Opinion

Thursday 21 August 2014

Why is it ok to be racist to the Irish Down Under?

Eoin Michael Hahessy

Published 09/05/2014 | 17:30

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The late Padraig Gaffney had been living in Australia for ten years Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones

"Drunk Paddy’s $500k flood of tears" screamed the headline, and the jokes were quick to follow.

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"Isn’t that what all ye Irish do down here?"

"Ah, ye Paddys always drinking or fighting."

No thought given to the fact that the headline was blatant racism - made OK because it was about the Irish.

The Age, one of Australia’s leading newspapers, was the offending masthead and the comments poured in:

“Is this a new style of journalism? Shall we expect titles like "Wogs bash WASPs in nightclub," said one comment. "Curry Munchers smell up bus," "Chinks buying up suburbs"?

Within a few hours the offending headline was changed.

Yet it was too late for Padraig Gaffney. The 29 year-old at the centre of that headline and the butt of incessant Australian national media jokes took his life on Thursday night.

Speaking on the day the news hit the headlines Gaffney said “this entire thing has ruined my life completely. I’ve spent 10 years in Australia trying to better myself and in the space of one night everything can be taken away from you.”

Gaffney, like thousands of young Irish men Down Under, worked on the sites.

A carpenter by trade, he flew with his girlfriend to Melbourne for a weekend and it would change his life.  He drank too much, he loosened a fire hydrant, he destroyed some floors of a hotel. Two actions undeserving of a national punch line.

Yet racism towards the Irish, cloaked in a smile, is extremely common Down Under.

It starts with your accent and progresses to your pronunciation. The Irish inability to express ‘th’ is a constant source of merriment.

Dubliner Susan Kelly (30) applying for a marketing role with a respected organisation was greeted by the laughing HR manager:

“I must tell you why I am laughing, my colleague said to me ‘don’t mention potatoes’.”

Susan replied: ‘I didn’t think my accent was that strong’. “It is," replied the laughing hyena.

Not something to cause you to flock to the barricades, but would it happen to a Chinese, an Indian, an Indonesian or even a French girl? Would a HR manager make rice jokes to an Asian?

The answer to all these is "no", because it is acceptable to be racist to the Irish Down Under.

Australia has developed a conscience towards its history and an acceptance of foreign cultures.

"We recognise Aboriginal people as rightful owners of this land" are common addendums at public events or on tv programmes.

Australia genuflects to its historic genocide. Yet despite this cultural leap, Australians still bump gormlessly into moments of racism.

One Irish man, Alan Joyce, heads up Australian’s national carrier Qantas. His nationality has been an easy target for vitriol.

Two years ago The Australian newspaper mocked Mr Joyce's accent in an article on the statements the airline's chief made in relation to an investigation into the engine explosion on an Airbus A380.

The Australian reported Mr Joyce as having said: ''Tiz too arly ter judge waaat dat issue is an' 'oy long it 'ill take ter be fixed … It cud be ahn issue wi' de casin' or it cud be an issue wi' de turbo-ines …''

An on the writer continued.

Four years ago Mr Joyce received the clearest signal that the Irish man was not welcome.

A typed letter, sent to his home, read in part: “It’s coming soon Paddy. You can’t even see it! The Unions will fight you … Qantas is our airline, started & staffed by Australians, not foreign filth like you."

"All your evil plans … will come back to you very swiftly, & kick you (sic) Irish FOREIGN ARSE out of the country,” the note continued.

Many in the Irish community Down Under brush blatant racism off as Australian mate-ish humor. A cultural misstep. A they're-only-trying-to-be-friends.

Such appeasement allows the Irish to be the butt of the joke, the international punch bag.

Tommy Tiernan, the cultural plasterer of Irish stereotypes, proclaimed Australia as the land where only the dregs of the Irish go.

True, we do ourselves no favours.

In Perth bulging Irish wallets are still shunned. Our reputation as wild tenants precedes us.

A tension between the Irish who come here to make a life, and those who desire to get the leg over, certainly exists down here. 

Every crass Irish headline solidifies our good-time Charlie stereotype, and it deepens the Australian pool for water cooler racism. 

White and jovial, with a fondness for a drink, we Paddy’s are easy targets.

Padraig Gaffney - lampooned as the poster boy for our global stereotype - snugly fit into that narrative. But its outcome sits awkwardly for all those involved.

Eoin Hahessy, University of Melbourne, flightofthecubs.com

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