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The age-old ‘Ugly American’ trope, after decades, has reappeared

Covid-19 failure has reignited hostilities towards stereotypically loud US tourists

John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man

Americans are not welcome here. They are pariahs. Obviously, I don’t think that. I am merely quoting from recent conversations with two distinguished citizens of that republic: the actor Alfre Woodard and the director Oliver Stone.

“Americans are not going to be welcome anywhere pretty soon,” Stone told me as he rooted out his French passport in preparation for a trip to Europe. “I love coming to Ireland, but we’re the pariahs now,” Woodard said to me. “Nobody wants us to come.” Take it up with them.

The US’s failure to contain Covid-19 has reignited ancient hostilities towards that nation’s stereotypically cacophonous tourists. Radio reports have located the odd visiting American saying they have no plans to quarantine (and many more saying they will). Social media is fuming. For the first time in decades, the Ugly American finds himself at the top of The National Bestiary.

JFK’s picture hung in a million homes, but suspicion of the swagger and the romanticism continued

Others can debate the rights and wrongs of the regulations covering incoming visitors. Amateur epidemiologists can discuss potential elevation of the R-number. What interests us here is the stubborn perception — it waxes, it wanes, but it never goes away — of visiting Americans as bellowing loudmouths in dazzling plaid shorts.

You can see the cartoon in your head. They have eight cameras around each neck. They have a baseball cap on back to front. They wonder why Windsor Castle was built so close to the Heathrow flightpath (they don’t really). They buy London Bridge thinking that it is Tower Bridge (that didn’t happen either).

This has been going on forever. My much-loved great aunt, who served gallantly in the second World War, had no problem with the Germans she met in a prisoner of war camp. They were, apparently, very clean and polite. She was less happy with the Americans. “They were always bragging and they got medals for jumping in the river,” Aunt Olive sniffed.


In 1957, the New York Times placed an advertisement in its London namesake searching for “people who dislike Americans”. Many of the replies touched on supposed betrayals during the recent Suez crisis, but the familiar caricatures concerning volume and immodesty also made an appearance.

“Our correspondents felt American tourists had few social graces and they objected to Americans ‘taking moving pictures of them,’ ‘throwing around money,’ ‘talking loudly,’ [and] ‘bragging about the American way of life,’” the great Art Buchwald reported.

Complicated relationship

Much of that would have registered with contemporaneous Irish citizens, but this nation has always had a more complicated relationship with incoming Americans. So often the tourists were (or thought they were) coming home to the old country. The representation of this type in John Ford’s The Quiet Man is largely benign, but Sean Thornton, played enormously by John Wayne, is still a brash interloper who — witness the dowry incident — has only limited tolerance for local mores. 

In the decades since, the film itself took on the quality of an Ugly Yank. Ford and his fellow Americans patronise and sentimentalise to bolster a version of Ireland that sustains spirits among third-generation immigrants in Massachusetts. Brawling leprechauns as sports mascots? Four-leaved clovers for shamrocks? Saint Patty’s Day? A coin in the bucket for the IRA? It is easy to see why so many Irish people retained an equivocal attitude to that section of the diaspora. John F Kennedy’s picture hung in a million homes, but suspicion of the swagger and the romanticism continued.

The Quiet Man is largely benign, but Sean Thornton, played enormously by John Wayne, is still a brash interloper

That hostility was at its most pointed when the economic disparity between Ireland and the United States was at its most pronounced. It was not uncommon for Americans to note that those complaining most vociferously about their nation’s cultural barbarism wore Levi’s jeans, drank Coca-Cola, watched James Dean movies and listened to rock ‘n’ roll.

Here in the 21st century we are used to social media squabbles in which any dislike of a favoured celebrity is put down to “jealousy”. Protests against US foreign policy or its civil rights record were (and still are) generally rooted in sincere grievance. But it is not outrageous to suggest that, until recently, jealousy really was partly responsible for the prejudice against American mores and manners.

They had so much more than us. They had cars the size of battleships. They had video recorders when we were struggling to pay for colour telly. They had sandwiches a mile high when ours were still orange cheese between curling sliced pan. No wonder we laughed at their loud voices and louder trousers.

The social equalising that came with globalisation and the internet loosened many of those tensions. Put simply, we are not quite so different from Americans as we once were. The low-level resentment was, however, still bubbling beneath the surface. The election of Trump woke it up. The current crisis has sharpened it further.

At least we’re not jealous of them anymore.  

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