Guest Blog by H.E. Noel White, Ireland's Ambassador to Australia
It should come as no surprise that the media coverage of court proceedings involving the late Padraig Gaffney has provoked strong reaction within the Irish community, and, in the process, drawn attention to the impact of language used in relation to ethnic groups and nationalities.
Padraig Gaffney pleaded guilty in a Melbourne court on 6 May to causing criminal damage at a local hotel. He was fined A$10,000. The proceedings were reported in the online edition of The Age under the headline - subsequently removed - “Drunk Paddy in A$500k flood of tears”.
Padraig Gaffney died on 7 May.
The reaction has been a mix of shock, grief and dismay: shock and grief at a tragic loss of life; dismay at the casually offensive language, describing a young man who had expressed remorse and shame for his actions as just another “Drunk Paddy”.
The headline succeeds in simultaneously demeaning an individual and taking a swipe at an entire national group. It is disappointing that it was not removed through the appropriate editorial controls before it ever made it into the online edition.
Incidents such as this cause hurt. That hurt is all the greater when it happens in a country where Irish people feel at home. The Irish have been serious players in the Australian narrative since the time of European settlement. Alongside other ethnic groups and nationalities, Australians all, they have built its infrastructure, sustained its institutions, fought under its flag. Recently a new cohort of Irish has arrived; young, talented and hard-working, they bring with them skills and expertise which are highly valued in Australia.
This is not of course the first time that the Irish have been labelled in this way. In the past the Irish were conditioned to the ridicule of the "Irish joke". The caricature of the fighting, drinking, dissolute Irish, notoriously promulgated in the pages of Punch in the 19th century, while certainly less evident these days, has not been entirely eradicated. When it does occur, its impact is not diminished by familiarity.
References of the “Drunk Paddy” variety, when they arise, retain the capacity to stir bad memories. It is deeply upsetting to be described in these limited and negative terms.
The repeated use of such language over time leads to uncritical acceptance of a distorted national stereotype. It undermines the confidence and self-esteem of communities, including of the many children of Irish-born parents in Australia. The relevance of such hurtful insults extends beyond the upset it causes to one particular group of people. Equivalent stereotyping would be as offensive to any other nationality or ethnic group as it is to the Irish.
The Irish do well in Australia. They work hard. And, if nationalities can be characterised, they live life to the full, often with high spirits and good humour, characteristics they share with many others. Also like others, the Irish are not immune to the effect of offensive and insulting language.
In the course of its work, the embassy of Ireland is called upon to help with distressing and sensitive incidents. Regardless of the circumstances, we strive to deal with Irish citizens, and all those with whom we come in contact, with compassion. The Age and other media outlets have a right and a responsibility to report on distressing cases – but that reporting should also be informed by compassion.
The use of offensive language and belittling national stereotypes has no place in our modern discourse. It has no place in a sophisticated, multicultural society such as Australia. It demeans those to whom it refers and diminishes those who put it forward. There is a need for heightened awareness on all our parts, media and the public, of the impact of the language we use, along with sensitivity and care in how we use it.