Separating the wheat from the chav

After Irish President Mary McAleese made a somewhat undiplomatic remark about comparing Protestants to Nazis a few years ago, the protests which accompanied her visit to a school in a loyalist area of Coleraine were not totally unexpected.

There was the inevitable lively debate on Slugger O’Toole which inevitably turned into another “them ‘uns is worse than us ‘uns” style sectarian bun fight, but what struck me were the semi-humorous comments directed at the socio-economic background of the protesting parents – a selection of which I’ve reproduced below:

“I can picture the scene, buggies with weans in them (for the cameras) waving flags. Assorted hoop earings XL XXL XXXL for the “ladies” and “discreet” for the “gentlemen” Rings on all fingers and cheap fags hanging from the lips. Fake designer trakkies for both genders thought “muffin Tops” a must for the ladies and the obligitory peroxide multi-toned hair colour.”
“Beer-Bellied, hairy-arsed layabouts-and that was just the women. All that was missing was a pair of duelling banjos.”

Another urged them to “get their fat arses off their sofas and away from the eejits lantern and they’ll get a chance to breathe in some fresh air instead of the usual diet of tobacco smoke and stale pub air.”

Other commenters (most of whom I think it’s fair to assume are well-educated and from middle class backgrounds) referred to the protestors as “gutter runners”, “chavs” and “ugly trampy women” While such comments were made half-seriously and half in jest and I did find myself amused by some, they do make an important statement on how a certain section of society is perceived. The social sub-class to which the protestors apparently belong, is not of course confined to the Protestant/loyalist community. Simply swap the Rangers shirts and the union flags which were on display for Celtic shirts and tricolours (but retain the fake tans, fake designer sportswear, cigarettes, prominent tattoos and the inexpensive jewellery known as “Argos bling”) and you have the mirror image from the other side.   One only has to think of the Republican Sinn Féin idiot protesting outside Croke Park holding up a placard saying “No to foreign games” totally oblivious to the irony that he’s wearing a Celtic shirt. 

 One could argue however that the problem is more acute on the loyalist side which harbours a disenfranchised working class in a post-industrial society no longer able to get jobs in traditional industries such as shipbuilding and linen who feel deprived of a coherent voice – but that’s another debate altogether which I won’t go into at this point (but if anyone reading this would like to discuss the topic further I’d be happy to continue – in fact a more discerning commentator on Slugger articulates this view, referring to a social grouping who are “not aided by a lumpen-middle class (well represented I suspect on this board) who cling to the notion that their own outdated politics and prejudices are somehow more respectable that that of their working class co-religionists.”) 
Instead my thesis will explore within the wider context the phenomenon of one of the most demonised groups in contemporary western society, the white underclass.

It’s easy to indulge in snobbery and elitism where chavery is concerned – something which I, myself in all my smug middle class complacency, am guilty of to an extent. It’s also difficult to write about the subject without coming across as patronising, but there’s no point in pretending we have a classless society, when we quite blantly do.

Chavs, spides, skangers, trailer trash – ubiquitous throughout the English-speaking western world. Stereotypes mix with reality in a confusing mish-mash amidst the council estates of South London, Liverpool, Glasgow, Dublin, Limerick and many other large cities, dreary provincial towns and downmarket seaside resorts across these isles. It’s not hard to conjure up the negative images – rows of rundown houses, each one sprouting a satellite dish, the almost compulsory burnt mattress in the garden, heavily tattooed muscular midle-aged men in the mould of Johnny Adair sporting chunky gold jewellery and sportswear walking pit bull terriers or rottweilers on leads, overweight young mothers, Sporty Spice lookalikes, wearing low-necklined top revealing huge rose or butterfly tattoo on the upper breast area, wheeling pushchairs, the child inside often of mixed race (cf Kathy Burke’s Waynetta Slob character “I want a braaaahhhnnn bybie!”), large gangs of hooded youths drinking cheap cider, abandoned pubs boarded up with wooden planks, or in certain parts of Dublin, scrawny tracksuited boys astride half-starved, malnourished horses.

Such characters enjoy their fair share of representation in popular culture, partcularly as objects of comic derison.  On television think Little Britain’s Vicky “Yeah, but no but” Pollard, Catherine Tate’s Lauren “I ain’t bovvered” character, Harry Enfield and Kathy Burke as “the Slobs”, the dysfunctional Battersby family in Coronation Street, Cletus, the trailer park-dwelling redneck in The Simpsons and the exploited guests who appear on the human zoos disguised as trashy daytime shows like Oprah Winfrey or the odious Jeremy Kyle.  In the pages of Viz comic we have the Bacon family, the fat slags and Tasha Slapper and in contemporary literature the novels of Irvine Welsh and Roddy Doyle pull no punches when it comes to the depiction of disaffected working class communities.


This section of our society is all too easy to mock and ridicule – like the proverbial shooting fish in a barrel. Chav-baiting has almost become fashionable.  Ironically the members of this sub-group within so-called “working class” allegedly don’t work and are branded by the reactionery right wing press such as the Daily Mail in the UK and the Sunday Independent in Ireland as dole-ite welfare scroungers and chain-smoking, beer-guzzling couch potato layabouts who have no intention of earning an honest day’s crust.  Ethnic minorities, homosexuals and the disabled are all protected by political correctness, but the indigenous underclass is supposedly fair game for satire and ridicule.  Racism, sexism, ageism are all banned by a militantly PC society, but classism is still very much alive.

Is it all about income and financial status though?  Not neccessarily.  The emergence of the “celebrity chav” as popularised by Wayne Rooney and Colleen Mc Loughlin, Katie Price and Peter Andre and former Big Brother contestant Jade Goody indicates that money doesn’t automatically convey respectability or acceptance. 

Michael Collins in his excellent book The Likes of us, a history of the white British working class with a healthy sprinkling of humour provides a succinct summary of the situation:

“Traditionally, the white working class would take to the street only for the end of a war or the beginning of a sale, with the exception of the death of a princess. Naturally there were other exceptional occasions: Jarrow marchers, the dockers responding to the Powell furore, and in the 1980s, in Southwark, there was rumour of revolt when the call went out for the muzzling of Staffordshire bull terriers. But more recently within the working class, there were those women taking to the streets against paedophiles. There were the taxi-drivers protesting during the petrol price debacle, and the Billingsgate porters’ bid to reclaim the streets when they marched to oppose London’s congestion charge. Those who champion democracy, direct action and single-issue pressure groups were suddenly referring to many of these protesters as “mobs”, and even suggesting that the police be sent in to form a thin blue line. Then there was the more pressing concern of a growing support for the British National Party. In Slade Green a BNP member beat the Tory candidate to second place in a by-election. Behind this “protest” vote – as it has been described in the press – are working-class whites in poor areas who believe they have been neglected and ghettoised, their views ignored.”
The meaning of the term “working class” however has become somewhat ambiguous. Skilled trades such as plumbing, carpentry and plastering, all traditional working class blue collar occupations are now in similar (if not higher)  income brackets to white collar professions such as teaching and the civil service – and have thus effectively become “middle class”.  With a university education no longer a guarantee of a good job, it seems that more and more middle class parents are now encouraging their children to become plumbers and electricians rather than get themselves into thousands of pounds in debt and end up as low-paid office clerks or call centre workers.
The real underclass among the native white population of these isles are the welfare state generation – what we call the “working class” don’t actually work – much like the upper classes of the traditonal aristocracy who tended to inherit money rather than earn it, and thus had no need to work.
Society has come full circle.




  1. CW, I take the point you’re making, but I live in an area infested with loyalist spides, and I think it is worth pointing out that, not only do the stereotypes have a factual basis, but it is much harder to retain sympathy for a lot of these people when you live amongst them. Take my next door neighbours for instance. The woman of the house is obese, but pleasant enough to speak to, although the vomit inducing sight she comprises in her Linfield shorts might be said to offset her amiable personality. However the cast of ex-husband, boyfriend, father, son etc. spend each and every day sitting in some manner of gazebo which has been erected in (and now fills) the back yard. None of these people seem to work you understand, but they can afford the gazebo (which initially I assumed was being erected for a particular party or a wedding) and an array of expensive garden furniture. When the weather is good, they take to the outdoors at noon, striking up their music gently perhaps with Dolly Parton or Garth Brooks. As the day goes on and they get drunker they advance to flute band music, then to a selection of indescribable, mawkish loyalist ballads which praise various paramilitary organisations. Actually I managed to find on Google one of these masterpieces:

    “An Ulster Girl in heart and soul, I love our dear old land
    I honour those who in her cause lift voice or pen or hand
    And may I die before I see this land we fought to save
    In Rebel Hands and I at worst the mother of the slaves
    Through many bloody times of old, old Ulsters heart has bled
    But still she makes her enemy know her spirit has not fled
    God bless the men who for her sake their love and freedom gave
    God bless the mothers of these sons who nursed no cowardly slaves
    Chorus: The Ulster Girl is me, i’ll tell you honestly
    That i’d die to keep this land of ours still free
    And if we lost our freedom, my heart would break in two
    And if I couldn’t stay here I don’t know what i’d do

    God bless the men who make their stand, we’ve put them to the test
    I’d give to you all treasures grand, who served his country best
    And if he fails i’d rather lie beside him in the grave
    Than wed a meek apologist and be the mother of a slave

    The Ulster Girl is me, i’ll tell you honestly
    That i’d die to keep this land of ours still free
    That i’d die to keep this land of ours still free”
    They warble along drunkenly to such songs, which as you can imagine rather precludes my girlfriend and I enjoying our back garden on a sunny day. After a while they progress to a tape of Manchester United songs which seem actually to have been recorded by a group of drunks. In jest I maintain that I’m more offended by the Man Utd songs, but actually despite becoming desensitised to paramilitary symbols and songs from living where I do, it’s still rather shocking that people can sit listening to such things openly in their back gardens. I make no apologies for describing the politics of such people as unacceptable, if their musical choices actually represent their beliefs. I have rarely heard such sinister, sentimental, nationalist clap-trap.
    The men who alight around the house are also incapable of social niceties. If they’re out the front and you walk in your own front door, they can only manage to reply to a greeting with a grunt. Then there’s the filth of the streets around us. Everyone, practically everyone, who lives around us treats the street as a dustbin, despite the fact that they lovingly fill their own front gardens (which open directly unto the street) with every type of decoration, from little men in painted Rangers kits through to faux classical statuary.

    Anyway I’ve ranted enough, you get the picture.

  2. Yes, I get the picture , Chekov – and my sympathies go out to you! There’s plenty of scope for a PhD thesis there.
    The Ulster girl song seems remarkably tame though – I would have expected the more hardcore stuff of the “we’re up to our necks in fenian blood” variety.

    It can’t be pleasant on a summer’s evening listening to that sort of racket, but I suppose they’ll soon be due for their annual “cultural excursion” to Benidorm or Torremolinos to explore the great Moorish heritage of Andalucia and study the works of Lorca, Goya and Velasquez (or San Miguel, Corona and Mahou more like) no doubt (generously sponsored by the Department of Social Services), so you might at least get a couple of weeks’ peace before the bonfires go up.

  3. Actually the Ulster Girl song is one of the less explicit in terms of its endorsement of paramilitaries, it is a good example of the unbelievable crapness of the genre though. Lol. Bear in mind all these tunes are delivered in what I would describe as a Dominic Kirwan style! I actually find the ‘kick the pope’ stuff less insidious!

  4. I too have a blog post/short story about this! Will try to add it via facebook, just for the experience! Loved the reference to Finglas! Also I am SO impressed with your taste in vintage tv! See other comment.

    Can I put this here too (in honour of the vernacular term you left out – my own two ‘chavs’ – er sorry – i mean ‘gangstas!’ If not please remove url.

  5. PS – the “Finglas” reference was more of a reference to Tallaght where I once resided many moons ago, but I suppose there are a number of similar areas which fulfill the criteria!

  6. Very interesting post. The white non-working class is a feature of all European societies I have lived in, I can testify that variations on the type also live in Holland and Germany.
    I played for a Dutch football team for a couple of years as a way to meet the real people. In Holland football is the sport of the working class while middle class kids get pushed into hockey. The class distinction is not so clear at under age levels but once you are talking about recreational football clubs you generally do not get a big variety. At the club I played there was nobody who could speak English at any level which says a lot if you know Dutch people.
    Anyway I enjoyed my time in the club because I was allowed in as a foreigner. I wanted to find the real Dutch culture but what I found was not a lot different than the culture you describe. There were some great people but their taste in music was not soo different than The Ulster Girl shmaltz above. Dutch volk music is like German schlager with a drum machine and crap sentimental lyrics. At one party I remember three heavily pregnant women smoking and I started asking myself if this was really the best place to be hanging out.
    The classless society doesn’t exist anywhere as far as I can see.

  7. Aidan, I think the nearest thing to a classless society was the East European countries during the communist era. A nice idea in theory, but ultimately unworkable. Even now the social class division is much less apparent than in the West, but things are changing quickly. Your experience of the “real people” of Holland is certainly an interesting one – and demonstrates a clearly identifiable social pattern across northern Europe. It seems that a non-working underclass is inevitable in post-industrial society countries with generous welfare provision, where the incentive to get a job just isn’t there.

    Plenty of ideas for a sociology PhD there!

  8. Good day! I know this is kinda off topic nevertheless I’d figured I’d ask. Would you be interested in exchanging links or maybe guest authoring a blog article or vice-versa? My blog discusses a lot of the same subjects as yours and I believe we could greatly benefit from each other. If you might be interested feel free to send me an email. I look forward to hearing from you! Terrific blog by the way!

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