An Englishman's Diary

 

The recent closure of the magazine Punch brings to an end an illustrious chapter in British journalism. In recent years it was a light, whimsical publication, and towards the very end styled itself as a hard-hitting current affairs periodical; but its heyday was in the Victorian era, when it was a sharp, satirical and radical magazine that lampooned political cant, humbug and pomposity - a cross between Private Eye and The Onion. In this guise at least, Mr Punch's demise shall be mourned in Britain, writes Patrick West.

Not so much on this side of the Irish Sea. To Hibernian eyes, Punch of the Victorian era is remembered principally as an organ that portrayed Irishmen as pugnacious, drunken beasts. Two influential books by Perry Curtis - Anglo-Saxons and Celts (1968) and Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature (1971), are responsible for this perception, illustrating how in "othering" the Irishman, the English went so far as to simianise him.

Racist attitudes

But is this assessment simplistic? Certainly, Punch was at times ferociously unpleasant to the Irish. A rhyme from 1853, for instance, illustrates how anti-Irishness was informed by racist British attitudes in general: "Six foot PADDY, are you bigger/ You, whom cozening friars dish/ Mentally, than poorest nigger...You to SAMBO I compare/ Under superstition's rule/ Prostrate like an abject fool." And a fictitious report of 1861 indicates how Darwinism was indeed employed as a tool with which to dehumanise the Irish. It told of "A Grand Meeting of Yahoos", in which "Orations...full of sound and fury, were delivered by MR O'RANGOUTANG, MR G. O'RILLA, MR FITZCALIBAN and other eminent Yahoos, who gloated on the calamities which they anticipated for England."

By Punch's standards, however, these passages were extreme, and were printed at a time when Irish nationalism actually had become more violent. Paddy was not always caricatured as a simianised Fenian insurgent. Throughout the Victorian period, Ireland was often personified as a sturdy, firm jawed policeman, or as the sweet princess Hibernia or Erin, protecting the nation against its wilder elements. "The Lament of Erin", for instance, published in 1847, proclaimed: "The land of the gallant, warm-hearted, and grateful/ I once was esteem'd by the nations to be;/ Malignant, unthankful, cold-blooded, and hateful/ Were words never breathed with the mention of me."

A common caricature of the Irish was as children. "Peevish, fractious, squalling Ireland is a child suffering under protracted teething," Punch declared in 1853, while of Young Ireland it concluded: "If so young that, like an unweaned baby, it does nothing but kick and squail, and bend its little fists, and look blue in the face: the while BRITANNIA - placid, unmoved nurse - allows it to roar its little bellyful" (1847).

It is this portrayal of the Irish as infants, not as apes, which more tellingly reveals English attitudes - informed not by hatred, but by patronising ambivalence. If the Irish were deemed to possess all the bad qualities of a child - irrationality, bad-temper, excitability - they were regarded also as having all an infant's charming characteristics: they were funny, carefree and affectionate. "Tom Connor was a perfect specimen of the happy, careless, improvident class of Irishman who think it 'time enough to bid the devil good morrow when they meet him'," ran the introduction to one correspondent's tale of 1841.

"No Rollicking"

As for the Irishman's famed good spirits, one Punch reporter of 1876 actually felt disappointment upon arriving in the Emerald Isle: "There is no Rollicking. I have been all along expecting Rollicking everywhere, and I can't see a sign of it. I had expected the Waiters to be brimming over with fun. I anticipated mistakes at my meals which would not be immediately redeemed by such a sally of wit as would set set the table, that is, myself at the table, in a roar."

These kind of sarcastic sentiments were the corollary of the notion that the Irish were funny because they were stupid. Yet at other occasions, particularly in its political cartoons, Punch could display genuine sympathy towards Ireland. One cartoon of 1841, for instance, shows Britannia and Russia sitting over two tables, with maps of Ireland and Poland behind them respectively: "Brother, we are both in the wrong," says Britannia.

Yet the really misleading aspect of Curtis's thesis about Victorian caricature, as Roy Foster has pointed out, was that Punch wasn't just anti-Irish. It was pretty much anti-everything. It lampooned and denigrated the French, Germans, Italians, Yankees, atheists, socialists, anarchists, yokels, Darwinists, teetotallers, vegetarians, sabbatarians, anti-smokers, and, yes, loyalists. Its satirisation in 1847 of Orange marches shows that the English were baffled by loyal Ulstermen long before Ian Paisley.

Display of humility

And ultimately, in a display of humility, Punch was prepared even to ridicule its own prejudices. In concluding the 1876 serialisation "Happy Thoughts in Ireland", its correspondent was pleased to inform the readers, thus: "What I have not seen in Ireland:

"I have not seen any fighting. I have not seen any drunkenness. I have not been mistaken for a Middleman, and shot at from behind the hedge. I have not seen a wake. I have not seen a priest going through the village with horsewhip in his hand.

"I have not met with an uncivil Irishman. I have not seen anything resembling a 'swarm of beggars'. I have not, to my knowledge, met a Fenian. I have not met an out-and-out decided Home-Ruler.

"I did not have one single drop of rain for a whole fortnight, which included four days in Killarney. And I have never seen an Irishman, under any circumstances, in a hurry."