Paddywhackery is it Offensive or a Tribute to Irish Culture

Paddywhackery is a form of racial stereotyping that highlights the presumed characteristics of Irish people. It is commonly used in drama as a shorthand way of establishing national identity, or in comedy as an exaggeration of ‘Irishness’. At best, paddywhackery is humorous and endearing; at worst, it is annoying and even offensive.

Like all stereotypes, paddywhackery is a denial of individuality. It lumps together a variety of personalities and talents, vocations and beliefs, and labels them the same. Worse still, the labelling can easily shift from being a harmless jest to a cause for hatred. History is filled with reminders of how entire groups of people can be persecuted on the basis of a mistaken, but often repeated stereotype. Indeed, Irish immigrants in places like England and America are no strangers to prejudice. If not for the widespread dislike of Irish culture in 19th century New York, there might not be a St. Patrick’s Day Parade or any of the associated festivities. The refugees who fled a potato famine in 1845 were forced to assert their national pride in ways that resonate loudly today.

Examples of paddywhackery

St. Patrick’s Day is widely proclaimed as the day that “Everyone is Irish”, but what exactly does that mean? For many people, it is an excuse to do what they think the Irish would do, based on portrayals in the popular media. That means dressing in green and drinking heavily, eating corned beef and cabbage – an American tradition, in fact – and saying things like “Begorrah” and “To be sure!” If they sit down to enjoy an Irish movie on March 17, it will likely be something about leprechauns or canny, but simple-minded folk. It is hard to say whether there is any harm in all of this, as the great majority of revellers are electing to be Irish out of genuine affection for the culture.

And yet, it is also possible for this affection to quickly turn. Prince Charles, who is forbidden from marrying a Catholic, and whose uncle (Lord Mountbatten) was assassinated by the IRA in 1979, once said that he has “always had an affinity for the Irish soul.” This good-hearted opinion may not be shared by his well-travelled mother, who has visited every country in Western Europe except the Republic of Ireland. Both may be guilty of stereotyping, but from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.

But is it offensive?

As St. Patrick’s Day rolls around again, the incidence of paddywhackery in the media tends to grow. Politicians and pop stars assert their affiliation with Irish ancestors, or openly wish they had one. Shamrocks and images of leprechauns adorn shop-fronts and newspapers, and TV presenters develop mysterious lilts. There are also blogs which spring up, defending paddywhackery as good-natured fun, or bemoaning its overuse. Few bloggers appear to be particularly offended by the narrow-mindedness of it, however, and this is perhaps to be expected, for the Irish are proud of their culture and traditions. They can Irish all year round, whilst the rest of the world only gets a day.

Nevertheless, the potential for offense remains in place. One only has to think of the way that many Muslims were treated post 9/11 to understand that stereotyping is a dangerous and predatory way to behave. It is perhaps fortunate that the stereotypes of paddywhackery are essentially agreeable, and that most people see them as treasures of Irish culture, but it would surely not take much for the balance to shift.

In the broader picture, not too much paddywhackery is focussed on the less desirable aspects of human behaviour, as is the case with how many other races and nationalities are labelled. Although there are a few who might choose to believe that Irish men and women are typically bawdy louts, it is to be noted that this is the land that gave rise to Kenneth Branagh and Pierce Brosnan, George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, and Oscar Wilde, Bono and Enya, and famed prison activist, Sister Sarah Clarke. There is as much variety in the Irish character as there is in any other people, and if the stereotyping ever gets out of hand, it will be wise for paddywhackers to remember that.