The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home


Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
May 03, 2005

Do the Irish look like monkeys? asks Christie Davies after seeing Conquering England - Ireland in Victorian London at the National Portrait Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

Conquering England – Ireland in Victorian London
National Portrait Gallery, London
9th March - 19th June 2005
Daily 10am - 6pm (Thursdays & Fridays until 9pm)

The exhibition Conquering England at the National Portrait Gallery is based on two false propositions: first, that the Irish differ markedly in appearance from the British - they do not; second, that the Victorian Irish did not look like monkeys – they did.

Many of the portraits in the exhibition have been chosen to show what an exotic and distinguished appearance the London Irish had. Here are portraits of the fascist-leaning George Bernard Shaw author of Plays Unpleasant, Oscar Wilde, a man with a weakness for messenger boys preferably in little pill box hats who didn't send messages, and of his relentless cross-examiner Sir Edward Carson who fought and was wrought. Here too are W.E.H. Lecky, John Millington Synge and the "tinker-dark" W.B. Yeats, every one of them drawn from that Protestant elite of West Britons who had created a high culture in Ireland. Some of them, such as the Protestant landowner Parnell, were nationalists, but you would hardly expect men of such ancestry to look "Irish", nor men of their social class to resemble in appearance the great mass of Irish labourers who came to England and to London to work in menial employment.

The Republic of Ireland has always had an ambivalent attitude to its Protestant community, who in 1910 constituted a tenth of the population of the 26 counties. They were a minority to be changed and converted, to come over to Rome or to emigrate. What amounted to ethnic cleansing worked. Today only 3% of the Republic's population is Protestant. Yet, whenever the roll of Irish genius is called in Dublin, the members of the former Protestant ruling class are always included, mainly because without them there would not be much to boast about.

So desperate are the organizers of this exhibition to enlarge the numbers of distinguished Irishmen that it is even implied that Caractacus was Irish because he was against the Roman empire and that there is an irony in an Irish artist making a sculpture of him to be displayed in London. The sons of Gomer who stand at the very core of what it is to be British will never let Caradog go. Next the Irish will be claiming Artorius and Padrig Sant. Gad, sir, Geraldus Cambrensis and Geoffrey of Monmouth were right.

Middle class Dublin Protestants arriving in Victorian London were only exotic in the sense that talented Antipodeans of British ancestry are today. Even the more truly Irish figures, such as T.P. O'Connor or Daniel O'Connell, shown here, do not look particularly different from the rest of us. What was Irish about the body of Joanna Hiffernan, model and mistress first of Whistler and then of Courbet, when she displayed herself first as the whore of Wapping and then in naked French lewdness in L'Origine du Monde?

The British and the Irish do not differ in appearance from each other in the sense that the Amhara differ from the Koreans, or the Javanese from the Finns. The differences between British and Irish are merely statistical, such that for every distinctively "Irish" face you can always find a British individual to match it and vice versa. If you mix large numbers of British and Irish individuals together in a crowd, it is difficult to sort them out. I have no Irish ancestors and was born in Surrey yet I am afflicted with black hair, blue eyes and forearms so freckled that I dare not wear short-sleeved shirts. I have been taken for Irish in Chicago and Savannah, and in Galway an Irish doorman refused me entry to a German event because I looked Irish. One of the German professors in a fit of pique at losing an academic argument in a seminar called me a leprechaun.

The farce of the search for an exotic Irish beauty is shown in the exhibition by the story of the wealthy and successful Irish painter, Sir John Lavery, who saw from his window what he must have thought was an Irish girl selling flowers. He rushed out and made her in turn his model, his wife and the mother of his daughter. She told him that she was called Kathleen MacDermott and that after a happy Irish childhood she had become an unhappy Londoner. Sir John painted her as An Irish Girl (1890). There she is in the exhibition, black hair and cloak, emerald green blouse and ribbons, pale eyes and skin, fine straight nose, small mouth and smooth cheeks, a classic Irish beauty for the Hibernians to drool over. Unfortunately for the Irish, when she died Sir John discovered from her birth certificate that her real name was Annie Evans. You can't get more British than that. She was a true daughter of Boadicea and indeed of the Sons of Cunedda, the men of the North, who were renowned for repelling the Irish invaders of Britain. The fooling of Sir John gives the lie to the very idea of a distinctive Irish beauty.

Fintan Cullen, the curator, has tried to retrieve the situation by writing:

It shows how the whole idea of being Irish had become something enviable, something to aspire to and worth faking.
Nonsense! It shows nothing of the sort. Sir John Lavery, for all his airs and title, was the son of a failed Roman Catholic Belfast publican who had been sent to Scotland as an orphan at the age of three. A Freudian would say that Sir John had always wanted to return to the Irish arms that had let him go. Also Sir John may well have been conscious of his class origins and ready to fall into the embrace of a flower girl. Annie Evans, like all excessively beautiful women of her class, had an eye to the main chance – "give the rich old fool what he wants and he is mine". It is easy enough to put on a fake Belfast accent like the clang of a shipyard and to abandon Standard English, far easier than the other way round.

The exhibition's organizers stress that they have chosen their portraits to provide a counter, an opposite, to the simian cartoons that appeared in Punch in the 19th century. Since none of these wonderful cartoons that monkey with the Irish are on display, it is difficult to see how the curators can possibly demonstrate this contrast. The Punch cartoons have long been an object of politically correct indignation and much bad scholarship has been expended data dredging British authors for quotations indicating a general perception of the Irish as Inselaffen.

The Irish did, of course, look like monkeys in the 19th century. They did so, not because they were Irish, for the Irish look exactly like the British, but by virtue of the social classes to which they belonged. They were poor peasants who on arrival in London became unskilled casual labourers making a precarious living in the unstable labour market of the capital. The lower orders in general looked like apes. Their descendants do not. Likewise middle class and respectable working class British people of Irish descent do not look like their ancestors. They look like us. The reason for this is that appearance is a socially acquired characteristic. When I was a child, and my grandmother's brother who had emigrated to America came back to see us, I could not understand how he had managed to change the shape of his head in order to mark his assumption of American citizenship. Then I realized it was all about one's choice of spectacles and how you have your hair cut. For the same reason the Indian upper middle classes from Delhi on holiday in Rajasthan in their designer casuals look British. Hair and spectacles maketh the man and even more the woman. It is not that these well-heeled Hindus are imitating us, but rather that they have adopted international individualism. We are now all unique in our personal appearance and therefore look identical.

No such choices were available to the lower orders in Victorian London or Ireland. Their appearance was determined by poverty, which means dirt and skin trouble, bad teeth, uncorrected eyesight, uncut or pudding-basin hair for men and Christian headscarves over unwashed locks for women. They would be gaunt from lack of food or obese from cheap food and either weather-beaten or pallid according to occupation. They would lack the standard facial expressions that go with speaking Standard English, for the same reason that they spoke dialect. For many of them their faces would be marred by the effect of many years of hard drinking and brawling, which are social not racial characteristics. Go to vodka-sodden rural Russia and see for yourself.

This is why the Victorian lower orders had a simian appearance and are often depicted as such. The Irish were as they were, not for innate reasons as Marx and Engels imply, but for reasons of class, a concept that Marx and Engels never really understood. For them the Irish were lumpen, a mere rabble in rags. Punch made the Irish look even more monkey-like and extended this image to Irish politicians because they were Punch's political enemies, much as the 18th century caricaturists had done to their party rivals or the Anglo-Catalan cartoonist Mario Armengol was to do during the Second World War. Whig or Liberal-Home Rule English cartoonists would, no doubt, have but rarely shown the Irish in this way. Punch cartoons get studied by Irish, American or German humour scholars because they are easy to locate and well catalogued. What these scholars fail to see is that you cannot generalise conclusions based on Punch to British cartoons in general.

Likewise there is no evidence that the Victorians saw the assimilated and respectable descendants of the wild Irish as in any way simian, as of course they would have done if they had truly seen them as a racial category. The Victorians did not search the genealogies of the social leaders of their time to see if they could find the scandal of a concealed Irish grandmother. Look also at contemporary drawings of Sir Arthur Aloysius Conan Doyle, that handsome, manly British patriot, whose only Irish characteristic was that he shared with W.B. Yeats a belief in fairies. He was undoubtedly a descendant of the "simian Irish", and yet he based his most famous Irish character, Professor Moriarty, on Nietzsche, prophet of the superman. Doyle knew that the stolid, silent Irish, though not gifted in their use of language, are brilliant mathematicians and so he made Moriarty a mathematical genius in the tradition of Boole, Hamilton, Kelvin and Fitzgerald. Sir Arthur was a nephew of "Dicky" Doyle, the Punch cartoonist who resigned over Punch's hostility to Romanism. But why did Punch employ a "simian" in the first place? By contrast, racial characteristics are indelible. If it were seriously held that the Irish are simian, modern cartoonists would have drawn Dennis Healey or Jim Callaghan or Charles Kennedy as chimpanzees. Despite considerable provocation they did not do so.

In a sense the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery concedes my point, for the pictures of Londoners from Ireland on display show what the Irish were to become – British. They are not exotic and the Irish Republic's Department of Tourism, which is the exhibition's sponsor, is quite wrong to promote Ireland as being exotic. The reason why Ireland is such a popular place for British people to take their holidays is that it is not foreign. You do not need a dictionary or a phrase book as you would in France or come to that Ceredigion. The food is plain, British and easy on the digestion, and British-style binge drinking is socially acceptable in a way that it would not be in Israel or Italy.

Nonetheless the exclusion of the bulk of Victorian London's Irish population from the exhibition is a pity. We must never forget what we owe to their descendants, the respectable, assimilated, patriotic, Catholic working class. It is they and their cousins in America and Australia who saved Anglo-Saxon liberty during the Cold War against the Soviet Union. After World War II parties of the left and labour unions everywhere had been penetrated by Marxist traitors and fellow travellers. It was the socially conservative Roman Catholic workers with their unshakeable loyalty to a series of reactionary Popes who drove the leftists out and prevented the victory of socialism. That is their great contribution to London and the world. Remember too the work of that great Irishman, Daniel Mannix, Archbishop of Melbourne, who through his protégé Bartholomew Augustine Santamaria formed the Democratic Labour Party in Victoria and smashed the socialistic Australian Labour Party. Remember Senator Patrick McCarran of Nevada and his crusaders. Remember the Irish-American Fordham graduates who ran the C.I.A. and cleaned up the State Department. As in the days of the early Celtic church and its monks and missionaries, it was once again the Irish who saved Western civilization from the barbarians.

Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, 2004, a book that also embraces greater Ireland and of The Mirth of Nations, 2002, a study of humorous ethnic scripts.


Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Comments

What a brilliant piece - "Do the Irish look like monkeys?" - indeed. On a serious note, I think that Prof. Davies makes some very interesting points, especially about the leftie argument about English racism towards the Irish. I remember when I was a student - back in the, now so distant seeming, early '90s - the Revolutionary Communist Party (now of course transmorfed into the contrarian Institute of Ideas/Spiked outfit of Mick Hume, Claire Fox, Bill Durodie, Frank Furedi, Adam Burgess et al.) used to show potential recruits leaflets reproducing Punch cartoons of the Irish as monkeys. Their point was that this showed the continuity in British Imperial propaganda - ie how they always demonised the enemy. Of course this was in the days when the Revolutionary Communist Party were still in their "Victory to the Iraqi People"/"Victory to the IRA" mode.

I am very pleased that Prof. Davies has been able to nail this bit of leftie propaganda. An excellent piece

Posted by: David at May 4, 2005 12:27 AM
•••

This is an excellent review - but why the offensive title. Asking "Do the Irish look like Monkeys" is just plain offensive and makes one think that one is in for a bigoted rant - not the reasoned argument that follows. Anyway enjoyed the review.

Posted by: Becca at May 4, 2005 12:13 PM
•••

I think Becca is rather over-reacting. Titles are meant to be provocative, they are meant to make you want to read the article. In any case I thought that Christie Davies' review had plenty to provoke some. I was very interested in his points about appearance etc, is socially acquired.

Posted by: Jane at May 5, 2005 01:12 PM
•••

What a great argument: "Do the Irish look like monkeys" -

"The Irish did, of course, look like monkeys in the 19th century. They did so, not because they were Irish, for the Irish look exactly like the British, but by virtue of the social classes to which they belonged."

If the SAU continues to run reviews of this standard, they will continue to outshine anything in the daily press, or for that matter the weekly mags.

Posted by: John Williams at May 10, 2005 01:37 PM
•••

I think Prof. Davies - or whoever came up with the title for this piece - has got his primates confused. Is not the idea - the cartoon characterization - that the "Irish looked like apes"? I don't even think that Punch cartoonists would have argued that the Irish looked like monkeys - but rather thatthey looked like great hulking apes. Anyway, a trivial point on an otherwise illuminating piece.

Posted by: Dominic Stephens at May 11, 2005 12:05 PM
•••

Very interesting piece - I am Irish and very glad to say that I do not look like a monkey!! Thank you for clearing that up for others

Posted by: Siobhan Higgins at July 14, 2005 03:23 PM
•••

I noticed at the top you sed that irish do not differ from English-fair enough, then you sed thay looked like monkeys. Well that is a lot of SHITE. Irish people do NOT look like monkeys, its so mean that you sed that, how on earth do they?!?!?!? let me guess, your English? yeh thought so, Protestant? yeh thought so, GET A LIFE!!!!

Posted by: Fiona at September 12, 2005 07:37 PM
•••

I think we are missing a more serious question here, does Christie Davies look like a monkey?

Posted by: James at October 21, 2005 10:01 PM
•••

Certainly a very well-constructed point. I, being Irish, have no hesitation whatsoever in saying that I look like a monkey. Not by virtue of some feeling of inferiority, but by virtue of the fact that, as a human being, I share a common ancestry with the ape. In short, everyone looks like an ape. Not just the Irish. After all, the homo sapiens sapiens shares 97% of its DNA with the chimpanzee. Given such a statistic, it is hard to disagree with Mr.Davies.

I do not, however, see the sense in Fiona's comment on protestantism. Does my Anglican faith have any bearing on my Irishness? Here is an attitude demonstrative of that very same attitude that perpetuated the stereotypes of victorian Britain.

Does Christie Davies look like a monkey? No more or less so than his fellow humans, I should imagine.

Posted by: Tom at January 24, 2006 08:23 PM
•••

Simian irishmen caricatures were exactly that. Of course, the Irish did not look like monkey, but depicting them as such show them as lower in the evolutionary scale that so called anglo-saxons who could justify their political position as saving Ireland from savagery. This is propaganda at its best.

Posted by: T.J. Fallon at September 23, 2006 03:19 AM
•••

I happen to be someone of Irish ancestry who feels that this whole discussion comparing Irish people to monkeys is GROSSLY unfair . . . to the monkeys.

Posted by: J at November 14, 2006 08:47 PM
•••

I get the feeling that the overall tone of this article is, "It's OK, Irishmen and Irishwomen, feel privileged that you look British and because of that (and only that) you're not ugly after all". I take offense at that being Irish myself. There are quite a number of derogatory statements in there, some quoted to be fair. But then again, did they need to be quoted?

So, the only good stuff to come out of Ireland was the work of the Protestant Irish, probably descended from the British? I don't even know where to begin with that! Tell me this, is the Celtic Tiger secretly the work of the 3% Protestant population of Ireland and the Catholic majority are just reaping the benefits? I think not but I'm quite sure Christie Davies could argue otherwise with the skilled technique of inserting vaguely positive comments after every derogatory one to take the sting out of them.

Posted by: Ciaran at February 7, 2007 07:18 PM
•••

Persecution of the Irish goes on, much as it has for a thousand years...

Posted by: Chou Enlai at March 25, 2007 06:03 PM
•••

Then I hope that you gentlemen will be so kind to explain to me that at age 49, I look like I'm 35. I am 5'10". I am blonde, blue-eyed, and built like, what we American's say, a brick shit house. I thought Ireland was the land of the Giants. Tomorrow, I deploy a grand son of Ireland to Iraq. He is USN Seal that speaks fluent Arabic. You may compare yourselves to monkeys, I compare myself and my children as Renaissance warriors. We have the brains, the looks and the physical attributes. May God have mercy on yourselves because I will not. The Unaill.

Posted by: LAURA MARY O'NEILL at July 2, 2007 02:51 AM
•••

The Irish are a funny race
The English call them Paddys
Little do the English know
The Paddys are there daddys!

Now let me get back to my banoffee pie. Ooh ooh ooh aah aah aah!

A sweet-toothed very handsome Irish ape.

Posted by: Ian Black at July 20, 2007 07:57 PM
•••

First off there is a differnce in apperence between Irish and English form at least a mere genetic standpoint and i being half Irish can tell the difference immediately. Fair play to the english they had a mighty empire, that type of thing does not come over night But at the end of the day the english as far as i can tell are one of the most hated, ugly people on the planet ( And believe me i have been around). Why? Because of stupid articles like this. Some upper class clown who knows lets face it fuck all about the irish trying to comment on the irish.

I loved what the Actor Samuel L Jackson said to Kate Thornton, when she asked about Colin Farrell and said " He was one of our own"

Sam. " Is'ent Colin Farrell Irish Thats the problem with you people you keep trying to claim things that dont belong to you.

We had a problem like that in america it was called SLAVERY"

Posted by: j at September 9, 2007 04:01 AM
•••

It might be interesting to compare English characterization of the

Catholic Irish as simians to the Nazis of the Jews as rodents. Both

were used as templates for exploitation and genocide.

Posted by: T.J. Fallon at September 24, 2007 04:24 AM
•••

I have no doubt that in general the Irish do not look like monkeys but would it not be possible to do a statistical analysis of a large random sample of Irish photographs as compared with those of say the Chinese , the Norwegians and the Tamils to see if a simian facial characteristic ascribed to the Irish such as the ' long upper lip' is in fact more common among the Irish than among the others.Were this to be the case would it justify someone saying that the Irish look like monkeys, not in the crude sense that they all or even most of them do but meaning that there is a higher (albeit small) probality of a randomly selected Irishman looking simian than is the case for other nationalities?
John A P Williams

Posted by: John Williams at October 21, 2007 12:02 PM
•••

Why are the Irish so silly?
So the English can understand them!!!!!
What bigoted comments, although the reasoning was good in parts. The idea that non-catholic englishized irish made all of the contribution to the workplace, produced the art and talent etc. is an inaccurate generalism.
A lot more could have been said on the culture here, and how nations do tend to look like each other when living in the same communities.
I am very proud of all of my hundreds of Irish and English relatives, and there are no monkeys amongst us! They are all very talented and hardworking on both sides of the channel (and in the USA).


Posted by: mary funnell at May 26, 2008 11:57 PM
•••

u were starting to make a bit of sense til u brought ur own stupid racism into it. no doubt ur english? no doubt u hate catholics? and no doubt ur very jealous of irish women and yes there is a huge difference between both.
god bless ya hahaha.

Posted by: john at September 1, 2009 12:18 AM
•••

The Irish are a massive mix of Viking, English, Scots, Welsh, French and Spanish through hundreds of years of invasions. Cromwell didn't leave a man, woman or child alive in Wexford, then divided the lands among his soldiers who brought their wives over and spawned a whole new population. One of Wexford's most popular surnames is Stafford, thinks to these land-grabbing invasions. So what happened to the true indigenous Irish? They were either starved, murdered or emigrated, loads of them to England to spawn today's English. Great article though and so correct i.e. never mind nationality, one can always spot the difference between and uppercrust county gent and a sick estate dweller.

Posted by: nerys at January 10, 2010 05:20 PM
•••

Nonsense. An amateurish, fallacious and self-serving article. The punch cartoons and other cartoons of the day are so exaggerated that the irish do not look like dirty, poor, poverty stricken people (which would on its own have been understood to be a slur against a particular group by any self-respecting English gentleman of the 19th century) but very definitely as racially inferior monkeys. This was in keeping with the apparent racial superiority of the white anglo-saxon protestant of the time (I am a WASP from Nottingham). To write this off as the most accurate representation of the type of poor people walking the streets of london in the 19th century is to massively insult the artistic skill of the average English cartoonist/journalist.

Realistically, back down on planet Earth, extreme poverty does not make human beings look like chimpanzees; but like dirty, skinny, toothless and ragged human beings. Can you imagine an attempt to draw a street child from Asia in the same manner as the Irish were depicted in the cartoons of punch and other cartoons of the day, like something from planet of the apes? It would be met with widespread and immediate revulsion and condemnation; mostly because it would be understood to be a false and ridiculous image created to suit a racist agenda.

At best, the ragged appearence of the Irish diaspora simply fed into the already ingrained image of the Irish as animals; in much the same way that Nazis who saw filthy, ragged and run-down jews living in the ghettos and coming off the trains were able to screw up their face in disgust and tick that mental box that these people were, in fact, disgusting and filthy animals. I know they are animals because they are filthy and disgusting in appearance; they are filthy and disgusting in appearance because, *shrug*, they are animals. A circulus in probando of gut wrenchingingly cruel and callous proportions, no doubt used as a handy fallacy by many of the people who drew those delectable pictures.

At worst, it was purely that finger pointing, sniggering, ego inflating racism that so many people seem to secretly enjoy.

Again, I am an englishman from nottingham with no axe to grind on behalf of the Irish, not least because no-one in my family is Irish, but this entire article smacks potently of that style of nonchalant historical revision common among people who feel a sense of shame or a mild irritation that historical fact inconveniences them in some way. The fact is the Irish were seen very consciously as racially inferior to the white anglo-saxon man by many people in England at this time, and these images of ape-like Irish peasants was not the half baked and poorly rendered image of underclass Irish diaspora, but were quite deliberate attempts to further a racial and political agenda through the portrayal as a group of people as sub-human animals. This article appears to be a rallying point for people who don't have the bottle to accept personal responsibility for the uncomfortable emotions museum exhibits about this subject make them feel, and instead of dealing with them rationally they throw the toys out of the pram and declare that this inconvenient historical fact never, in fact, occured.

Posted by: Len at April 21, 2011 01:01 AM
•••
Post a comment








Anti-spambot Turing code







Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement