How Carnival Row Draws on Irish Culture and History

Amazon Prime's Carnival Row is clearly a modern political allegory but it also draws from Irish culture and history to tell its story.

The following contains spoilers for Carnival Row.

Carnival Row’s allusions to America’s current racial injustice and anti-immigrant politics are fairly obvious, though still an interesting layer to the Victorian era-esque fantasy show. Allegories are more interesting when they’re not a neat one-for-one parallel, which the various fae peoples that populate the show help accomplish. But an added referential element adds to that complexity and grounds the show’s fantastical elements in specificity, while unfortunately perplexing some audience members and critics alike. Carnival Row borrows from multiple histories of Irish suffering, at the hands of America and the English, to create a rich culture and realistic portrait of oppression of the fae, especially the fairies. 

From the beginning, the Fae evoke Irish culture. Tirnanoc, the fae homeland, is an Anglicized version (god help them) of the Irish Tir na noch, which is rather fittingly the name of the supernatural world occupied by fairies, banshees and such. Almost every fairy we meet speaks with an Irish accent, or their attempt at one, with Tourmaline being a notable exception. Ireland’s Pagan and Celtic cultures are clearly drawn upon, including polytheism, hairstyles, and more open attitudes toward sexuality. While it’s still up for debate, some believe ancient Ireland had a matriarchal structure, or at least one more equitable than contemporary civilizations like Rome, which certainly lines up with Carnival Row’s depiction of women in Tirnanoc versus The Burgue. 

further reading: Carnival Row Review

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Fairy clothing involves Celtic themes and their writing (and that of the Fauns) consists of runes. While the runes shown in Carnival Row appear to look more like the Viking variety, the use of runes is likely a reference to Ogham, the Irish runic language. It’s also worth noting that even if the show creators were going for the Viking style, there were ties between Viking and Celtic peoples (Fae clothing could also be said to look Norse-influenced) as Vikings from present-day Norway and Denmark attacked and even settled in Ireland at various times from the 8th-11thcenturies, creating the Norse-Gaels. 

In Tirnanoc, we even see what appear to be standing stones, or merely reference to them, given the way Carnival Row’s timeline diverges from ours. Standing stones are Neolithic, man-made stones in Ireland and the UK. Unlike British standing stones, which resemble Stonehenge or the stones seen on Outlander, the stones in Tirnanoc look distinctly Irish, shorter (waist height or so), alone, and (in this case) covered in writing. Much like in Tirnanoc, one can find standing stones to this day throughout the Irish countryside.

The beautiful, ancient books that Vignette guards are a way of demonstrating that cultures considered “less than” can, in fact, have their own rich histories, as well as to evoke Britain’s continual cultural theft as an Imperial force. But it also calls to mind Irish treasures like the Book of Kells and other vibrant, hand-painted manuscripts that had to escape the crown’s sustained campaign to snuff out Irish history and culture. Much like the library Vignette guarded, the town of Kells and the abbey where the book was kept were destroyed, but luckily the book survived. Now housed at the library in Trinity College in Dublin, the Book of Kells dates back to 800 AD and is one of Ireland’s national treasures. 

Throughout Carnival Row, we see many Fae working as domestic servants and ironworkers, common professions for Irish immigrants in the US in the famine years of the 19thcentury. Even Phylo’s incursion into law enforcement, while likely selected for the mystery genre it brings to the show, nods to one of the industries the Irish cornered in America as soon as possible. The prophecy about Piety’s son, if true and interpreted correctly by Piety, speaks to another: politics. 

Another element of Irish history (both diasporic and Republican) that Carnival Row could easily draw from in its already-greenlit season 2 is organized crime. Dahlia, the leader of the Black Raven, has an ethnocentric, rebellious ethos to her organization that, when combined to her crew’s ability to move product, would make them a key to any resistance movement. Their brutality is sure to call to mind the (eventual) reputation of Whitey Bulger or the long-unspoken reputation of paramilitary organizations in Northern Ireland. 

further reading – Carnival Row: Breaking Down the Epic Worldbuilding

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Several reviews have referred to the practice of bringing Fae from occupied Tirnanoc to the Burgue for pay and several years of indentured servitude as a clumsy slavery metaphor, but in fact it’s a straightforward representation of the way many Irish found their way to the new world. The deadly boat trip Vignette takes is a clear reference to the famine ships of the early to mid-1800s, often referred to as coffin ships. These wooden sailing vessels brought starving Irish to the new world and away from a home where British rule guaranteed high death tolls and prevented the ability to accrue wealth, carry on their culture, or foster rebellion. The ships were a breeding ground for illness, packed beyond capacity, where the survival of the human freight was subject to a cost-benefit analysis, rather than any sort of morality. 

This is not a story of slavery, and in fact seems to have (mostly) gone out of its way to divorce race as we read it from the power structure within its storytelling. Unfortunately, Carnival Row plays fast and loose with its societal and racial categorizations, labels, and slurs, so while Sophie Longerbane tells the story of discrimination against her mother based on race, the concept doesn’t come up beyond that, even with other upper crust people of color in The Burgue. 

This is not to say Carnival Row is perfect, or to excuse other sloppy elements in the story, like the organized crime storyline that simply disappears midway through the season, or the show’s lack of commitment to its own understanding of racial justice – racial slurs are used in episode descriptions! But criticism that misunderstands which history the fairies draw upon isn’t seeing the whole picture and the fantastical world building that works best in Carnival Row largely does so because it’s built upon an existing framework of culture, history, and mythmaking well over a thousand years old.

Listen to our Carnival Row discussion on the Sci Fi Fidelity podcast:

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