The Irish had earned a reputation in eighteenth-century England for drinking and fighting; numerous press reports attest to this and Irish men (and women) appeared in the London courts in fairly large numbers accused of riotous behavior, drunkenness and assault. The historian Peter King has shown that while the English courts weren’t prejudiced against the Irish per se they did tend to be more likely to find Irishmen guilty when they were charged with violent crimes – so this reputation (fair or otherwise) seems to have had a real impact in the criminal justice system.
In my own work on the summary courts of London I found considerable numbers of prosecutions for violence with most being settled between the warring parties or dismissed by the magistracy as trivial. However, it was quite often hard to work out why the fights had started in the first place. Sometimes, however, the newspapers are quite enlightening, as in this case from 1802.
Two men appeared before the sitting justice at Union Hall public office in May 1802 charged with riotous behavior. The men were not deemed to be serious offenders and were released on bail but the paper reported the circumstances. They had been arrested when brawling broke out in the Borough, around Gravel Lane on the previous Sunday night. Most of those involved were Irish and the cause of the trouble was reported as being ‘fermented by some women’.
The quarrel was over which part of Ireland was ‘most honourable’, Cork or Limerick. This was such a hot topic that the dispute spread to Deptford and as far as St. Giles (one of London’s most notorious ‘rookeries’ with a large Irish population). The paper did not record what the outcome was, nor what happened to the two brawlers who went to court. The Irish continued to be synonymous with drink and fighting throughout the nineteenth century, but from the 1840s they were characterized as paupers after the Famine, and then tainted by association with Fenian nationalism from the 1860s. It is fair to say that the Irish have been the butt of English humour and prejudice for centuries and this report, as neutral as it may seem, is one example of many that has helped to perpetuate this.
[from The Morning Chronicle , Tuesday, May 11, 1802]