Did you hear the one about the Irish wit?
The Irish are often credited for having a great sense of humour. But do we live up to our ancestors' reputation of being naturally witty? Karen Creed finds out
Published 01/04/2008 | 00:00
There is never a better time to rate a nation's humour than on April Fools Day. While in some countries it is the ultimate time to play a prank, some would say every day is a joke in Ireland, such is our inclination to make fun out of almost everything.
Practical jokes don't seem to be as elaborate as they once were, but it seems Irish humour is still strongly bound up with the 'crack' and the ability to laugh at ourselves. So much so, that in last year's Lonely Planet the Irish were praised for "a deliciously dark sense of humour" and for having the ability to find fun "in boom or bust times".
American native Katie Markese agrees with this interpretation of Irish humour. "I find Irish people are funny in a sarcastic or caustic kind of way and they are naturally funny, in that it's never forced and often unexpected." The PR executive, who has been living in Dublin for several years, has experienced first-hand that Irish jokes can often catch you off guard. "You can come across people that seem very softly spoken, and then bam, a zinger comes from them and you almost need a second to realise it before you laugh."
She believes the reason Irish humour works so well is because it is loosely based on either making fun of yourself or others: "Not necessarily in a mean way, but more like poking fun." The terms 'taking the piss' and 'slagged' have become part of Katie's vernacular, "because it seems to happen to me all the time".
Katie does not dismiss the notion that she may be an easy target for Irish jokes because of her nationality. "The past eight years haven't been exactly stellar for our global reputation. Also I have a few clients that love to make fun of how I pronounce things. They don't mind stopping a meeting to take the piss out of the Yankee!"
Despite a difference in culture Katie thinks Americans do 'get' most of the Irish jokes. "Americans see the Irish as very open but what they don't expect is that darker sense of humour that the Irish have." She admits the Americans are "an easy laugh" and they love the Irish so much it's almost an obsession.
"You could tell them they're fat, ugly and stupid, and they would giggle and thank you for your time."
While Katie is easily cracked up by Irish jokes, there are colloquial Irish sayings and pop-culture references that she does not understand. "That's probably a reality for ex-pats in any country. Things like Father Ted quotes, and even sometimes Gift Grub on Today FM goes over my head."
Italian photographer Barbara Corsico can relate to this. She admits that while it took time to appreciate Irish humour, she now enjoys being part of it.
"In the beginning when I moved here I wasn't speaking English very well and I was getting upset as I could not get the jokes and no one would explain the punchline. Now that I can understand the people, they are really funny, often without even trying to be."
While Irish humour is strongly associated with the pub or social gatherings, Barbara finds it refreshing to see jokes can be made in the Irish workplace also. "I had to do a photoshoot for a high-profile company where there were numerous important people. It was so nice when the people there started to make jokes as it just released the tension and instantly made everyone feel more comfortable. It is good to see that there is Irish humour all the time, and not just socially."
Having lived in Dublin for several years, Barbara notices some major differences between Irish and Italian humour. "Generally I find nearly all Irish people make jokes -- young or old, men and women -- while in Italy it is mainly young guys who are the centre of attention."
She says it is rare that you would find an older woman in Italy crack a joke, "whereas in Ireland women can be just as funny as the men". She also finds the tone of jokes differ in both countries. "In Italy sometimes people are very funny but they can take it too far. They can make too many jokes about a woman being fat and be very cruel. Italian jokes are also more often than not sexual. In Ireland if they joke about other people I find they are more respectful."
With Irish people long the butt of English jokes stereotyping them as backward and stupid, many Irish gags over the years have involved Englishmen as ideal fallguys for Irish quick wit. One epic series of Irish jokes revolves around the activities of an unlikely trio: Paddy the Englishman, Paddy the Irishman and Paddy the Scotsman. In the best of these, the Irishman walks a fine line between cunning and naiveté and always plays the live wire.
Irish comedian Karl Spain believes that this natural wit is still around, although there is "a bit of the pretend eejit also". Having performed to audiences worldwide, Karl finds most countries appreciate the Irish sense of humour, except for rural Australia where he says he is "not popular".
Despite this Karl thrives on performing abroad. "A lot of the time there are Irish people in the audience." While Karl is unsure if foreign people relate to his jokes because of the "Irishness" or funny material, he considers the best jokes are the ones that have a truthful ring to it. "There is of course a lot of taking the mickey also."
Despite mingling in the funniest of circles, Karl finds the most humorous people are not necessarily comedians. "I've a few friends who crack me up, especially after a few pints. And it's mostly when they are not trying to be funny."