Star Trek is well-known for creating positive representation of diverse characters, yet early Trek seems to have an odd prejudice against the Irish, with beloved Irish engineer Miles O’Brien not seeing most of his character development until Deep Space Nine. In fact, other than O’Brien, the three most notable Irish characters in Trek—Kevin Riley, Finnegan, and Brenna Odelll—are presented as stereotypes. It’s reminiscent of Darby O’Gill and the Little People and other media that created stock Irish stereotypes, with the men characterized as jokes and women as sex symbols. It is almost reflective of anti-Irish prejudice that many Irish immigrants faced during the mass immigration to America in the 1800s. The sexual double standard of these stereotypes is very interesting and deserves examination, especially so that this same lens can be used to create better intersectional representation.
Kevin Riley first appears in the episode “The Naked Time” as one of the crewmembers who undergoes emotional upheaval due to a strange substance infecting the crew via touch. While most of the crew have to deal with emotional issues that negatively impact them—Kirk distraught he cannot have a relationship with a woman due to his dedication to Starfleet, Chapel mourning that Spock will never return her affection, Spock emotionally affected to the point of crying and barely holding himself together as he wrestles with his inability to tell his mother he loves her—Riley’s reaction veers into comedy. He gets on the intercom and declares himself Captain, then orders ice cream for everyone before singing an Irish tune. Even the background music is a stereotypical joyous ditty straight out of many films prior to and concurrent with other series that featured drunk Irish men and ‘saucy’, aggressive Irish women.
A tempting hint of character redemption is revealed in what ended up being Riley’s final appearance, in “The Conscience of the King”. When one of Kirk’s old friends, Doctor Thomas Leighton, comes to him claiming that the leader of an acting troupe, Anton Karidian, is really Kodos the Executioner, who as governor of Tarsus IV, ordered the execution of half the population of the colony due to a famine, it is revealed Leighton, Kirk, and Riley are three of nine people who could positively identify Kodos, as they were three of the few survivors. When Riley hears about Leighton’s suspicion, he grabs a phaser and prepares to kill Karidian. Kirk has to slowly and calmly coax Riley into giving him the phaser rather than shooting Karidian. Riley is clearly unsettled by Leighton’s assertion and could possibly have shot Karidian if Kirk hadn’t been able to talk him down. An exploration of how Riley was emotionally affected by the events on Tarsus IV or letting him and Kirk bond over this shared trauma could have allowed Riley to develop into a more nuanced character whose lasting impact wasn’t singing “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” and ordering “ice cream for everybody!”
Still Kevin Riley may have come out better than Finnegan and Breanna Odell as there was an attempt to give him character depth, but it was one of many plot lines that never got expanded upon.
Much like Riley’s first appearance, Sean or Shaun Finnegan (spelling of his first name in Trek beta canon is inconsistent and he has no first name in the episode) is written as an Irish stereotype; a joking prankster who bullied Kirk during their time at Starfleet Academy. He could almost fit in with town bully Pony from Darby O’Gill and the Little People, their attitudes are so similar. The same ‘whimsical’ Irish tune that played for Riley during “Naked Time” plays as Finnegan badgers Kirk, mocking and laughing uproariously at him. Even with the later reveal that this is not the real Finnegan, but a robotic approximation based on Kirk’s memories of Finnegan, it is still striking how vindictive he comes across. As the real Finnegan never appears in TOS, the audience never gets to see if he matured since Starfleet Academy and he has yet to appear in any Trek series or movies afterwards.
Riley and Finnegan suffer from different issues than Brenna Odell, the daughter of the leader of the colony on Bringloid V. In her only appearance in Trek, TNG episode “Up the Long Ladder”, Odell is practically a checklist of stereotypes about Irish women – she’s brash, loud, opinionated, a cook, red haired, and even has an Irish brogue, regardless of the fact her forebears left Earth to settle on a new planet to start an agrarian colony nearly two hundred years ago, meaning she is several generations removed from Ireland!
When the Bringloidi colonists are transported up to the Enterprise-D, they accidentally set off safety features and Odell immediately snaps at Picard when he comes to check on them. She complains about how inhospitable Picard is being by making it hard for her to cook food for her fellow Bringloidi. Picard even treats this outburst with amusement, demeaning her clearly understandable frustration with trying to provide for her friends and family yet not being able to. Picard never even apologizes for not having someone show the Bringloidi how to use replicators, something they would not have encountered in their rejection of technology. Then when Riker shows up, Odell immediately begins flirting with him, using the excuse of ‘feet washing’ to express her sexual interest in him. While seeing a woman being sexually aware and initiating the sexual encounter could be progressive in other circumstances, the stereotype of ‘lusty Irish women’ makes Odell arguably an even worse representation of Irish people than Riley or Finnegan. Nor is she the only Irish stereotype in her family, her father is shown as a lusty drunk. Riley and Finnegan are never shown being either so it makes the characterization of Danilo Odell a step backwards.
Trek has created great representations of many nuanced, diverse characters, yet the two earliest live action series used many tropes about Irish people when writing the three first characters with explicit Irish heritage—Kevin Riley, Finnegan, and Brenna Odell. The two men are not taken seriously due to Riley’s most well-known scene being comedic in an otherwise serious episode and Finnegan being a prankster jerk via Kirk’s memories; and the lone woman, Brenna Odell, being a tally of stereotypes about Irish women while also being another Riker one-shot love interest. Miles O’Brien did become a beloved character with nuance and interesting plotlines, but most of that happened in DS9, making his three predecessors look even worse by comparison. Colm Meaney himself deserves some of the credit for that, pushing back against Irish stereotyping in DS9 scripts like “If Wishes Were Horses.” The gender double standard of these portrayals in particular is worth examining to allow Trek to present better intersectional representation for women regardless of ethnicity or species.