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  • Fiona Fennell

Can our Humour save the Nation?

A few weeks ago, I was cabbing it to a Free Speech rally when Pat Shortt came on the radio. His response to being asked how he copes with this new politically correct world was prescient - “luckily” he said, “my characters don’t know anything about it yet”. Indeed, with the arrival to our shores of COVID19, the walls of political corrected-ness seem to be tumbling down. We’ve been given a life lesson in the danger of restricting speech but thankfully, we’re exercising our free speech and particularly our humour to deal with the fall-out. Perhaps its timely to consider that when we restrict humour on grounds of social unacceptability, we have put something even greater at stake?


This article explores Irish humour as a function in society and argues that maybe we need to take it a lot more seriously.  


Humour as a social laxative


There is plenty of research that humour prevents panic and it certainly brings us closer together, even while apart. We’re a great nation to get behind a parody and aren’t a bit afraid to enter the highest chambers in the land to do so. “Gift Grub” took quite a literal approach in imagining Michael D with Liam Neeson of “Taken” fame. Our President found himself as the kidnap target; an unfortunate event not least at it coincided with him suffering from “a bad dose of the trots”.

Unlikely pairings are a clever device in humour, especially as they easily allow us to take a superior view of a powerful figure. Another example was the “The Savage Eye” portrayal of Joe Duffy in S&M gear. While Joe wasn’t amused, the majority of us were with the net effect of social bonding the nation.


Humour helps us make sense of ourselves


We enjoy the incongruity of Joe and the garb because of its incongruity. However, humour can also allow us to call out incongruity when needed like for example the current memes is of teenagers censoring their parents for going out. It’s good to laugh together during a lockdown but maybe the teenagers will have the last laugh because we now know what it feels like and might allow them greater freedom afterwards?


Interestingly, as a culture, we’re rated high both in Individuality (i.e. we identify more as individuals than as a collective) and in our Tolerance of Ambiguity (Hofstede). This suggests that we might both depend more than other nations on humour as a unifying force and are also more likely than average to use it in a highly creative way.


Commonly, we use humour to help us cope with cognitive dissonance. Indeed, we seem to do so quite spontaneously through our “legendary Irish wit”. For someone like Brendan Behan, it didn’t require weeks of soul-searching to come up lines like “if it were raining outside, the Irish would go out with forks”. Thanks, Brendan, for giving us permission to laugh while simultaneously admitting our collective uselessness.


However, the very fact that many of us remember Brendan in the first place also demonstrates the value of humour to preserve who we are and maybe what was positive about us in the past. It wasn’t all misery, even Angelas Ashes, even if it was just a few smacked arses to keep us amused?


Humour as truth serum


Humour can go a step beyond laughing at ourselves, it can also cause us to accept some harsh truths, including about ourselves. One of our best loved comedians, now gone to the big sound stage in the sky, was Niall Tobin. As he said himself, he had the privilege of “subverting the good taste of the nation” for many years. In so doing, he helped subvert not just our idea of what could be funny but persuaded us that this was potentially useful. By saying the unsayable about us to us, Niall breached the walls of indignation everywhere. Of course, he still claimed that the highest ones were in Dublin that said so maybe he was entirely equal in his treatment. Nevertheless, it is evident of the power of humour not just to entertain the masses but to unite us in “getting over ourselves” and our perceived differences. Humour depends on intuitive perception so it’s a wonderful tool to change minds without pesky reason getting in our way. We were all savage for jumbo breakfast rolls so just as well its only one pack of sausages each for now.


Humour wrestles the BIG questions


From gags about breakfast rolls to now, loo rolls, humour has liberated us but what is all this freedom for? A great band, The Dubliners, gave me an insight into this during a Late Late Show interview. On Gaybo asking them of the purpose of their nocturnal activities, they responded “pondering the Big Question s – like what beauty is, what truth is and where the f*** is Barney?”. Barney the banjo players and founder member was inclined to galavant as my mother would say. Tommy Tiernan is certainly not afraid to harness humour to philosophise on what it’s all about Alfie. His sketch theme “could the same God who made us have made the dinosaurs” comes to mind. Well Tommy, the TREX sadly has no weddings to play his accordion at now. It makes me wonder “could the same God who made us have made chickens….and avian flu?”. If this ever mutates to human transmissibility, then we really are to be going to need some of Flann’s toilet paper.


Humour as a catalyst for social change


If we can face ourselves honestly, we are afforded an opportunity to make some changes. This is why Gestalt therapy promotes humour as key for navigating uncertainty. We have a great tradition in using humour to deal with societal upheaval. There was no better man than Flann O’Brien (unless of course it is “the Brother”) to help us through an “Emergency”. In his Myles na Gopaleen guise, he spoke directly to the “the Plain People of Ireland” warning for example of the dangers of censorship.


I wonder what Flann would have made of our current crisis. While Pat Shortt’s characters are still too naive to be politically correct (thankfully) as we’d miss his version of Eminems “Stan” on the jacks and his brother Matthew in on top of him, way too much.  I suspect Flanns lads would abhor “social distancing” as “more of it” or, begob, a return to imperialistic etiquette. He’d no doubt approve though of the groundswell of home-grown and -filmed comedy, not to mention meme explosion, and the more anti-establishment, the better. His research bureau wouldn’t have spared the midnight oil either to churn out maybe some double-sided jacks’ paper, rushing the first batch “direach” to the Aras.  


Humour as a tool for political discourse in Ireland fell into the capable hands of Dermot Morgan at one point. He certainly held up a stark mirror to our political elite - sadly, a certain party is still like “a car without a chasis”. Perhaps if still with us though, he’d belt out an “Alsation once again” as a thumbs-up to the fast-forward reform of state services we’ve just witnessed? There’s no doubt we can change once we prioritise it.


Herein lies the main value that humour presents to us as Irish. It frees us to collectivise and be collectively truthful about ourselves during times of uncertainty. Although, Flann claimed he was “no longer an Irish person” but “simply a person”, maybe we are like him and singularly able to use humour as the catalyst to change ourselves.


For “ould Ireland” to survive the months ahead with dignity, the punchline is that humour will have a lot to do with it, so let’s celebrate and encourage that.  

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