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According to sociologists, the Irish have been heavily stereotyped since the 1800s, when some scientists apparently believed they were more closely related to apes than other Europeans. Though those days are thankfully over (for the most part), there are still plenty of lingering assumptions about the Irish. Here are the ones they dread hearing.
There’s no denying that a lot of Irish people like potatoes. But that doesn’t mean they’re still the country’s primary food group. In fact, the Irish food scene is vibrant and varied, and it is currently producing some of the best and most exciting ingredients to be found anywhere in the world – Ireland now even has its own buffalo mozzarella.
Probably the most ubiquitous modern stereotype about the Irish is that they drink all the time. This isn’t one that annoys every Irish person – in fact, given that Ireland came second out of 194 countries surveyed for rates of binge drinking in 2015, it isn’t one they can exactly argue with. But it’s worth noting that 19 per cent of Irish people don’t drink. And the ‘drunken Irish’ stereotype has been employed in some pretty harmful contexts in recent years – for example, an unsympathetic New York Times article on the Berkeley balcony collapse involving Irish students in California.
While Ireland does have the highest occurrence of natural redheads in the world, that still only means that ten per cent of the population has red hair. There are millions of Irish people with other hair colours, and encountering a natural Irish redhead is actually quite rare – so rare in fact that they hold an annual convention to meet other red-haired people in County Cork.
It’s not known exactly where the stereotype of ‘the fighting Irish’ – now the moniker of the Notre Dame University varsity sports teams in the US – originated, but it’s one that still does the rounds. Most likely tied to the idea that they’re perpetually drunk, some people believe that the Irish are always up for a fight. In fact, a travel risk map ranking countries of the world in relation to violent crime puts Ireland in the ‘low risk’ category.
There was a time when Ireland was one of the most conservatively religious countries in Europe. However, observant Catholicism has been on a steady decline for decades and especially in the last several years, with an average annual drop of more than three per cent in weekly Mass attendance between 2008 and 2014. And that’s expected to drop by another third in Dublin’s Catholic archdiocese over the next 15 years.
Although it’s a positive stereotype, the belief that the Irish are innately friendly and welcoming is still a generalisation, and arguably not an entirely accurate one. Condé Nast Traveller surveyed hundreds of thousands of tourists about the most friendly and unfriendly cities earlier this year, and two Irish cities – Galway and Dublin – did make it into the ‘friendly’ category. But at numbers 15 and 18 respectively, they were far below the European city deemed the friendliest – Reykjavik, Iceland.
This one was apparently espoused by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who supposedly told a Labour minister for Northern Ireland that ‘you can’t trust the Irish, they are all liars’. A variation on the idea that they have the ‘gift for the gab’, some think the Irish are more inclined than the people of other nations to tell tall tales. It becomes discriminatory in contexts like a 2012 Australian job advert, in which the employer advised ‘No Irish’, because of his belief that Irish applicants were more likely to exaggerate their qualifications.
Though not as widespread as the other stereotypes on this list, there are some that still believe that Ireland is an Irish-speaking nation. Urban legends abound of Irish J-1 visa students being applauded for their command of English while working in US restaurants. Also, an unfortunate Australian news anchor is reported as having commented on the death of British-Irish actor Peter O’Toole in 2013 that they were surprised to hear he was Irish, since ‘He has such a great command of the English language.’
The romantic idea of Ireland as a remote, tranquil place is certainly true of some areas – indeed, it’s a major selling point for many residents and visitors. But Irish people do tire of being asked whether or not they have internet access, or electricity, or cars out there on the edge of Europe – even in jest.
What with all the leprechaun pot-of-gold imagery, there is a misconception out there that the Irish are luckier than other populations. Actually, according to Edward T. O’Donnell, historian and author of 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History, ‘the luck of the Irish’ was a sarcastic phrase adopted during the 19th century to refer to successful Irish miners, intended to deride their accomplishments as mere luck.