All-Beef Paddies: Why America Loves Simian Irish Caricatures


The flared nostrils and simian features of a standard Irishman.

Jeet Heer, the Dian Fossey of ethnic identity studies, explores how the classic ape-like Irish caricature became the face of American everyman Homer Simpson. According to Heer, the missing link in the evolution of what my grandmother used to dismiss as "shanty Irish" came in the form of Jiggs, the great rich-slob character in George McManus' long-running comic strip Bringing Up Father:

The Simian Irishman of the 19th century was simply a figure of contempt and fear. McManus, who was himself part-Irish, redeployed this stereotype but in a slightly more positive way. McManus' strip deals with the adventures of Maggie and Jiggs, two Irish-Americans born into working class poverty. Jiggs is functionally illiterate and spent most of his life working in manual jobs, digging ditches and doing basic construction.  The couple has a beautiful daughter named Nora, who is of marrying age. For some unexplained reason, Maggie and Jiggs become enormously wealthy. Newly rich Maggie is transformed into a diligent social climber, eager to join high society and find an aristocratic husband for her nubile daughter.

Maggie's attempts to enter into the realm of high society are constantly foiled by her husband, who retains an atavistic love for working class Irish culture. Time and again, Jiggs embarrasses Maggie and Nora but his uncouth behaviour, which includes smoking a clay-pipe (a tell tale sign of Irish origins), cavorting around in his undershirt and suspenders, and bringing home his uncouth friends from the old neighbourhood. Jiggs clearly prefers the company of his drinking buddies and card-playing cronies to that the counts, dukes, and society ladies that his wife and daughter are constantly trying to corral into their home. Splendidly incorrigible, Jiggs is always trying to sneak off a saloon or a ball-game so he doesn't have to go to the opera. Despite being married for two decades he also has an eye for the ladies, and forgoes a chance at seeing a serious play performed by Sarah Bernhardt for an afternoon at a burlesque show. While visiting Paris, Jiggs characteristically prefers collecting naughty French post-cards to viewing the masterpieces of the Louvre. (A quick consumers note: McManus's elegant deco art makes the Bringing Up Father book worth acquiring, although it has to be said that the repetitious gags and one-dimensional nature of the characters makes this a lesser work than such early masterpieces as Krazy Kat or Popeye.)

When Barry Fitzgerald drinks whiskey, he drinks whiskey.

This is a brief piece, and Heer doesn't get into many of the permutations that are presumably covered in L. Perry Curtis' book Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature, which I want for Christmas. We're all enlightened people here, so it's understood that when we talk about these stereotypes we're treating them as fictional relics, but just look at the face of Barry Fitzgerald here. Does a jaw like that really belong on an American?

One example of how extensive and respectable the cultural penetration of the Irish ape persona once was: T.S. Eliot opens his famous and still-anthologized poem "Sweeney  Among the Nightingales" with the phrase "Apeneck Sweeney." Reason's Nick Gillespie tells a story on himself in which he asks his English teacher "What does appenneck mean"—which pretty much proves Eliot's point about how retarded our gene pool really is.

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  1. Your appenname is Tomaltach Caomh?nach.

  2. I think America, and the rest of the world, love simian caricatures in general. Monkeys are hilarious, after all.

    Or it could be that the Irish aren’t even human. That might be it too.

  3. Is it bad form when my Irish-Italian friend describes himself as a “MicWopper”?

  4. Great. Now I want to watch Father Ted for some reason.

  5. I’ll be disappointed if this thread doesn’t quickly devolve to who can tell the worst Irish joke.

  6. At least we Irish don’t tend to have HR on our office speed-dial.

  7. I’m offended.

  8. worst irish joke i know:

    two irish nuns are driving across the countryside when a vampire jumps onto the roof of their car.

    “quick sister joseph!” screams the driver. “show him yer cross!”

    the passenger nun leans out the window and yells “hey, you! fuck off!”

    1. Works for me.

      1. It took me about 20 seconds to get it, but I chuckled.

        1. 20 seconds?

          I was most amused by ‘sister joseph’ by itself

  9. Doctors have isolated a variation of Alzheimer’s called Irish Alzheimer’s — you forget everything but the grudges.

  10. These two Irishmen were looking for work. They saw a poster in the Post Office that said the police were looking for two men for murder, so they went down to the police station to apply.

    When they got down there they saw a poster that the police were looking for two Pakistanis for rape. One said to the other, “Wouldn’t you know it, those damn wogs get all the good jobs.”

  11. The classic:

    What’s a seven-course Irish meal? A potato and a six-pack.

  12. An IRA man dies and goes to heaven and is met by St Peter at the Pearly Gates.
    St Peter says, ‘ You can’t come in, you’ve been bad. ‘
    The IRA man says, ‘ I don’t want to come in, you’ve got ten minutes to get out. ‘

  13. Two lil’ leprechauns went to the local convent and begged an audience with the mother superior. She asked, “Well, how can I help you little folk?”
    The smarter looking of the leprechauns asked, “Well, mother superior, would you be havin’ any midget nuns here at the convent?”
    “Afraid not,” replies Mother Superior, “there are no midget nuns here”
    The smart leprechaun asks “Would you be knowing of any midget nuns in all of Ireland then?”
    “Well, no,” replied Mother Superior, “none that I know of.”
    Finally the smart one asks, “Well then, in the whole world of nuns, would you know of any Midget nuns?”
    “No, I would’nt – there are no midget nuns in the whole of the world!” said Mother Superior, “and would you please tell me what this is all about?”
    The smart leprechaun turned sadly to the stupid leprechaun and said “I told you so…you’ve been dating a Penguin.”

  14. An Englishman, a Scott, and a Irishman walked into a pub.
    Each ordered a pint of beer. Then a fly landed in each one’s beer.
    The Englishman, turning slightly green, pushed his beer away and asked for another one.
    The Scott took the fly out, shrugged, and drank his beer.
    The Irishman pinched the fly by the wings and yelled, “SPIT IT OUT!” “SPIT IT OUT!”

  15. Dunleavy and Brennan were out on a river one morning, fishing from their rowboat without much luck — and needing something to quench their thirst. Suddenly, Dunleavy landed a large fish, who spoke to the two men: “Sure, if you let me go, I’ll grant you a single wish.” Before Brennan could speak, Dunleavy blurted, “Turn the river into beer!” The fish said, “Done,” and hopped back into the river — which changed moments later as the fish had promised. Dunleavy proudly said, “So whadya think of me now?” Brennan replied, “I think you’re a feckin’ idiot. Now we gotta piss in the boat.”

  16. Two nuns are riding their bicycles around Dublin trying to find their way back to the convent, but they’re lost. After twenty minutes or so, one says, “I’ve never come this way before.” The other gives a knowing nod, “It’s the cobblestones.”

    1. Good one, Rimfax.

  17. Man, you could get away with some really offensive shit as a cartoonist if you only lived in the 19th century.

  18. ‘T’aint nuttin’ but filt’, that is.

  19. Pat the bartender and Esther the psychiatrist switch places one day.

    Pat tells the patient: “I recommend that you forge in the smithy of your soul the uncreated conscience of your race. And here’s a prescription for two whiskeys.”

    Esther tells the patron – “Don’t slouch on the bar stool – sit up straight! You’re not going to wear that to work tomorrow, are you? Another drink? Are you *trying* to ruin your liver?”

  20. The “simian” archetype of a pronounced jaw and slopping forehead goes back to at least the middle-ages where it likewise was considered a sign of reduced intelligence and impulsive behavior.

    This is probably because the pronounced jaw and slopping forehead are often the external manifestations of severe Cretinism, a form of mental and physical retardation caused by chronic childhood iodine deficiency. Cretinism affected a significant percentage of the population prior to the industrial age and the arrival of table salt containing iodine. Most writers and artist of the time had probably seen many examples of people suffering from the disease and it was far more common among the poor. In places, where poverty was restricted to a specific ethnic group it was easy to label cretinism as an attribute of the group

    So, the visual stereotype is based on people who were actually stupid and impulsive.

    1. Characteristically pithy and witty, Shannon

    2. I did not know this. And I will quote it as if I had read it on wikipedia itself!

  21. And did ya hear about the Irishman who went to Rome and got so drunk that he kissed his wife and beat the pope’s foot to a pulp with a coal shovel?

  22. I thought I remembered reading that Sweeney was supposed to be Jewish

  23. Hmm pretty offensive hahaha oh well its part and parcel of being gods coolest people I suppose 😛 the stupid paddy jokes always humour me because without the Irish monks back in the 8th century europe and civilisation would have collapsed into a dark void of violence and stupidity. How do we get repaid by the English? 800 years of war, famine and domanince hahaha

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