in his rough gray coat, and other garments of curious make, lounges slowly along, partly from fatigue, partly from habitual indolence; his hands deep sunk in his pockets, his eyes wide open with astonishment as he contemplates the (to him) wondrous sights around. His wife follows close on his heels; one child held in her arms she endeavours to shelter from the rain beneath her scanty shawl, while another is slung at her back, bending her nearly double with the burden. Three others cling about her garments, and partially running by her side, keep pace with her, as strong in a mother's love and hope, she tramps sturdily along. This is a family picture, as we said. But a few days ago, these parents, with their wild-looking children, were in Connaught, doing badly enough in all conscience, yet with a "chance" before them. They are now in London, with no chance at all; and but one hope - the workhouse.

—Watts Philips, The Wild Tribes of London, 1855.

Punch Magazine - John Leech Cartoon, 1845.
Caption reads: "'Rint' v Potatoes.- The Irish Jeremy Diddler.
'You haven't got such a thing as twelve-pence about you?
- A farthing a week - a penny a month - a Shilling a year?'"  
As in most cultures, outsiders permeating the ecosystem of another nation can cause upset, misinformation, and discrimination. In the early 19th century, England saw an influx of Irish immigration hitherto unparalleled in the country’s history. The Emerald Isle had befallen hard times, poverty and famine consuming almost the entire population—the cause of which is still debated to this day. As detailed in a chapter of The Million Peopled City, a contemporary account of London’s immigrant population, between 1841 and 1851, an estimated 1,289,133 Irish emigrated with 257,372 in the year 1851 alone (Garwood, 245).  Based on missionary statistics collected in 1851, it was determined that the Irish working class was “the largest class which exists among our teeming population. No other class at all approaches to it. The metropolis of England probably numbers more Irishmen among its inhabitants than the metropolis of Ireland itself. The Irish population of London equals the entire population of the three next largest towns of Ireland, viz., Cork, Belfast, and Limerick” (245-246). The effect of this perceived “takeover” led to speculation and commentary from academia and popular culture alike.  

Thomas Carlyle, one of the most important and influential thinkers and historians of the day, dedicated an entire chapter to the Irish in his political book Chartism—so titled, “The Finest Peasantry in the World.” He provides an interesting perspective on the Irish people, simultaneously blaming improper British rule for their poor condition, while also damning their race as inherently immoral, and therefore responsible for its own punishment by god (27-28).  He begins his argument by bringing up the New Poor-Law, which essentially instituted a policy that “whosoever will not work ought not to live” (24). The problem he presents is that a poor man who is willing to work may not always be able to find it, while “Legislation presupposes the answer—to be in the affirmative” (24). The tension created due to the lack of jobs could presumably be cause for ill feelings toward the Irish workforce, although his further comments remain questionable, to say the least.

Punch Magazine - John Leech, 1848. Caption reads:
"The British Lion and The Irish Monkey.
Monkey (Mr. Mitchell). 'One of us MUST be "Put Down."'"
He describes their presence in England as one of extreme nuisance. “Crowds of miserable Irish darken all our towns. The wild Milesian features, looking false ingenuity, restlessness, unreason, misery and mockery, salute you on all highways and byways” (29). He blankets their personalities in a similarly unfavorable light.

Immethodic, headlong, violent, mendecious: what can you make of the wretched Irishman? A people that knows not to speak the truth, and to act the truth, such people has departed from even the possibility of well-being. (27)

Carlyle’s analysis undoubtedly influenced the popular intellectual theories and attitudes to Irish immigrants, as is evidenced in further writings from later in the period.

But what of popular culture? For the masses of Victorian England, many would not have the skills or opportunities to justify their prejudices with Carlyle’s analysis. And yet, there was no shortage of discrimination, hatred, and mistreatment from the lower classes to the neighboring race. One way the illiterate or uneducated could consume their biases was in the visual form. Across the Victorian period and even longer into the twentieth century, a repertoire of racist imagery pervaded in visual media. Common tropes of Irish depictions include wild mobs, drunken and sloppy women, often engaging in immoral or disorderly behavior.

Thomas Rowlandson - "Wild Irish Paddy", 1818. Caption reads: "Wild Irish or Paddy from Cork, with the coat buttoned behind."
Punch Magazine -1882. Caption reads: "The Irish Frankenstein.
'The baneful and blood-stained Monster ***
 yet was it not my Master to the very extent
that it was my Creature? ***
Had I not breathed into it my own spirit?'
*** (Extract form the Works of C.S. P-RN-LL, M.P.)"
A notorious perpetrator of these visual, demeaning depictions came from Punch magazine. Beginning in 1841, the satirical, illustrated yearly edition often included political cartoons depicting the Irish character in an exaggerated, base light. Punch was known for representing both the popular and radical viewpoints of the day. These could change from issue to issue, but the consistent portrayal of the Irish race as even less than human did not. Irish racism was especially unique for the fact that the English discriminated against a group of people that visually looked no different from themselves. The physical attributes linked to an Irishman's perceived appearance were consequences of socio-economic circumstances (e.g. ragged or dirty), and not an actual variance in anatomy. As illustrated in many of the Punch cartoons, the Irishman is made a caricature with an ape-like appearance, which likely had more to do with attitudes on their “wild” demeanor as opposed to any actual simian resemblance.

The evidence of this impact on English lower classes can be seen in an excerpt from Richard Rowe’s contemporaneous novel Episodes in an Obscure Life. The narrator encounters Bessie, whose transcribed dialect illustrates her personal social status.

She was very much disappointed when she was told that the Great Fire after all had not been caused by Roman Catholics. 'They'd a done it, if they could, though,' she commentated. I can't abide them wild Hirish - they's so savage, an' they's so silly. There's Blue Anchor Court close by the Rents as is full a' Romans, an' they's al'ays a-pitchin' inter each hother wi'out knowin' what's it all about. Law, 'ow they do send the tongses an' pokers flyin' of a Saturday night! An' the women is wuss than the men, wi' their back hair a-'anging' down like a ass's tail. They'll tear the gownd hoff a woman's back, and shy bricks, an' a dozen on 'em will go in at one, hif he's a-fightin' wi' their pal an' is a-lickin' on 'im, or heven hif 'e ain't - an' the men's as bad for that. Yes, the Henglish fights, but they fights proper, two and two, an' they knows what they's fightin' for, an' they doesn't screech like them wild Hirish - they's wuss than the cats. No, it ain't horfen as Hirish hinter-feres wi' Henglish hif the Henglish doesn't worret 'em. Why should they? What call 'as sich as them to come hover 'ere to take the bread hout o' the mouth of them as 'as a right to 't?'  (16-17)

"Comic Almanack" - George Cruikshank, March 1838. 
Depicts a caricature of a St. Patrick's Day celebration. 

Aside from analyses and dissemination of information based on artistic or philosophical license, some published their conclusions of the impoverished Irish based on actual observation and experience. From this came both positive and negative evaluations, though the harshness of the negative reviews brings into question how much of the authors’ biases already existed upon visiting the slums they wrote on. Thomas Beames recounted his observation of Rookeries, the most abysmal living areas of London, and came away with nothing but contempt for the mass Irish population that inhabited it.

Punch Magazine - " Young Ireland in Business for Himself",1846.
Signs in cartoon read: "A large assortment of most
ilicant blunderbuss's the trade supplied"
& "Pretty little pistols for pretty little children"
Nine-tenths of the inhabitants are Irish; do we, then, set down to Irish nurture this amount of wretchedness and immorality? The Irish coming to London seem to regard it as a heathen city, and to give themselves up at once to a course of recklessness and crime. It would be difficult, with our free institutions, to stop these descents of Irish upon our great towns; … they bring their bad habits with them, and leave their virtues behind. The misery, filth, and crowded condition of an Irish cabin, is realised in St. Giles's. The purity of the female character, which is the boast of Irish historians, here, at least, is a fable. (37-38)

In a book of compiled letters called London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew offers a more balanced view. In 1850, he spent time collecting accounts of asylums for the houseless poor in central London. The Irish occupied a staggering number, more than one half of the total applicants for refuge. He noted the general attitude of his countrymen to that of the Irish immigrants.

I found among the English a general dislike of the Irish. In fact, next to a policeman, a genuine London costermonger hates an Irishman, considering him an intruder. Whether there be any traditional or hereditary ill-feeling between them, originating from a clannish feeling, I cannot ascertain. I am inclined to believe that the prejudice is modern, and has originated in the great inflex of Irishmen and women, intermixing, more especially during the last five years.

More telling is an excerpt in which he relays the words of an informant—a staff member of the Holborn Workhouse. The man, who came into everyday firsthand contact with destitute Irish, had much gentler and honest words to say of them than any account I have thus encountered.

"The Irish Girl" - Ford Madox Brown, 1860. 
A favorable and more accurate portrait of an Irish citizen.
The young women from Ireland - fine-looking young women - were often full of joke; but I never heard an indecent word from any of them, nor an oath, and I have no doubt, not in the least, that they were chaste and modest. The Irishmen behaved well among themselves; but the English cadgers were jealous of the Irish, and chaffed them, as spoiling their trade - that's the cadging fellows did. The Irish were quiet, poor things, but they were provoked to quarrel, and many a time I've had to turn the English rips out. The Irish were always very thankful for what they had, if it was only a morsel; the English cadger is never satisfied. Once, now and then, there was some suspicion about the Irish admitted that they had money, but that was never but in those that had families. It was taken from them and given back in the morning. They wouldn't have been admitted again if they had any amount. It was a kindness to take their money, or the English rascals would have robbed them. I'm an Englishman, but I speak the truth of my own countrymen, as I do of the Irish.

The Looking Glass Caricature Annual - Robert Seymour, 1830.
Depicts Irish arriving on boats in Liverpool from Dublin. 
Garwood himself spoke kindly of the Irish temperament. “I do think that a few rays of Irish imagination, a little more play of fancy, more exuberance of joyousness, and more brightness of hope, would greatly add to the happiness of our own poor” (257). He adds a quote of Dickens as well, who publicly noted “An Irishman must be gone to the bad entirely when he cannot smile, affords an illustration of Irish character which cannot but be admitted to be interesting and pleasing” (257).

From a modern standpoint, it is difficult to see the English’s racism for anything other than what it is—sheer and utter hatred toward a group of people that in reality bore no difference apart from religion and aspects of national culture. Though when one thinks of the dire circumstances, the sprawl of desperation and destitution that surely crowded every space of dirty, Victorian London, it is not as hard to see where people would want to find a party to blame. However, misinformation and bad circumstances have never been an excuse for prejudice, and never will be.


—Beames, Thomas. The Rookeries of London: Past, Present, and Prospective. London: Thomas Bosworth, 1852. 

—Carlyle, Thomas. Chartism. London: James Fraser, 1840.

—Garwood, John. The Million-Peopled City. London: Wertheim & Macintosh, 1853.

—Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. London: Griffin, Bohn, and Company, 1861.

—Philips, Watts.  The Wild Tribes of London. London: Ward and Lock, 1855.

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