Sunday 21 July 2019

The famous Irish sense of humour

Leprechaun costumes and general eejitry make us a bad joke, says Declan Lynch, but the worst thing is that we don't get it

Most mornings in Ireland, a slightly disturbing little ritual takes place, whereby the presenters of It Says In The Papers read out bits from the papers that seem funny to them.

Except they are not funny.

Which is not to say that there aren't occasionally funny things in the papers, perhaps written by the same people whose unfunny lines are being quoted. Nor can we expect much from Morning Ireland, a middle-of-the-road show with a largely unsophisticated audience. But in a country like Ireland, which is renowned for its sense of humour, this is perhaps an indicator -- by no means the only one, but a hint nonetheless -- that something is not quite right with that reputation of ours.

Admittedly, all countries probably have a certain stodginess in their mainstream comedy diet, but are we not supposed to be better than the rest? If, say, Woody Allen, or indeed any Jewish humourist of the last 100 years were to visit this country, and to sample the wit of the Irish in general, would they find much that is funny? Would they find anything at all?

Ah, yes, the famous Jewish sense of humour is quite like the famous Irish sense of humour, in that it is born of great darkness and persecution, but quite unlike the Irish version in that it is funny. I mean, in the history of Ireland, there has been one funny sitcom, called Father Ted. And even that was made in England. The Jewish people tend to turn out one of these most days before lunch.

There was one successful Irish satirical TV show called Hall's Pictorial Weekly, about which we reminisced fondly for decades after it had ceased, because apparently our TV talent couldn't think of anything funny about the public life of our country until The Savage Eye took up the challenge, about 40 years later. We had one funny radio show called Scrap Saturday, but it was stopped, and its star Dermot Morgan was effectively deported.

We have produced a few vaguely funny stand-ups comedians in recent years, though most of them went to private schools, which makes their humour deeply conservative. And they found no success until they got out of Ireland.

Away from the professional stage, we express our hilarious nature by turning up at international sporting events wearing leprechaun costumes. Again, we seem to think that this is funny, but it is not.

Mel Brooks's film The Producers is funny. Some lad putting on a stupid green costume and waving an inflatable pint of Guinness around in a carefree manner is not funny. Nor is it "mad", at least not in a good way. There is a word for it, though, and that word is "eejitry".

At eejitry, we are undoubtedly the best. At eejitry, we are the kings of the world. Indeed, if eejitry was actually funny, we'd be the funniest people who ever lived. But of course it is not, and we are not, much though it might seem that way to the fellows who start laughing at their own jokes long before the punchline, if indeed a punchline ever comes. And, like actual comedy, eejitry has myriad forms. It's not all Hector "keeping her lit", and Bill Cullen wanting to fly to the moon, and Derek Mooney putting on a Jedward mask on the Eurovision when he was reading out the results of the Irish jury.

Letters to the Irish Times, for example -- the "funny" ones -- are pure eejitry. Some of the unfunny ones can be lurking on the borderline too, but it is the short ones, from people who think they are being witty, which concern us here. For it is the essence of eejitry, to be unaware that your joke is not funny -- the main characteristic of the eejit being his lack of introspection.

Again we think of the Jewish people and their profound capacity for introspection, which is perhaps what leads ultimately to jokes that are funny, while the fellow with the cravat and the address in Sandycove is poncing around his local hostelry, chuckling at some pun that featured in his latest missive to the Old Lady. One that was so ingenious, it was actually read out on It Says In The Papers.

And I raise this particular strand of eejitry because it brings us to the difficult subject of Flann O'Brien. Undoubtedly "Myles" was a man of genius, with a suitably black vision. I would even say he was that rare thing, a funny Irish writer, except for this one nagging doubt -- the people who love him the most are precisely those eejits who write letters to the Irish Times. Which is not his fault, to be sure, but let us put it like this: we need to talk about Myles.

Likewise, we are told that the comedy in Joyce and Beckett is greatly underrated. But we are told this by literary critics and academics who have led, shall we say, sheltered lives. And while Brendan Behan had a more obvious sense of humour, one that would actually make you laugh now and again, he also contributed much to the eejitry of his race by encouraging the notion that great writing and alcoholism are roughly the same thing.

Oscar Wilde was undeniably great, in his Anglo-Irish way, the Irish in him perhaps sharpened by the Anglo. Yet we insist on seeing Wilde as some sort of a drawing-room fop, rather than the chillingly modern thinker who knew that that which we regard as serious is usually quite trivial, and that conventional wisdom is always wrong. And, ultimately, we prefer to see him as a man who made the wrong choices in the end, in truth, a bit of an eejit.

Apparently the lads in their leprechaun suits can identify with that. But there will always be a part of Wilde that remains inaccessible to them, a mystery they can never quite grasp, no matter how hard they try -- he was funny.

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