Little secret has been made of the difficulties faced by Irish immigrants in Victorian England. More than a century and a half ago when England was a less diverse and cosmopolitan place than it is now, men and women of Irish decent were probably the largest and most visible minority group in the country. As such they experienced disadvantage, suspicion, and discrimination.
We know that Irish nationals were almost three times as likely to find themselves in court as their English counterparts. Contemporary commentators often sought to suggest that this reflected the innate criminality of the Irish as a nation. However, historical perspectives have shown that elevated rates of crime and prosecution amongst men and women of Irish decent was a combination of the overzealous policing of Irish neighbourhoods, official bias in court, and the fact that, at the bottom of the social ladder, Irish families were very likely to experience the socio-economic problems that are known to contribute to crime.
Histories of the Irish and crime in England have taught is lessons about the economic plight of immigrants and their dependants, the cultural issues that can see violence and gang membership flourish, and how crime relates to issues of social and material identity. Yet the history of Irish offenders and offending has other cultural lessons to teach us.
On St. Patrick’s day each year the same stereotypes of the Irish – their love for drink, revelry, and casual violence – make the rounds of print and on-line media. These ideas about Irishness have turned a saint’s day (once like any other) into a roaring commercial success. What many who celebrate don’t realise is that many of the ideas about drink and violence we connect with Irishness were either created by, or substantially reinforced, the systematic way in which newspapers in Victorian England represented Irish offenders.
Female offenders of Irish descent were typically represented as figures of fun. They drank too much, they sang and danced when they should be ashamed, they were lazy and disorderly. It was only too common for Irish women to be cast by reporters as gin-drenched hags, wild religious zealots, or masculine-looking youths who would resort to violence at the slighted provocation.
Mary Ahearn ‘whose age it would be difficult to tell’ but who was suspected to be around forty, was prosecuted for the theft of a couple of kettles at the Thames Police court in London. Mary’s was a very common offence. Without doubt the same court heard dozens of others remarkably similar in nature each week. However, despite only being on trial for theft Mary was typified as a violent ‘Irish Virago’ because she had attempted to beat away the shopkeeper that apprehended her with a shoe. The newspaper described her thus:
The prisoner had rendered herself perfectly repulsive by strong drinks, dissipation, violence, and disease. Her nose was a perfect grog-blossom, her face was disfigured with contusions, her mouth was cut, and the remains of the few teeth in her mouth were black. In a voice husky with gin she kept up a running commentary on the evidence.
It was reported (and written phonetically for full effect) that after hearing the prosecution’s evidence Mary shouted ‘Och, you Murthering [murdering] villain. You wanted to take advantage of me weakness. He did yer hanner’s wertchip [your honours worship]’ to which the court could not contain their laughter. The last words it was reported Mary said were ‘be me sowl [by my soul], I must have Gin’.
Mary was by no means the only Irish women to receive short shrift in the court reports of the day. Whilst accounts portrayed Irishwomen as disgraceful and criminal, details were included that encouraged readers to laugh at the exploits and lives of the feckless Irish poor. Even in cases were women were quite clearly living chaotic and difficult lives, their misfortune could provide comedy. In Northampton, Elizabeth Robinson was of no fixed abode when stole a single mop. She was characterised by the authorities as a disorderly drunk and an ‘Irish amazon’ with cheeks that ‘resembled thumping red potatoes’. Bridget Hagan from Leeds also described as a ‘red faced’ amazon, was actually the wounded party in a case of assault but the papers wasted no time reporting that she appeared to be drunk in court ‘unable to stand’. Despite having severe injuries to her head and face probably caused, the court found, by a blow from a knuckle-duster. Bridget’s character did not fare well in court and somehow she managed to herself receive a sentence of one month’s imprisonment. Johanna Rafferty a woman decorated with ‘a huge bunch of green ribbon in her button-hole’ was charged with a fairly unremarkable case of drunk and disorderly behaviour. She was given fourteen days in prison and ‘after expressing her gratification in a few sarcastic remarks’ and before she could be taken down to the cells she attempted to execute and Irish jig’. Margaret Sullivan, a woman with no money or possessions appeared at court in Sussex with a nose that ‘indicated an abrupt contact with something harder’ (her nose had been forcefully broken). The state of Margaret’s face was a by-line to a charge of drunken disorderly, or as the report phrased matters ‘walking out of the town, having had a drop, no doubt, when she unexpectedly found herself safe in the arms of a policeman’.
Day in and day out newspapers reported cases in which Irish women who were struggling with the very real problems of destitution, homelessness, violence, and alcohol addiction were arrested for thefts, disorderly conduct and assaults. The fact that Victorian authorities had little sympathy for offenders personal circumstances was no limited to the Irish. However the way in which such a high number of reports of Irish offending contained mockery, unflattering physical descriptions, and suggestions of drunkenness, limited intelligence, and impropriety seems to have been somewhat unique. They were representation so powerful that they have continued to influence the way we portray and celebrate Irishness even in the twenty-first century.