[Those curious about the history of the Victorian Web (which began before the WWW in another hypermedia environment) might be interested to learn that this document was one of the very first written specifically for what became this site by someone outside Brown University. (The materials on public health that Professor Wohl also contributed came from his previously published book [GPL].]

decorated initial 'D' uring the nineteenth century theories of race were advanced both by the scientific community and in the popular daily and periodical press. Even before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, the old concept of the great chain of being, marking the gradations of mankind, was being subjected to a new scientific racism. The "science "of phrenology purported to demonstrate that the structure of the skull, especially the jaw formation and facial angles, revealed the position of various races on the evolutionary scale, and a debate raged on whether there had been one creation for all mankind (monogenism) or several (polygenism). "To a large extent, the story of racial science in Britain between 1800 and 1850," Nancy Stepan writes "is the story of desperate efforts to rebut polygenism and the eventual acceptance of popular quasi-polygenist prejudices in the language of science" (30). Polygenists stressed the unequal nature of the various creations and this theory mingled with general evolutionary theories and concepts of arrested development to create an atmosphere congenial to racial stereotyping.

In much of the pseudo-scientific literature of the day the Irish were held to be inferior, an example of a lower evolutionary form, closer to the apes than their "superiors", the Anglo-Saxons . Cartoons in Punch portrayed the Irish as having bestial, ape-like or demonic features and the Irishman, (especially the political radical) was invariably given a long or prognathous jaw, the stigmata to the phrenologists of a lower evolutionary order, degeneracy, or criminality. Thus John Beddoe, who later became the President of the Anthropological Institute (1889-1891), wrote in his Races of Britain (1862) that all men of genius were orthognathous (less prominent jaw bones) while the Irish and the Welsh were prognathous and that the Celt was closely related to Cromagnon man, who, in turn, was linked, according to Beddoe, to the "Africanoid". The position of the Celt in Beddoe's "Index of Nigrescence" was very different from that of the Anglo-Saxon. These ideas were not confined to a lunatic fringe of the scientific community, for although they never won over the mainstream of British scientists they were disseminated broadly and it was even hinted that the Irish might be the elusive missing link! Certainly the "ape-like" Celt became something of an malevolent cliche of Victorian racism. Thus Charles Kingsley could write

I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw [in Ireland] . . . I don't believe they are our fault. . . . But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much. . . ." (Charles Kingsley in a letter to his wife, quoted in L.P. Curtis, Anglo-Saxons and Celts, p.84).

Even seemingly complimentary generalizations about the Irish national character could, in the Victorian context, be damaging to the Celt. Thus, following the work of Ernest Renan's La Poésie des Races Celtiques (1854), it was broadly argued that the Celt was poetic, light-hearted and imaginative, highly emotional, playful, passionate, and sentimental. But these were characteristics the Victorians also associated with children. Thus the Irish were "immature" and in need of guidance by others, more highly developed than themselves. Irish "emotion" was contrasted, unfavorably, with English "reason", Irish "femininity" with English "masculine" virtues, Irish "poetic" attributes with English "pragmatism". These were all arguments which conveniently supported British rule in Ireland.


L.P. Curtis, Anglo-Saxons and Celts: A Study of Anti-Irish Prejudice in Victorian England (1968).

L.P. Curtis, Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature (1971).

N. Stepan, The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain (1982)

S. Gilley, "English Attitudes to the Irish in England, 1789-1900", in C. Homes, ed., Immigrants and Minorities in British Society (1978:check)

N. Kirk, "Ethnicity, Class and Popular Toryism, 1850-1870", in K. Lunn, ed., Host, Immigrants and Minorities. Historical Responses to Newcomers in British Society, 1870-1914 (1980).

Last modified 1990