Civil Liberties

All-Beef Paddies: Why America Loves Simian Irish Caricatures


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.)

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.