Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Maybe We've Been Laughing At You The Whole Time

There is a strong tradition in England of thinking of the Irish as subhuman
animals. Famously the Irish were drawn as gorillas or cave men by Punch magazine throughout much of the nineteenth century. This cartoon (right) is from that liberal politically correct bastion The Guardian and was drawn just last year! As Tacitus observed we can't help despising those we have wronged and the English wrongs in Ireland have been going strong for 800 years. A traditional response of colonised people has been to mock the oppressor with humour, irony and sarcasm. To my mind the three peoples who have developed the most acute use of humour as a rhetorical strategy are the Jews, African Americans and the Micks for analogous (but not identical) reasons.
I'm from Ulster which has traditionally been seen as a dour, rainy sort of place lacking in wit and jokes. But the hit TV show Derry Girls has suddenly wised the rest of the British Isles up to the fact that people from Northern Ireland are funny. Derry Girls's humour is a little bit too broad for my taste but it affords me an opportunity to point out that the vein of comedy runs very very deep in Ulster. When a girl brings her boyfriend home for the first time pretty much every sin can be forgiven except for "he doesn't have much of a sense of humour does he?" We'll never see that lad again. Ulster comedy is everywhere but it's usually so subtle that outsiders don't see it. It's a kind of cant or code switching that we can read but outsiders cannot. Slang and the accent help hide this demotic of deepest black comedy and in mixed company we often have to dumb down the meta in the discourse so that outsiders can get it. But once you start looking you'll see this ironic use of language everywhere. It's there in the plays of Brian Friel and Sam Hanna Bell. It's there in the comics of Garth Ennis. It's there in the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Sinead Morrissey, Ciaran Carson etc. It's there in the fiction of Robert McLiam Wilson, Bernard MacLaverty, Colin Bateman, Eoin McNamee and so on. 
I'm glad Derry Girls is a hit but it worries me a bit because now the secret is out the English are going to realise that actually we've been taking the piss out of them the whole time.