The Irish faced a long period of discrimination and prejudice in Great Britain, the United States and some other nations with large Hibernian immigrant populations over the centuries.
Usually, it was a case of religious bigotry against Irish Catholics, which witnessed its peak in the Protestant-dominated U.S. of the 19th century.
However, anti-Irish hatred may not have been completely erased off the map, at least in the United Kingdom.
Two incidents of prejudice against the Irish were reported in British and Irish media recently – one trivial, one deadly serious.
Daley Thompson, the former Olympic decathlete, was forced to apologize after making an anti-Irish slur on live television in the UK.
While appearing on BBC’s ‘The One Show’ over the weekend, a photograph was shown of a woman wearing a tattoo on her arm which was misspelled to read “OYLMPIC torch bearer.”
Thompson quipped: “The tattooist must have been Irish.”
The show’s co-hosts, Matt Baker and Alex Jones, quickly apologized for Thompson’s gaffe and pointed out the tattoo had been created in the U.S. BBC also reported it was bombarded by dozens of complaints from viewers.
It’s not a laughing matter for Thompson since he may now lose the opportunity to light the Olympic flame in London next week at the start of the summer Games.
The fact that Thompson himself is of mixed race (black Nigerian father, white Scots mother) added to the bizarre nature of this minor, quirky story.
However, a far more serious incident of anti-Irish behavior occurred 180 miles away in the heavily Irish city of Liverpool.
A march by the James Larkin Society, which traces its roots to Liverpool's Irish Catholic immigrant community and named in honor of a famous Irish trade unionist and social activist, designed to protest racism and economic inequality in Britain was taunted and harassed by far-right British groups, including the English Defence League, which characterized the demonstration as an “IRA march.”
Anti-march protesters shouted: “IRA off our streets!”
While most of the British protesters were young men, an elderly female who attended told Liverpool media: “This is terrible. They shouldn’t be allowed to march like this, no way.”
One man screamed at the marchers: “F__k off back to Ireland, ye murdering bastards.”
Others chanted: “Rule Britannia” and “No surrender to the IRA.”
In a bizarre addendum which reflects Britain's multi-racial contemporary realities, some of the protesters and counter-protesters were neither Irish nor British. Irish media reported that some of the Larkin marchers were Asian Muslims, while some of the pro-British counter-demonstrators were black.
Another marcher, union official Jane Calveley, is Jewish.
About 25 people were arrested in the melee.
A huge police presence prevented the clash from erupting into bloody violence – however, the very existence of the two warring sides revealed that ancient sectarian enmities have never disappeared -- rather they still bubble just under the surface.
Ahead of the march, the James Larkin Society condemned the expected counter-protesters: “We call upon members of the Liverpool public to reject these extremist and hate-filled groups and to support [our] demonstration against Racism and Fascism. We want to send a clear message out that the citizens of Liverpool will not tolerate the presence of these individuals/groups on Liverpool’s streets and that the good relations between Liverpool’s diverse communities will not be shattered by thugs intent on disruption and who wish to dictate who can and cannot live peacefully in this city.”
Alec McFadden, a Liverpool union official and anti-fascist campaigner, told the Liverpool Echo newspaper: “Today was all about celebrating one of the main trade unionists, James Larkin. The theme was against racism and fascism. The people of Merseyside succeeded in having a trade union march and rally in opposition to racism and fascism.”
McFadden implied that the trouble-makers who sought to disrupt the march came from “outside Merseyside... to try to interfere with the march.”
On the other side, far-right protesters handed out leaflets that the Larkin march was simply a pro-IRA assembly and some even carried photographs of people who died in a 1993 IRA bombing in the nearby city of Warrington.
One verbose poster carried by protesters read: “Over the past several years the city of Liverpool and north-west England has seen the rise of anti-British feeling projected on them by immigrant families from the Republic of Ireland.”
A similar parade by the Liverpool Irish in February elicited a similar negative response by British nationalists. That march sought to honor the memory of Sean Phelan, a Liverpool-born Irish Republican, who died during the War of Independence in 1921.
An Irish MP who attended that February march, Sandra McLellan, described her experience to the Irish Post newspaper:“I never experienced anything like it in my life. A group of about 30 yobs [delinquents] were allowed to walk beside the parade for at least a mile, shouting words like scum and murderers and ‘f__k off back to your own country. I couldn’t believe the hatred. It was continuous. It was horrendous.”
Liverpool, only about 130 miles from Dublin across the Irish Sea, has long attracted immigrants from Eire.
Indeed, three of the most famous Liverpudlians in history – John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison of The Beatles – were of Irish descent.
Consequently, the 'Troubles' in Ireland between Catholics and Loyalist Protestants have played out on the streets of Liverpool for well over 100 years.
In fact, a group called the Liverpool Protestant Party which campaigned against Irish immigration, lasted up until the 1970s.
Liverpool, as a coastal city, has also attracted large numbers of immigrants from across the world, including India, Pakistan, China, Africa and the West Indies.
While Irish emigration to Liverpool has drastically slowed in recent years, some British protesters compared the Irish to non-white immigrants.
One anti-Irish leaflet read: “These people [Irish] are much like Islamics [sic]. They take, take, take with one hand and abuse their host nation with the other. They openly support Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army and we are expected to stand by, smile and allow them to spread their hatred for Britain.”
Thus, while far-right British forces have focused much of their ire on black and Asian immigrants in recent decades, their contempt and disdain for a much older enemy – Irish Catholics – rears its ugly head every once in a while.