Humorous Aspects of the Irish Language & Culture Don L. F. Nilsen
Irish Humor • “Since Irish humor developed out of the oral tradition (the telling of jokes and stories in Irish pubs), it is very epiphenal in nature. • Like Jewish humor, Irish humor developed out of pain and tragedy that came from the Irish diaspora. • Irish humor, like Jewish humor, contains much wordplay, and like Jewish humor, much of Irish wordplay is bilingual and/or bicultural, relating to both the Gaelic/Celtic and to the English language and culture. • There are many Irish people around the world who are trying to reestablish their roots, and it is the humor in Irish written and oral literature that is helping them do so.”
Irish Logic • The Ballyhough railway station had two clocks that disagreed with each other by six minutes. • An irate traveler asked a porter what was the use of having two clocks if they didn’t tell the same time. • The porter replied, “And what would we be wanting with two clocks if they told the same time?” (McCrum 170) • Based on this story, Martin Joos wrote a monograph entitled, The Five Clocks describing the Frozen, Formal, Consultative, Informal, and Intimate registers of language.
Irish Folklore • County Mayo in the Gaeltacht is remote from tourism. • “There are the remains of prehistoric forests and fairy mounds in the peat-bogs. • People talk of ancestors as if they were neighbors, and of three-hundred-year-old events as if they happened yesterday.” • (McCrum 177)
Kissing the Blarney Stone • To kiss the Blarney stone you must climb to the top of Blarney Castle. • In order to kiss the Blarney stone, the visitor has to lie on his back and be lowered head downwards over the edge of the wall. • Someone has to hold onto the ankles of the visitor so that they won’t slip off the edge of the castle. • It’s hard to know whether kissing the stone gives someone the gift of elegance, • Of if the entire process is “a bit of the blarney.” • (McCrum 172)
Irish Blarney • Irishmen have the “gift of gab.” • This comes from kissing the Blarney stone at Blarney Castle in County Cork. • It is said that Queen Elizabeth tried to get Cormac MacCarthymore (occupier of Blarney Castle at the time) to surrender his castle to the English. • He said he would do so, but he kept giving her reasons that he couldn’t do it yet. • The queen is said to have exclaimed, “It’s all Blarney—he says he will do it, but he never means to do what he says.” • (McCrum 171)
An “Irish Talker” • Terry Wogan on BBC is an “Irish Talker.” • His language is mocking and self-deprecating. He plays with words, attacks his superiors, and “gets his boot in.” • “You could accuse him of really saying very little, which again is very Irish.” • (McCrum 207)
Irish words in English • Banshee (fairy woman) comes from “bean” (woman) and “sí” (fairy) • Keening (wailing) comes from “caoine” (wail) • Galore (much) • Brogue (wooden shoe). The Irish were said to speak with a shoe in their mouth, hence, their “Irish Brogue.” • Sheila & youse are both Irish words. • “Shenanigan” comes from “sionnachuighim” (I play tricks) • “Smithereens” comes from “smideirin” (a small fragment) • “Shanty” comes from “sean-tigh” (old house) • (McCrum 178, 184, 188, 194, 203)
More Irish Influence • The Irish use “shall” for “will” • They say “seen” for “saw” • and “She is in the school.” • and “belave, jine, and applesass” instead of “believe,” “join,” and “applesauce.” • And “tree” “airly” and “dat” for “three” “early” and “that” • And the Irish “youse” is typical in the speech of Irish cops in New York and Boston. (McCrum 202)
Scouse • Many people from Dublin moved to Liverpool in England • The Irish accent of Liverpool is known as Scouse and it has an adenoidal quality and many rising inflections. • Scouse is the dialect of The Beatles. • (McCrum 205)
English Royalty in Ireland • In 1171 Henry II and his Anglo-Norman knights landed in Ireland and began the English domination of Ireland. • Anne, Elizabeth I, Oliver Cromwell & James I all imposed English rule over Ireland. • Satirist Alexander Pope wrote: • Here thou, great Anna! Whom three realms obey, • Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes Tea. • (McCrum 172-173, 181)
The Battle of the Boyne, 1690 • In 1690, King William III defeated the Roman Catholic forces of old Ireland. • This gave victory to the Orange over the Green. • After this, the Anglo-Irish ruling class developed. It was known as the “ascendency.” • The “Republicans” were not part of the “ascendency” because they believed in the “Republic of Ireland.” • But the Irish Catholics still use the city name of Derry instead of using the protestant name of Londonderry, as in the song entitled “Londonderry Aire.” • (McCrum 174)
Irish Settlements in the “New World” • Newfoundland, Canada (the earliest settlement) • Barbados, Carribean (Oliver Cromwell used it as an internment camp for prisoners taken during his battles in Ireland) • Montserrat, was known as “the emerald isle of the Caribbean.” • Australia (in 1851, 30 % were Irish) • (McCrum 191-193)
Australia as an Irish Penal Colony • One Irish convict girl is said to have served her statutory seven years and returned to Dublin. • But she then committed another crime in order to return to Australia at the government’s expense. (McCrum 193)
The Irish Potato Famine • Potatoes were the staple of the Irish diet, and the potato crops failed for several years. • Hunger and hardship drove the Irish into exile. They fled their homes by the millions. • They went to England, Australia & the U.S.
The Irish children who stayed in Ireland were mocked and humiliated if they spoke Gaelic. • They were punished with wooden gags. • They were forced to wear weekly tally sticks with notches for every Gaelic expression. • At the end of the week, the schoolmaster would tally the notches and administer the appropriate punishment. (McCrum 196)
The Irish Revival • Today, Gaelic is taught in Irish schools as a second language. • Irish politicians are now expected to use a “cúpla focal” (couple of Gaelic words) to revive their Celtic past. • J. M. Synge, Sean O’Casey, James Joyce, W. B. Yeats and the Trinity Theatre in Dublin are all involved in the Irish revival. (McCrum 197) • For example, Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, and Joyce’s “The Dead” are about the revival.
Synge & the Irish Revival • To make Playboy of the Western World authentic, Synge would listen at a chink in the floor of the old Wicklow house and eavesdrop on what was being said by the servant girls in the kitchen. • Following is a synopses of the story: • Christy Mahon, A Connaught man, killed his father with a blow of a spade, and then fled to an Aran island and threw himself on the mercy of the natives.
Christy was a “rogue.” Even though a reward was offered for his capture, the natives on the island hid him in a hole and he was later shipped to America. • But as the play goes on, the audience comes to realize that the whole story is a bit of the blarney, and the speech of Christy, Pegeen, and the Widow Quin become emblematic of Irish exaggeration and story telling. • In fact, Christy’s father turns out to be alive, but the Widow Quin, who is so involved in the story, makes out that the father is mad for claiming that Christy is his son. (McCrum 199)
James Joyce • The character Shem in Finnegans Wake takes the English language and “smashes it up into smithereens, and hands it back and says: This is our revenge.” Shem boasts that he will • “wipe alley english spooker, or multiphoniaksically spuking off the face of the erse.” • James Joyce remarked that if Dublin were ever destroyed, it could be recreated from the pages of his fiction. • (McCrum 200-201)
Jonathan Swift (né Dublin 1667) • Swift “detested vogue words, especially when they crept into church. • Young preachers, he says, ‘use all the modern terms of art, sham, banter, mob, bubble, bully, cutting, shuffling and palming.’” (McCrum 134) • Cf today’s William Safire, who has the largest mail bag of the New York Times.
Irish Authors • Edmund Spenser (c1554-1599) • The Faerie Queene • Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) • Gulliver’s Travels • A Modest Proposal • William Congreve (1670-1729) • The Way of the World • Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) • The Rivals • Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) • The Importance of Being Earnest • The Picture of Dorian Gray
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) • Treasury of Irish Poetry • J. M. Synge (1871-1909) • Playboy of the Western World • George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) • Pygmalion My Fair Lady • James Joyce (1882-1941) • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man • Ulysses • The Dubliners • Finnegans Wake • Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) • Waiting for Godot Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) • “A Good Man is Hard to Find” • (McCrum 170, 179, 200)
Related Materials *CELTIC HUMOR: What lies beneath the Scottish kilt? http://www.youtube.com/watch_popup?v=MZ35SOU9HTM *BRENDAN GRACE: “IRISH HUMOUR”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DT0FFSlF5_w *IRISH SOBRIETY TEST: http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=u_37A8vbmK8