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Irish Hilarity

By Estelle Shanley

My intent here is to define Irish humor as something that makes you laugh or smile and I am loathe to intellectualize it. In fairness it’s not possible in this space to analyze the entire history of Irish hilarity. It involves a mix of graveyard humor, mockery, the celebration of calamity, the farcical, the curses,  comic damnation, satanic laughter, and always present the profane tangled with the sacred. All of it honed somehow to a fine art. Nevertheless, the language can be barbarous, outrageous, exaggerated and often ludicrous. I will be quoting both the written and the spoken word. This requires the reader not to be squeamish about bad language or blasphemy. Ireland after all is a socially and religously conservative country and a favorable climate for comic rebellion.

Trust the writer, it is not easy, if even possible to analyze  precisely the entire history of Irish hilarity. We take much for granted. For example we go along with the notion that statuary in the city of Dublin translates into a target for mockery, scornful, or affectionate. In Joyce’s book Dubliners, two of the three statues that appear are derided, and, in the last thirty years monuments have been raised to Anna Livia symbolising Dublin’s Liffey river, to Molly Malone of the song, to a down-counting millennial clock and let’s not forget two women shoppers. Each has earned a more or less  disdainful nickname respectively.

Let’s name them: the floozie in the jacuzzi, the tart with the cart, the box in the docks, the chime in the slime and the hags with the bags. Incidently, the new statue to joyce, has been named the prick with the shtick! Even Seamius Heaney is involved.  When rewarded with his own statue, a bench, it is alleged that  sometimes he sat on it and wondered who made love on it, and who pissed on it! In-Finnegans’ Wake Joyce twice satirized the Lord’s prayer. It is reported that as late as 1980 several vignettes in French were said to be the work of Oscar Wilde who was dying. This is what he penned.

Jesus raised the already  putrefying Lazarus from the dead. And later that same day he beheld Lazarus close by and inquired “how is it that returned to life, I do not find you smiling?” Lazarus replied: “why did you lie to us, Jesus, about the afterlife? I’ve been there. I know about it. There’s nothing! “I know, said Jesus, “but please don’t tell anybody.” Back in the day blasphemy in Ireland and even today is utilized as a variant form of satire especially in a nation of once strong believers. Austin Clarke’s poetic drama “The Son of Learning” was highly respected  when he changed the act of contrition to the act of nutrition! Another example of blashpemy comes from Joyce contained in the his book  Ulysses , and I quote here the parody of the apostles creed:

They believe in Rod, the Scourger Almighty, creator of hell upon earth, and in Jacky Tar, the son of a gun, who was conceived of the unholy boast, born of the fighting navy suffered under rump and dozen, was scarified, flayed and curried, yelled like bloody hell, the third day he arose again from the bed, steering into Heaven, sitteth on his beamend till further orders whence he shall come to drudge for a living and be paid. 

There is now less fear of such satire, and the Gibson’s passion movie entitled the Jesus-Chain Saw Massacre! May be proof that nothing is too sacred to escape the mockery of Irish laughter. Meanwhile, Protestantism in Irish Catholic eyes was a straight forward affair with its Lutheranism, Calvinism and Zwingliism. It was entwined in the reality that Henry 5th wanted a new wife. A gaelic poem,  written by a priest in the 17th century and later mischievously translated by Brendan Behan:

Don’t speak of the alien minister

Nor his church without meaning or faith.

For the foundatin stones of his temple

Are the balls of King HenryVIII

Brendan Behan arrived in the United States in 1962 and was invited to appear on the Tonight Show, which was live in those days. Host Jack Paar was ill  and at the last minute his place was taken by Arlene Francis who knew little about her guest. She inquired what he would talk about, and Behan replied: “sexual experimentation”. Observing her extreme nervousness, he added ”as far as I’m concerned, anything goes———so long as it doesn’t frighten the horses.”