Irish Characters

Introduction to Character Type | List of Plays | Up One Level

Introduction to Character Type

Irish characters represent one of the most prominent character groups in this collection. Appearing in nearly every play, Irish characters play key roles in the action and often serve as moral touchstones for the other figures in the plays. The abundance of Irish characters in this collection is certainly related to the fact that many of the playwrights examined are of Irish origin (including Bickerstaff, Clive, Goldsmith, Griffith, Kelly, Macklin, Murphy and the Sheridan family). Half a century after Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" (1729), English dramatists continued to support the Irish cause in comedic productions by offering nearly universally sympathetic portrayals of Irish characters. Of this vast group of figures, several subgroups can be identified: soldiers, servants, people associated with the theatre, negatively portrayed figures, and women.

Linguistically, several dialect tendencies appear in the majority of the Irish characters' speeches. Epithets of endearment ("honey", "my dear") are applied to friend and enemy alike. Expressions such as "I' faith", "Fait' and Trot'", "Augh", "at all, at all", "blood and oons", and "by Saint Patrick" recur, quickly identifying a character as Irish. Pronunciation is primarily presented orthographically; for instance, 's' becomes 'sh' ("shoul"), 'th' becomes 't' or 'd', vowels are shifted ("feyther" for "father")and 'w' replaces 'v'. This example from The Register Office encapsulates many of the trends : "My dear Honey, I am com'd to shee, if you have Commiserashon enough in your Bowelsh to a poor Irishman , to get him a Plaish...Upon my Shalwashon, Joy, d'ye see, I am fit for any Plaish alive! I have Strength and Bonesh enough in this Carcash of mine, to do all the Work in the World" (Reed 14). Grammatically, Irish characters deviate from standard English ("I am com'd"), but no general errors recur.

Brogue is occasionally commented upon in the play; many Irish characters deny having the brogue as it is seen as unfashionable and provincial. This is seen particularly in Garrick's The Irish Widow (1772) in which the Widow feigns a strong brogue to put off her aged suitor Whittle. His nephew comments on its "frighten[ing]" properties:

NEPHEW. You are an excellent mimic; assume but the character of your Irish female neighbour in the country, with which you astonish'd us so agreeably at Scarborough; you will frighten my Uncle into terms, and do that for us, which neither my love, nor your virtue, can accomplish without it.
WIDOW. Now for a trial---
(mimicking a strong brogue)
--- fait and trot, if you will be after bringing me before the old Gentleman, if he loves musick, I will trate his ears with a little of the brogue, and some dancing too into the bargain, if he loves capering ---O bless me! my heart fails me, and I am frighten'd out of my wits; I can never go thro' it (Garrick 15).

In Macklin's Love A-La-Mode (1759; published 1779) , the characters disagree over who has the brogue, and use this to determine which of them is intellectually superior. The dessicated Sir Archy Macsarcasm tells Sir Callaghan O'Brallaghan that he has no authority to discuss elevated topics given the "wicked jargon upon [his] tongue" (Macklin 16), to which the better-spoken Sir Callaghan replies that Sir Archy has such a Scottish brogue that he cannot understand English when Sir Callaghan speaks it. They are at the point of blows when Charlotte intervenes to remind them that they both speak beautiful English. The relationship of the brogue to the provincial and the poorly educated is seen in Bickerstaff's The Maid of the Mill (1765), in which Ralph's brogue (despite his Englishness) and poor vocabulary contrast with his educated sister Patty's beautiful speech. In an attempt to escape the stigma attached to her nationality, Mrs. O'Dogherty, of Macklin's The True-Born Irishman (1762), has changed her surname to Diggerty, and feigns an English accent, as demonstrated by the unusual orthography of her speech:

Mrs. Dig. Brother, I am veestly glad to see you.
Coun. Welcome from England, sister.
Mrs. Dig. I am imminsely obligated to you, brother.
Coun. I hope it answered your expectation, sister.
Mrs. Dig. Transcendantly.
Coun. I am glad it pleased you.
Mrs. Dig. Ravishingly.
Coun. Indeed!
Mrs. Dig. Beyond all degrees of compirison.
O'Dogh. O yes---beyond all degrees of compirison.
Mrs. Dig. Veest! imminse! extatic! I never knew life before---every thing there is high, tip top, the grand monde, the bun tun---and quite teesty (Macklin 20-21).

The play concludes with Mrs. Diggerty's reversion to her natural Irish speech, which is represented with standard orthography and diction. The True-Born Irishman's inversion of the usual orthographic pattern associated with a dialect representation is in keeping with its design to appeal to Irish audiences.

As discussed in the introduction to the "Military Characters", the Irish soldier is a recurrent stock character type, appearing in The Jealous Wife (1761), The West Indian (1771), The Natural Son (1784; published 1785), The Female Officer (published 1763), Love A-La-Mode, St. Patrick's Day (1775; published 1788), and The Brave-Hearted Irishman (1742; published 1754). Irish soldiers are honest, hearty fellows, and often play a central role in the resolution of the action. The suggestion that this is a stock character is reinforced by the soldiers' recurring names and ranks: they tend to be Captains (Jealous Wife, Brave-Hearted) or to be named O'Flaherty (West Indian, Natural Son). As noted in the introduction to the "Military Characters", the Irish soldier character type speaks with a military vocabulary, inserting battle terms into commonplace or romantic situations. Sir Callaghan O'Brallaghan does this in Love A-La-Mode:

Sir Callaghan. By the glory of a soldier I had rather be at her foot, than at the head of a regiment—and now she’s mine by all the rules of war—I have a right to lay her under contribution, for her kisses are lawful plunder (kisses her). O ye are a little tight creature –‘Pon honour her breath is as sweet as the sound of a trumpet (Macklin 28).

The Irish servant is another frequently-occurring stock character. Sometimes called Patrick (The Platonic Wife (1765)) and The Passive Husband (1798; published 1813)), this character is loyal to his master but is able to utter satirical asides. Likewise, in Cumberland's The Note of Hand (1774), the Irish tenant O'Connor MacCormuck feels obligated to come to Bath to acquaint his master of the financial calamities on his estate, but is free to comment upon his master's doings in town.

Irish characters are often associated with the (fictional) theatre, and play minor roles in productions that depict theatrical events. Irish characters speak out from the audience in The Manager in Distress (1780) and The Orators (1762), while Irish actors and stagehands are represented in An Occasional Prelude (1772), New Brooms! (1776), and The Apprentice (1756). The association of Irish characters with the theatre recalls the playwrights' frequent associations with Ireland, and, perhaps accurately, depicts the stage as being a common profession for Irish people.

Negatively-portrayed Irish characters include the only priests in the collection, Father Sullivan of The Walloons (1782; published 1813), who is a spy for France, and Father O'Donnovan of A Trip to Calais (1776; published 1778), who lives in France. The portrayal of these Catholic priests as bribable, deceitful characters undercuts the general depiction of Irishmen as honest and straightforward. The discrepancy between these portrayals is a sign of the rampant anti-Catholicism characteristic of the time period. Another negatively-portrayed Irish character is McShuffle, in The Oxonian in Town (1767; published 1770). This oafish, evil character is the only one in the play that speaks with an accent of any kind, causing a public outcry after the performance and published assurances that the play was not a slight against Ireland (Sondergard).

Finally, the Irish women of this collection are notable for their use of Standard English and their pleasant demeanours. The eponymous Irish Widow of Garrick's play, and Julia in Cumberland's The Sailor's Daughter (1804) speak with very little language variation and are considered extremely desirable women (save for the Widow's stint as a brogue-speaker). The lack of Irish expressions in the speech of these characters suggests that they have been very well-educated, but also that they are more refined than their male counterparts. The fact that both women marry English men (the Nephew and Captain Sentamour) is sustained by the superiority evoked by their near-Standard English.

The standard portrayal of the ubiquitous Irish character type as honest and pleasant (excluding the Catholic priests) suggests a desire of the London audiences to improve the lot of the Irish; this assumption is supported by the public outcry against McShuffle in The Oxonian in Town. However, this desire is undercut by the linguistic portrayal of the Irish brogue-speakers as boorish and uneducated. This negative linguistic profiling of the Irish is countered by very patriotic statements about the Irish:

Of all the husbands living, the Irishman’s the best,
With my fal, lal, &c.
No nation on the globe like him can stand the test,
With my fal, lal, &c.
The English they are drones, as plainly you may see;
But we’re all brisk and airy, and lively as a bee.
With my fal, lal, &c.
(Sheridan 18).

As its omnipresence throughout the collection suggests, the Irish character type was loved by audiences and playwrights alike.

Works Cited:

Garrick, David. The Irish Widow. London: T. Becket, 1772. Literature Online. 14 August 2008.

Macklin, Charles. Love A-La-Mode. 1779. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. 14 August 2008.

---. The True-Born Irishman. London: The Booksellers, 1783. Literature Online. 14 August 2008.

Sheridan, Thomas. The Brave-Hearted Irishman. 1754. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. 14 August 2008.

Sondergard, Sid. ‘George Colman, the Elder: April 15, 1732-August 14, 1794’. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 89: Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Dramatists, Third Series. Edited by Paula R. Backscheider, University of Rochester. The Gale Group, 1989. LiteratureResourceCenter. 14 August 2008.


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List of Plays

The Maid of the Mill (Bickerstaff)

The Maid of the Oaks (Burgoyne)

The Jealous Wife (Colman)

The Oxonian in Town (Colman)

An Occasional Prelude (Colman)

New Brooms! (Colman)

The Manager in Distress (Colman)

The West Indian (Cumberland)

The Note of Hand (Cumberland)

The Walloons (Cumberland)

The Natural Son (Cumberland)

The Sailor's Daughter (Cumberland)

The Passive Husband (Cumberland)

The Orators (Foote)

The Trial of Samuel Foote (Foote)

The Cozeners (Foote)

A Trip to Calais (Foote)

The Irish Widow (Garrick)

The School for Wives (Kelly)

The Female Officer (Kemble)

Love A-La-Mode (Macklin)

The True-Born Irishman (Macklin)

The Apprentice (Murphy)

The Register Office (Reed)

The Rivals (R.B. Sheridan)

St. Patrick's Day (R.B. Sheridan)

The Camp (R.B. Sheridan)

The Brave-Hearted Irishman (T. Sheridan)

The Platonic Wife (Griffith)

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©2008 Arden Hegele