WARNING ABOUT IRISH HUMOR, TABOOS, AND CENSORSHIP
In selecting examples of Irish humor we have tried to be edgy, but not
offensive, but consider the following:
CENSORSHIP FROM THE RIGHT: Blasphemy, Obscenity, Profanity, Swear
Words, Vulgarity, Mention of Body Parts, and Body Functions
CENSORSHIP FROM THE LEFT (POLITICAL CORRECTNESS): Age,
Disabilities, Gender, Ethnicity, Belief System, and all other marginalizations.
Ethnic humor tends to be in the vernacular. It is colloquial, and ungrammatical
and unpretentious, but it is also often “vulgar” because it is in the language of
the common people (compare “Vulgar Latin”).
We’ve tried not to use offensive examples, and we hope we have succeeded,
but remember that what is not offensive to one person might be very offensive
to another person. We apologize in advance if any of our examples are
Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy
Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy:
Des Bishop: “Irish Women are Always Freezing”:
Jason Byrne at the Apollo:
Louis CK “Saturday Night Live”:
Artemis Fowl is an Irish Rogue
The Irish Rogue is not a criminal, but he is very bright
and charismatic. And he is subversive.
Artemis Fowl is a typical Irish Rogue, in the tradition of
Christy Mahon in John Synge’s Playboy of the Western
World, Mr. Boyle in Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the
Paycock, of Finn MacCool in James Joyce’s Finnegans
Wake, and of Sebastian Dangerfield in J. P. Donleavy’s
The Ginger Man.
Jonathan Swift was even being a bit roguish when he
wrote “A Modest Proposal.”
Rogues are revered in Ireland, because it was the
Rogues who fought back when the English were taking
Rogues break rules and laws, but it is always for the
greater good, as when Artemis steals some fairy gold
to help rescue his father from the Russian mafia.
Rogues are entertaining and high spirited, and they
diffuse violence with their use of humor.
Although they are flirtatious, they seldom form any
lasting alliances with women.
Many rogues are linked to an aristocratic
figure, usually an Irish rebel chief, for
whom he risks his life.
The ‘rogue’ is articulate, good natured,
fun loving, and [exhibits an] irrepressible
Rogues tend to be imaginative and
resilient comic figures.
Neil Delamere at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival:
Chris Farley “Ten Best Moments”:
Will Farrell Accepting His “Mark Twain” Award:
Gallagher “The English Language”:
Kathy Griffin on the “Craig Ferguson Show”:
Rich Hall “Live at the Apollo”:
Bob Hope “The Secret Life of Bob Hope” on “Biography”:
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.
• 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
• 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.
• 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?”
• Based on this story, Martin Joos wrote a monograph entitled,
The Five Clocks describing the Frozen, Formal, Consultative,
Informal, and Intimate registers of language.
• County Mayo in the Gaeltacht is remote from
• 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
Kissing the Blarney Stone
• To kiss the Blarney stone you must climb to the top of Blarney
• 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
• 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,
• Or if the entire process is “a bit of the blarney.”
• Irishmen have the “gift of gab.”
• This comes from kissing the Blarney stone at Blarney Castle in
• 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.”
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.”
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)
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 “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.
• 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.
English Royalty in Ireland
• In 1171 Henry II and his Anglo-Norman knights
landed in Ireland and began the English domination
• 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.
The Battle of the Boyne, 1690
• In 1690, King William III defeated the Roman Catholic forces of
• 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.”
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
• Australia (in 1851, 30 % were Irish)
Australia as an Irish Penal
• 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
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
The Irish Revival
• Today, Gaelic is taught in Irish schools as a second
• Irish politicians are now expected to use a “cúpla
focal” (couple of Gaelic words) to revive their Celtic
• J. M. Synge, Sean O’Casey, James Joyce, W. B.
Yeats and the Trinity Theatre in Dublin are all
involved in the Irish revival.
• For example, Synge’s Playboy of the Western World,
and Joyce’s “The Dead” are about the revival.
The Irish have made very important
contributions to the field of humor
Here are just a few examples.
Jonathan Swift (né Dublin 1667)
• Swift detested vogue words, especially when
they crept into church.
• He said that young preachers use all the
modern terms of art, sham, banter, mob,
bubble, bully, cutting, shuffling and palming.
• Compare today’s William Safire, who has the
largest mail bag of the New York Times.
J. M. 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
• 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
• 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
• 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
– The Dubliners
– Finnegans Wake
• Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)
– Waiting for Godot
Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964)
– “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
BRENDAN GRACE: “IRISH HUMOUR”:
IRISH SENSE OF HUMOR: