On last night’s episode of Downton Abbey, we heard the unfamiliar Catholic slur “left-footer.” Series creator Julian Fellowes—himself an occasional target of anti-Catholicism—has really outdone himself this time. Mackerel-snapper, sure. But left-footer? What could that possibly mean?
Hugh Cheape of the National Museums of Scotland offers an answer:
The saying turns on a traditional distinction between left- and right-handed spades in Irish agriculture. It has been used as a figure of speech and often, sadly, as a term of abuse to distinguish Protestants from Catholics: ‘He digs with the wrong foot.’
Most types of digging spade in Britain and Ireland have foot-rests at the top of their blades; two-sided spades have foot-rests on each side of the shaft and socket, while an older style of one-sided spade had only one. Two-sided spades may well have been introduced by the Protestant ‘planters’ in the sixteenth century. By the early nineteenth century specialised spade and shovel mills in the north of Ireland were producing vast numbers of two-sided spades which came to be universally used in Ulster and strongly identified with the province. One-sided spades with narrow blades and a foot-rest cut out of the side of the relatively larger wooden shaft continued in use in the south and west.
The rural population of Gaelic Ireland retained the Catholic faith and tended also to retain the one-sided spade and ‘dig with the wrong foot’. In fact, the two-sided spade of Ulster was generally used with the left foot whereas the one-sided spade tended to be used with the right foot. Instinctively, the ‘wrong foot’ of the Catholics has come to be thought of as the left foot. The figure of speech has now been extended to kicking with the wrong foot.
And so we lay another anti-Catholic charge to rest. Catholics do not worship Mary, do not profess “works-righteousness,” and above all do not dig with the left foot.