By Lauren McCoy
Amazon’s flagship series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Powers has created a lot of controversy since it first debuted in early September. Yet within all this scandal, accusations that the series reproduces racial hierarchies that depict the Irish as biologically inferior have gone notably overlooked. More than discriminatory, these representations reveal troubling connections between anti-Irish sentiment and British fascism.
Proto-Hobbits and Famine Cosplay
Set a thousand years before the original series, the Harfoots (ancestral predecessors of the Hobbits) are the first in the franchise to take on an Irish accent. The depiction isn’t flattering. Where RP-speaking Elves are at the forefront of science and combat great evils, the Harfoots stumble through mud with twigs in their hair, stuffing themselves with berries in what some have called “famine cosplay”. Having not yet founded the Shire, the migratory Harfoots reside in raggedy camps, writing in a rudimentary form of pictographs and acting as the light-hearted interlude between more serious plotlines. With rosy cheeks and dirt under their fingernails, it is hard not to view the lovable Harfoots as undeveloped when compared to other fantasy races.
The parallels between the Harfoots and discriminatory Irish stereotypes are staggering. Irish people were seen as incapable of reasoning, whose mental deficiency was linked to superstition, alcoholism, and minimal emotional control. Much like the Harfoots, the Irish were depicted as dressing in filthy rags that suited their “naturally” pre-industrial character. In this view, the Irish lacked the discipline to work their way out of squalor, reducing them to a ‘child-like’ race unable to achieve civility without Britain’s colonial supervision. What’s more concerning is that these characteristics were considered hereditary – preventing the Irish from being seen as anything beyond “amusing savages”.
The Harfoots’ exaggerated Irish accent reproduces the stereotype of Irish simplicity. With research showing that accents are connected to judgments about social status, the show’s reliance on “Irishness” as a shorthand for “primitive” demonstrates the continued relevance of these discriminatory representations. The Harfoots’ Irish accent is especially suspicious when considering our favourite Hobbits spoke with British accents – creating a dangerous implication that as Harfoots “evolve” into sedentary farmers, they mature out of their Irish accent. The deliberate use of Irish accents reveals the deep hierarchy of whiteness that lay at the heart of Rings of Power, where Irish under-development is counter-opposed by English civility.
Anti-Irish British Fascism
While hibernophobic representations are well-established in British history, these ideas found a new life on the extreme right. Between 1920s and 1930s, British fascists revived anti-Irish sentiments as a point of radicalization for right-leaning conservatives, utilizing ideas of Irish inferiority to garner support for more extreme anti-immigration policies. These efforts were supported by groups like The International Fascist League (IFL), who in emphasizing British identity as heritable and rooted in whiteness, stoked fears of the Irish as a biological threat to the purity of the British race.
Following Britain’s failure to prevent Irish Independence, fascists capitalized on feelings of “national humiliation” to generate anxieties about Britain’s decaying political system and racial vitality. With Irish Independence posing a serious threat to images of Britain’s biological superiority, fears of an Independent Ireland became a gateway to radical anti-Semitic Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracies. Fascist parties like The Britons depicted Irish populations conspiring with Jews to establish a Communist state on Britain’s backdoor, reframing Irish nationalism as part of a global plot to overthrow English civilization.
In light of what was interpreted as Britain’s imperial decline, parties like the British Fascists and The British Union of Fascists positioned themselves as saviours of the empire. For the far-right, the firm hand of authoritarianism was essential to ensure imperial unity and protect the empire. Latching onto understandings of British imperialism as a “civilizing mission”, fascists added a moralistic dimension to their politics. Calls to re-conquer the Irish became tied not only to the reassertion of racial hierarchies, but to global stability itself. The power of their anti-Irish position was immense, appealing to mainstream British citizens by emphasizing British biological superiority and affirming their dedication to the empire.
Anti-Irish Sentiments on the Rise?
While the days of interwar fascism may seem far removed, recent signs indicate that anti-Irish sentiment may be on the rise yet again. From discrimination against Irish footballer to holiday parks blacklisting guests with Irish surnames, concerns of hibernophobic attitudes have prompted an anti-Irish discrimination motion as recently as 2019. In this context, the Harfoots make up one small piece in a larger pattern of anti-Irish sentiments.
It would be alarmist to suggest that Rings of Power is a sign of anti-Irish action to come. However, when we look at historic connections between Irish racism and British fascism, the fact that Irishness remains synonymous with “primitiveness” is worth interrogating. The Rings of Power reminds us of the power these representations hold – prompting us to look backwards, consider how they’ve been manipulated in the past, and question our own prejudices in the present.