Leo Varadkar. RollingNews.ie photo.

O'SHEA: An Ireland Beyond the Old Stereotypes

I had a discussion with a Jewish friend recently about the continuing tendency among many people to hold on to old ethnic and racial stereotypes. He said that his family, with an obvious Jewish surname, feels that some people still view them as Shylock types defined by strategies for accumulating money.

He often feels that even his friendly neighbors and co-workers are convinced that Jews dominate the banking industry and Wall Street. I responded to him on the same theme that in a recent study, representatives of Epic Museum, a Dublin-based research organization, typed “Irishman” into the most-used AI image generator.

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

They were dismayed by all the derogatory comments that spewed out, focusing on aggressiveness, inebriation, and people preening like leprechauns.

Sean Lemass.

Sean Lemass.

The behavior of some people at the Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade this year seems to confirm the stereotype. The day after the march, local councilor Ed Flynn, reflecting on disgraceful incidents the previous day, called for “an end to the tolerance for public drinking and any form of violence, including fighting.”

This report from Boston was an exception. In New York, the largest parade in the world, the behavior of the marchers from beginning to end was impeccable.

Modern Ireland shows no higher tolerance for drunkenness or rowdiness than any of its European neighbors. The trope of the degenerate Irishman goes back at least to the 16th century when the popular writer, Raphael Holinshed, in his "Chronicles of England Scotland and Ireland" suggested that the Irish had a history of cannibalism.

This kind of pseudo-history gave ethical cover to the English, who were colonizing the country and confiscating the people’s land. Stories of dissolute behavior among the natives gave their thievery a kind of moral imprimatur. Central to the colonial experience in Ireland and elsewhere was the convenient rationalization that the local people should be grateful for the civilized culture they were being gifted.

Of course, the English language, religion, and artistic expressions were all deemed vastly superior to those practiced by their Irish subjects.

This colonial attitude promoted by the British in all facets of life left a deep mark on the Irish character. Powerful overlords with money and big houses, all from an Anglo background, conveyed their superiority over the natives and let them know that they were administering the island.

Joseph Plunkett.

Joseph Plunkett.

They had all the juice! This inevitably created a subclass of Irish people who, over centuries, accepted that they and their culture were inferior. In the late 19th century, Irish people in all parts of the island saw through the sham cover of English superiority. Some resorted to forelock touching in mock obeisance of their overlords, while Irish scholars highlighted the richness of Irish culture and learning over the centuries.

Joseph Plunkett, one of the signatures on the 1916 proclamation and the joint subject of “Grace,” surely the most poignant Irish ballad, repeatedly pointed to the Irish contributions to European culture and argued that Paris and Brussels, not London, should be the economic and cultural focus of the new Ireland he dreamed about.

Sinn Fein's philosophy was inward-looking, and both governments that served in the early decades after the Civil War stressed reliance on the country’s mostly agricultural produce. They engaged in a futile economic war with Britain for six years from the early 1930s. Those were penurious times of mass emigration from the country. About 45,000 left Ireland annually, 75% of the birthrate at the time.

The 16th Century "Chronicles of England Scotland and Ireland."

The 16th Century "Chronicles of England Scotland and Ireland."

In 1959, Sean Lemass took over as prime minister from Eamon de Valera, who led the Fianna Fail party since its foundation in 1926. Dev, as he was commonly known, was elected president, a largely honorific position, in that year.

Lemass agreed with T. K. Whitaker, the dynamic secretary in the Department of Finance, that radical governmental change was urgently needed. The new approach involved reaching outside the country to entice foreign investment.

The metaphor used called for opening all doors, including offering generous financial inducements to companies. The newly-formed Industrial Development Authority (IDA) stressed the availability in Ireland of a willing English-speaking workforce as well as generous financial inducements.

By 1973, the country, under Prime Minister Jack Lynch, had moved further away from a closed economy, and Ireland took a momentous step forward by joining the European Economic Community (EEC) — renamed today as the European Union (EU). Great Britain joined at the same time, but it never embraced the European model as Ireland has. Westminster leaders groused about paying too much and getting too little.

They resented the German dominance on the continent after defeating them in two relatively recent world wars. They were benefiting from easy access to the lucrative European markets, but still the Brexit vote in 2016 was carried by a small majority.

All the polls in Great Britain today suggest that a vote to reverse Brexit would win the approval of close to 60% of Britons.

However, the Labor Party, which seems assured of success in the next election, has promised to negotiate closer ties with the EU, but, understandably, calling another plebiscite on the matter so soon is not on their agenda. Initially, the costs of EEC membership were disruptive to the Irish economy, resulting in the closure of many small enterprises.

The traditional concentration on food processing gradually gave way to sizable pharmaceutical and computer development companies that benefited from what Ireland had to offer: an established democracy, a favorable tax regimen and an educated workforce.

EU membership has worked very well for Ireland. With burgeoning economic growth and close to full employment has come a new self-confidence. Leo Varadkar, the retiring prime minister, extolled the dramatic progress in the area of social policies even since he was in high school: “I can vividly remember an Ireland shaped by shame, conformity and fear where my election as prime minister, as an openly gay man would have seemed an impossibility.”

In 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to provide for gay marriage in a popular vote that enshrined that right in the country’s constitution. In the same year, the Gender Recognition Act was passed.

This guarantees transgender people that their sexuality is recognized and legally protected. The main internal challenge facing the country concerns poverty and the existence of a large minority of seriously disadvantaged families. I will attempt to deal with the dimensions of this crippling problem in a future article.

Gerry O'Shea blogs at  wemustbetalking.com