Is anti-Irish racism still a problem? You can Bank on it

Is anti-Irish racism still a problem? You can Bank on it

Maureen McBride

In January 2019, American hip-hop singer Azealia Banks made headlines with a series of anti-Irish comments on social media following a row with Aer Lingus cabin crew on a flight from London to Dublin. Her initial comments, branding Irish women ‘ugly’, soon escalated into a rather bizarre anti-Irish rant which contained overt racializing language:

You lot are a bunch of prideful inbred leprechauns who have ZERO global influence and ZERO white privilege. The rest of the world’s white folk don’t want to associate with you lot at all and it’s because you are barbarians.

I’m happiest knowing the Irish are quarantined on an isle so they can continue to inbreed and keep their defective genes away from humanity.

Banks is no stranger to controversial statements. In 2016, she was dropped from her headline slot at a UK festival after making racist and homophobic remarks (again on social media) towards former One Direction singer Zain Malik. In this latest outburst, she once again faced accusations of racism, this time against Irish people. Engaging with various challenges to her comments, she responded to one online critic with ‘Don’t you all have a famine to go die in?’ a reference to the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1852, the tragic event in which one million people died of starvation and a further one million were displaced.

As undoubtedly offensive as these comments were, it is probably not the case that Banks holds deep-seated racially driven prejudice against Irish people. It could be that her outburst was simply another publicity seeking exercise during her tour of the UK and Ireland. Yet many people construed her comments as examples of anti-Irish racism and many termed it ‘hate speech’. Indeed, her statement about the Irish having ‘zero white privilege’ do actually demonstrate some insight into the complexity of racism which is so frequently constructed in binary, colour-coded terms. It was this comment in particular which sparked my attention on the incident, given my own personal and research interests in the question of anti-Irish racism. My research focuses specifically on Scotland, and I argue that the experiences of Irish Catholics illustrates why debates on what ‘counts’ as racism are often taking place on unhelpfully narrow terrain. This is particularly the case in Scotland, because it has contributed to a ‘no problem here’ narrative in which Scotland is presented as a nation free from racism, but these arguments also have wider resonance.

I recently completed my doctoral research on the phenomenon that is commonly referred to as ‘sectarianism’ in Scotland. Although the thesis was entitled ‘Rethinking Sectarianism’, the way in which the term is both conceptualised and popularly understood is so problematic that many would argue we should stop using it altogether. Part of the problem is that a ‘culture of equivalence’ tends to frame much of the political, media and public discourse, as well as the dominant academic work on the topic: ‘sectarianism’ is constructed as a problem of tensions between two ‘sides’ or ‘communities’: Protestants and Catholics. A history of unequal power relations in which the Irish Catholic minority experienced processes of racialisation, structural inequalities and overt discrimination tends to be overlooked or at best referred to as a ‘thing of the past’ with no reference to the legacy of inequality in contemporary society. I am from an Irish Catholic background and I grew up in Glasgow, so my personal and family experiences were undoubtedly a factor in drawing me towards this research. Yet growing up, I would never have considered my own experiences of anti-Irishness, or those of my ancestors, as a type of racism, nor indeed would most of my family of friends. I think that notions of what racism is are often very fixed. However, my research, which focused on the Irish Catholic experience in Scotland both historically and in the present day, brought me to the position that we should view sectarianism as a form of racism.

Yet historical research clearly demonstrates the presence of anti-Irish racism in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK, and in other places where Irish migrants settled, often in large numbers. Satnam Virdee’s book ‘’Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider’ (2014) revealed that Irish Catholics were, alongside Jews, Asians and those of Caribbean and African descent, occupied the position of ‘other’ in the British nation. Similarly, Garner (2009) contends that through colonial relations with Britain, the Irish were racialized, despite there being little visible difference sin skin colour or other physical characteristics. The Irish were frequently depicted as an ‘inferior race’, demonised in the media, stereotyped as violent and backwards, and accused of bringing disease and spreading criminality (Curtis 1984). Some of the language recently used by Azealia Banks to describe Irish people was not dissimilar to how Irish people were portrayed during the 19th and early 20th centuries, including in elite narratives.

The context of Britain’s colonial relationship with Ireland is too often overlooked, and this is a crucial omission, particularly in Scotland. In ‘No Problem Here: Understanding Racism in Scotland’ (2018), myself and co-editors attempted to address this gap. Through paying attention to a specific aspect of Scotland’s imperial past, several chapters in the collection reflect on the fact that the Irish Catholics were a racialized group subject to similar process of negative stereotyping and discrimination as faced by newer migrants today. This is not only missing in much of the academic work on ‘sectarianism’ in Scotland, it is also marginalised in racism studies because of the predominance of colour-coded understandings of racism. Yet an understanding of how Irish Catholics were racialized historically and de-racialized over time, though in various ways still occupying and experiencing a sense of ‘outsider status’, reveals how racism and racialisation changes over time.

Gilroy (2004) emphasises ‘white Britain’s’ struggle with the legacy of the British Empire in relation to immigrant populations, regardless of whether the ‘immigrant’ in question may be second or third generation. In the case of Scotland, where the Irish represented the largest immigration movement, those from Irish Catholic backgrounds may still experience a sense of exclusion generations later. This is something that I address in the empirical study undertaken for my PhD, which included in-depth interviews with people from Irish Catholic backgrounds in Scotland. Several of my research participants experienced anti-Irish sentiment on a frequent basis, including the type of derogatory language that sparked this debate. Many of them were aware that Catholics (most of whom, in Scotland, come from Irish backgrounds) still lagged behind on a range of socio-economic indicators. Some felt strongly that the term ‘sectarianism’ was not sufficient in capturing or understanding their experiences, particularly when it was their perceived nationality, as opposed to their religion, that often made them targets for abuse.

Yet although a minority defined anti-Irishness as a form of racism, something that they had very much internalised, in many cases they were reflective of whether their experiences could ‘count’ as racism. This was particularly the case when making comparisons with how more ‘visible’ minorities endure prejudice. As well as this, some found that they faced resistance when attempting to explain their experiences as racism: that it is taken less seriously. Some of the reactions to the recent claims by Neil Lennon – the former Celtic and Hibernian manager – that he is a victim of anti-Irish racism, would support the suggestion that anti-Irish racism is simply taken less seriously. Moreover, the fact that Call it Out, a campaign group against anti-Irish racism, were forced to find an alternative venue for a public meeting because the Church of Scotland venue they had initially booked received threats if the event was to go ahead, strongly suggests that anti-Irish racism is a problem Scotland has yet to fully face up to.

In short, these examples point to the need to further open up debates about racism and Scotland and, more broadly, what counts as racism. Rather than viewing racism as a singular, static phenomenon, it is crucial to be alive to the multiple racisms that exist, in Scotland and elsewhere. Racism takes different forms in different places and contexts, and changes over time. Irish Catholics in Scotland historically experienced similar forms of racism that Polish people and travelling communities currently endure, and the legacy of historical inequalities and discrimination must also be more fully explored. Azealia Banks’ comment about ‘white privilege’ reveals an awareness that it has in fact never been equally shared, and a challenge for sociologists working in this area is to explore these complexities in more depth.

Curtis, L. (1984) Nothing but the same old story: the roots of anti-Irish racism, London: Information on Ireland
Davidson, N., Liinpää, M., McBride, M, Virdee, S. (2018) No Problem Here: Understanding Racism in Scotland
Garner, S. (2009) ‘Ireland: from racism without “race” to racism without racists’. Radical History Review, 104, pp. 41–56
Gilroy, P. (2004) After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture, London: Routledge
Virdee, S. (2014) Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider, London: Palgrave Macmillan


Maureen McBride is a sociologist currently working as a Research Associate on the Children’s Neighbourhoods Scotland project, based at the University of Glasgow. She completed her ESRC-funded PhD, entitled ‘Rethinking Sectarianism in Scotland’, at the University of Glasgow in 2018. Maureen co-edited and contributed to No Problem Here: Understanding Racism in Scotland, a book published by Luath Press in January 2018. 

Image Credit: ‘Kill all Taigs’ slogan on the Glasgow HQ of Irish Republican group Cairde na hEireann Source: Cairde na hEirean