The welcome return of the ‘stage Irishman’

Dara O Briain of Mock the Week shows that Irish funnymen are no Uncle Toms. Throughout history they've been challenging, virile and, well, mocking.

Patrick West

Patrick West

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As I was saying last week, the output of Irish TV suggests that Ireland has more in common with Britain than it would like to admit. But the strange, parallel thing is that British television has become more Irish than ever.

It is interesting to see how Irish celebrities have now made British television their own: Graham Norton, Patrick Kielty, Ardal O’Hanlon, those kind of people. And this week sees the return of the satirical quiz show Mock the Week on BBC2 for a mammoth 12-week run, fronted by the ursine and ever more ubiquitous Irish funnyman, Dara O Briain.

Irish funnymen on British television are no new thing. Dave Allen, Frank Carson, Jimmy Cricket and Terry Wogan amused television audiences a generation ago. And Irishmen funnymen on the stage have been around for even longer. Yet the ‘stage Irishman’ has always received a bad press, considered akin to an ‘Uncle Tom’: someone who in amusing his host audience simultaneously belittles himself. The story is, in truth, more ambivalent.

Dara O Briain is more true to the ‘stage Irishman’ of history, a character who was not always meek and ridiculous, but often challenging, virile and – indeed – mocking.

Irish representations in English popular entertainment derived from Tudor times, when many Englishmen employed Irish footmen. The Irish were deemed by the English to be particularly hardy and trustworthy, and the Irish were frequently portrayed in a similar vein in plays of the period. ‘Usually the Irish footman is presented without hostility, and in some cases a definite attempt is made to enlist the sympathy of the audience on his side’, writes the J. O. Bartley in Teague, Shenkin and Sawney: Being An Historical Study of the Earliest Irish, Welsh and Scottish Characters in English Plays (1954).

For instance, Eustace’s Irishman in Thomas Heywood’s 1592 play Four Prentices is ‘jungly’ but faithful. ‘Miaster’, he says, ‘so Criste me save, I shal wiate on thee, wake for thee where thou sleepest, runne for thee when thou biddest, and flye a thy errands like a narrow from a bow when thou wantest Wine, or meate, to drinke or eate, or any other necessary provision.’ He is also quick to defend his master. ‘By Saint Patricke i’le make him garter his hose with his guts, that strikes any stroke here.’ The best-known stage character of that period is Shakespeare’s Captain Macmorris from Henry V, an excitable and extravagant character, somewhat touchy and confused about his nationality, but nonetheless rendered a loyal servant of the Crown. Admittedly, it is a cynical portrayal; Elizabethan London was fearful of Irish treachery in alliance with the Spanish, and Shakespeare sought to allay their fears by demonstrating Macmorris’ fidelity to the Crown.

The Irish were sometimes portrayed as rather laughable, tragic characters, partial to what was then a foreign drink to English audiences – whiskey. Curiously, they were also portrayed as being averse to farting, as a piece of dialogue from Nash illustrates: ‘The Irishman will draw his dagger and bee ready to kill and slay, if one breake winde in his company.

Following the Cromwellian wars, the Restoration era saw the consolidation of highly amorous stage Irishmen, though stories containing sexual shenanigans were combined with characteristic tales of Irish hot-tempered blundering. For instance, the farcical servant Patrick in Richard Head’s Hic et Ubique, or the Humours of Dublin (1663), finds his wife seeking sexual satisfaction elsewhere. Head tells us how Patrick returns home to find her with another man. ‘Fuy by St Patrick agra, he put dee fuckation upon my weef.’ Patrick is a man of honour and not one to be cuckolded. ‘I did creep in like a michear…then wid me pishfork I clap upon de Narsum, and I did make sharge for him in de King’s name thou know’st, to stay dere till I fetch the Cunt-stable; but before I came, this chvereeh crave-Rauge make run away for himself.’

After 1690, and particularly after Union with Scotland in 1707, the English became more generous in their stage representations of the Irish; post-Union England in the eighteenth century was characterised to a far greater degree by anti-Scottish feeling. ‘Paddy’ becomes less cretinous and more courageous – and more colourful – than his English neighbour.

Thomas Sheridan’s eponymous Captain O’Blunder (1745-46) is a giant of a man: good-natured, honest, proud and flamboyant. He sings: ‘Of all the husbands living an Irishman’s the best / No nation on the globe like him can stand the test / The English there are drones, as plainly you may see / But we’re all brisk and airy, and lively as a bee.’ The Irishman in this period was increasingly portrayed as successful with the women, and cunning and frank with it. An 1806 imprint published by Bowles & Carver of London shows a cartoon called ‘Irish Gallantry’. It depicts an elderly gentleman with three women by his side, facing a sturdy and handsome bachelor, his legs far astride. ‘“Ten Thousand Pounds a piece” Old Turtle said, “I’ll give with me three Daughters when they wed.” Says Pat I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Faith. I’ll be after taking two.’

By 1800, writes Bartley, the Irishman as represented on stage ‘lost a good deal of the savage ferocity which often distinguished him earlier…. He is now usually excitable, emotional, good tempered, good-hearted, somewhat blundering and stupid but with considerable native shrewdness, loyal chivalrous, irrepressibly cheerful and humorous.’ If he remained a comical figure not quite regarded as an Englishman’s peer, ‘Paddy’ was at least deemed to possess many endearing character traits. He was certainly not a figure of derision on the London stage; rather, during the eighteenth century, it was the Scots who were cast as conniving and untrustworthy.

This makes Gordon Brown’s appointment as prime minister as apposite as O Briain’s return to Mock the Week. O Briain’s ascendancy on British television continues a long tradition. Laugh with the Irishman, or laugh at the Irishman – the English have been doing both for centuries.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

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