The Luck of the Irish in the Wizarding World

As March winds down to a close, hopefully lamb-like, the month’s traditional decorations of shamrocks and leprechauns begin to come down, and, causing much sadness in mint fans across America, McDonald’s stops selling Shamrock Shakes.  Before we say goodbye to the month of green beer and PBS marathons of Riverdance specials, let’s take a peek at the way in which the Hogwarts saga has, rather like St. Patrick’s Day activities in general, has both celebrated the Irish and reinforced stereotypes and assumptions.

Last year, in part of the run-up to the release of the Fantastic Beasts film, Pottermore included a detailed history of the North American Wizarding School, Ilvermorny. Part of this history, which shows very strong Tangled overtones, connects to Ireland, as the school’s founder, Isolt Sayre, comes to the New World from Ireland, fleeing her maniacal pureblood auntie, Gormlaith Gaunt. In making the school’s founder Irish, Rowling is perhaps making up for some less-than-flattering portrayals of the Irish over the course of Harry Potter’s adventures.

Though Hogwarts is certainly egalitarian (a term Rowling specifically employs in its description in the Pottermore piece), there is prejudice, even in a place with a diverse student body that includes Muggle-born students as well as those from a wide variety of national and ethnic backgrounds. The subtle use of Irish stock-character traits reveals that purebloods may not be the only ones guilty of stereotyping entire groups of people. Though jibes against Seamus Finnigan, Quidditch players, and leprechauns may seem to always be harmless and amusing, the way these characters are portrayed can also connect to the dark past of Ireland and the history of stereotyping its people

 

A Figure of Fun

Poll any group of Potter readers about their favorite funny moments in the novels and, chances are, a number of them will mention a guffaw-inducing scene with Seamus Finnigan, over-enthusiastic and careless Charms student. Fantasizing about scaring “me cousin Fergus” with his soon-to-be-gained Apparating prowess, Seamus, accidentally shoots water all over Professor Flitwick, and the soggy teacher sets him to writing lines, “I am a wizard, not a baboon brandishing a stick.” It mostly just seems funny, just another of Seamus’s goofs, which are almost their own genre in the films. Every movie, it seems, involves Seamus nearly blowing himself up. In some ways, those mild explosions are just comic relief, but they also smack of a certain derisive humor toward the token Irishman in the Gryffindor dorm. Even more, the fact that  Seamus must write, specifically, that he is not a baboon, also connects to another stereotype of the Irish. He could have to write “I am not a troll,” so why a baboon? It may just be a coincidence, since there is nice alliteration with “baboon” and “brandishing”; however, by choosing “baboon,” Rowling makes a connection, conscious or not, to “The British Army,” an old song that is also both humorous and darkly bitter, especially in its recent use in the musical The Bloody Irish (another March PBS favorite):

When I was young I used to beImage result for Irish flag
As fine a man as ever you’d see
Til the Prince of Wales he said to me:
“Come and join the British army”

Toora loora loora loo
They’re looking for monkeys up at the zoo
And says I: “If I had a face like you
I’d join the British army”

Not every reader will know the song, of course, nor make the connection, but it is an intriguing one, and hard to un-see once it is seen.

Even if the baboon is inadvertent, the frequent uses of Irish-flavored humor, from Seamus’s dialect to his fear of the family banshee, do come up more than once. At least, since they are underage, we don’t see Harry having to go down to the pub and make sure Seamus doesn’t fall in the ditch on the way home, though the Irish fans at the Quidditch World Cup are clearly the types we’d expect from movies and books. They are raucous, obviously drunk, but basically good tempered. Their mascots, the Leprechauns, are the embodiment of Irish expectations, from their sassy attitude to their money that isn’t real. It might be easy to attribute that quality of the gold to the frequent portrayal of Irishmen as perpetually broke and hopeful that someone else will be paying for the next round, but, more likely, the gold’s transience is just a connection to actual leprechaun myths , as well as a reminder of the dangers of gambling, since the gold becomes a plot device in the Ludo Bagman bookie sub-plot.

More obvious, however, is the use of the image of the Irishman as not just funny, but also likely to fight, especially if someone else did buy those extra rounds at the pub.

The Fightin’ Irish

There has long been a stereotype of the Irish as unusually pugnacious, as likely to pick a fight as to look at a person. Though scholars have sometimes tried to justify this view with socio-political and genetic studies of the Celtic warrior breeding and other theories, the bottom line is that it is often just a convenient stereotype, and it is one we see in the Wizarding World. While most sports fans can get pretty enthusiastic, Mr. Weasley is particularly concerned that he might have to go tell off the Irish who are partying loudly into the night, and the team mascot leprechauns both Image result for notre dame leprechaunemploy a  defiant (and dirty) hand gesture to the Bulgarians and get into fisticuffs with the Veela. Seamus, when he explains that his mother does not believe Harry’s story about Voldemort’s return, rapidly goes into fight mode, not just to defend his mother, whose intelligence Harry has questioned, but to prove his point about Harry’s untrustworthiness. Strangely, he does not use his wand, but, like a fighting Irishman, comes out swinging. Harry, the Englishman, grabs his wand, but Seamus, the Irishman, raises his fists, demonstrating both pugnaciousness and stupidity. A habit of solving problems with violence is not, of course, always bad: Seamus is a good man to have in a fight, as his role in the Battle of Hogwarts proves.

A Bit of An Apology, Perhaps?

Image result for ilvermornyIt’s entirely possible that none of the references to the Irish or stereotypes about them are intentional at all, but considering how careful Rowling has been to cast a positive light on the Emerald Isle in the lore of Ilvermorny, one has to wonder if there is not an effort to make up for something. Even the Morrigan, often depicted as a pretty terrifying creature/woman in Celtic mythology (check out Kevin Hearne’s delightful Iron Druid series for a less wholesome version of the Raven Goddess), gets a positive spin in the Ilvermorny mythos. The name Ilvermorny itself, Irish, like its founder, may be a bit of a mouthful, but it may also be part of grand apology for the way in which the Wizarding World has bought into the stock character of the bumbling, fighting Irishman. After all, by making Isolt a Gaunt who connects with a snake (a wonderful horned serpent), Rowling is also redeeming the house of Slytherin. Why shouldn’t she also be redeeming the folks down at the end of the bar downing the Guinness and spoiling for a fight?

In any case, we can hope for more Irish hints as the Fantastic Beasts story unfolds further with a character complement strangely similar to the founding members of Ilvermorny: three magical people and a no-maj. Maybe we’ll all need to grab a pint and just enjoy seeing how it goes.

 

Comments

  1. Brian Basore says:

    I made a bitter comment about the British abuse of the Irish back on your January 5, 2017, piece on “It’s Levi-O-sa!” Correction: the crude political cartoons were done in the 1860s. I have since read that the Sinn Fein, the violent folk in the cartoons, were based in the U. S., the only place immigrant Irish had some prosperity, and so could effectively organize in opposition to Great Britain. The historians I’ve been reading seem to agree that England’s Union with Ireland seemed like a good idea at the time but one both parties have suffered from ever since. (Bringing in anti-Catholic settlers was going to bring some balance to the situation, oh yeah.)

    Am I mistaken in remembering that the no-maj among the founders at Ilivermony was the wand maker? Can a Muggle make wands that work?

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks, Brian! Indeed, James (yes, another one) is a No-Maj, though he seems unusually gifted. I wonder if his contact with the magical world makes him more skilled, just as Jacob’s baking seems quite magical after he meets Newt and the girls?

  3. Brian Basore says:

    Do the books say whether Seamus is from Ulster or the Irish Republic? It makes a difference. C. S. “Jack” Lewis was from Ulster, and fit right in at Oxford. Seamus is a stage Irishman, so probably from the Republic area. Maybe he would have done better at Ilvermorny, with its Irish and American associations.

  4. Brian Basore says:

    Then again some of the most virulent letters in the British newspapers in the 1860s said the most primitive and numerous creatures in the London area were the Irish, so my question is probably pointless. Seamus may fit in at Hogwarts as well as his family does in England, if that’s where they lived.

  5. Lana Whited says:

    As the descendent of residents of County Galway, I thoroughly enjoyed this analysis. What a wonderful connection with March themes!

    And now for a spelling question: Is it me, Elizabeth, or are you putting an additional “i” in “Ilvermorny”?

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