D. J. O’Donoghue, sel., The Humour of Ireland ([1894])

[ Bibl. details: [D. J. O’Donoghue, sel., The Humour of Ireland [Humour Series, ed. W. H. Dircks] (London & Newcastle-on-Tyne: The Walter Scott Publ. Co. [1894]), 434pp., illustrations by Oliver Paque; Biographical Index [423]-32; Notes [433]-34; Endpapers incl. notice of W. B. Yeats Irish Fairy and Folk Tales, sel. & ed., with an Introduction; with 12 full-age ills. by James Torrence. ]

That the Irish people have a wide reputation for wit and humour is a fact which will not be disputed. Irish humour is no recent growth, as may be seen by the folk-lore, the proverbs, and the other traditional matter of the country. It is one of Ireland’s ancient characteristics, as some of its untranslated early literature would conclusively prove. The curious twelfth-century story of “The Vision of McConglinne" is a sample of this early Celtic humour. As the melancholy side of older Celtic literature has been more often emphasised and referred to, it is usually thought that the most striking features of that literature is its sadness. The proverbs, some of which are very ancient, are characteristic enough to show that the early Irish were of a naturally joyous turn, as a primitive people should be, for sadness generally comes with civilisation and knowledge; and the fragments of folk-lore that have so far been rescued impress us with the idea that its originators were homely, cheerful, and mirthful. The proverbs are so numerous and excellent that a good collection of them would be very valuable - yet to judge by Ray’s large volume, devoted to those of many nations, Ireland lacks wise sayings of this kind. He only quotes seven, some of which are wretched local phrases, and not Irish at all. The early humour of the Irish Celts is amusing in conception and in expression, and, when it is soured into satire, frequently of marvellous power and efficacy.

Those who possessed the gift of saying galling things were much dreaded, and it is not absolutely surprising that Aengus [xi] O’Daly and other satirists met with a retribution from those whom they had rendered wild with rage. In the early native literature the Saxon of course. came in for his share of ridicule and scorn; but there is much less of it than might have been fairly expected, and if the bards railed at the invader, they quite as often assailed their own countrymen. One reason for the undoubted existence of a belief that the old Celts had little or no humour is that the reading of Irish history suggests it, and people may perhaps be forgiven for presuming it to be impossible to preserve humour under - the doleful circumstances recorded by historians. And indeed if there was little to laugh at even before the English invasion, there was assuredly less after it. Life suddenly became tragic for the bards and the jesters. In place of the primitive amusements, the elementary pranks of the first ages, more serlotis matters were forced upon their attention, but appearances notwithstanding, the humorist thrived, and probably improved in the gloom overcasting the country; at any rate the innate good humour of the Irish refused to be completely stifled or restricted. Personalities were not the most popular subjects for ridicule, and the most detested characters, though often attacked in real earnest, were not the favourite themes with the wits. Cromwell’s name suggested a curse rather than a joke, and it is only your modernsyour Downeys and Frenches-who make a jest of him.

It being impossible to define humour or wit exactly, it is hardly wise to add another to the many failures attached to the attempt. But Irish humour, properly speaking, is, one may venture to say, more imaginative than any other. And it is probably less ill-natured than that of any other nation, though the Irish have a special aptness in the saying of things that wound, and the most illiterate of Irish peasants can put more scorn into a retort than the most highly educated of another race. There is sometimes a half-pathetic strain in the best Irish humorous writers, and just as in their saddest moments the people are inclined to joke, so in many writings where pathos predominates, the native humour gleams. If true Irish humour is not easily defined with precision, it is at least easily recognisable, there is so much buoyancy and movement in it, and usually so much expansion of heart. An eminent French [xii] writer described humour as a fusion of smiles and tears [note], but clearly that defines only one kind, and there are many varieties, almost as many, one might say, as there are humorists. The distinguishing between wit and humour is not so simple a matter as it looks, but one might hazard the opinion that while the one expresses indifference and irreverence, the other is redolent of feeling and sincerity. Humour and satire are extremes - the more barbed and keen a shaft, the more malicious and likely to hurt, whereas the genuine quality of humour partakes of tenderness and gentleness. Sheridan is an admirable example of a wit, while Lover represents humourin its most confiding aspect. There are intermediate kinds, however, and the malice of Curran’s repartees is not altogether akin to the rasping personalities of “ Father Prout”. Irish humour is mainly a store of merriment pure and simple, without much personal taint, and does not profess to be philosophical. Human follies or deformities are rarely touched upon, and luckily Irish humorous writers do not attempt the didactic. In political warfare, however, many bitter taunts are lbeard, and it is somewhat regrettable that Irish politics should liave absorbed so great a part of Irish wit, and turned what might have been pleasant reading into a succession of biting sarcasms. The Irish political satirists of the last and present centuries have often put themselves out of court by the ephemeral nature of their gibes no less than by the extralerocious tone they adopted. There is no denying the verve and point in the writings of Watty Cox, Dr. Brenan, William Norcott, and so on, but who can read, them to-day with pleasure? Eaton Stannard Barrett’s “All the Talents", after giving a nickname to a ministry, destroyed it; it served its ptirpose, and would be out of place if resurrected and placed in a popular collection, where the student of political history to whom alone it is interesting and amusing - will hardly sneet with it. Consequently political satire finds no place in this work, and even T. D. Sullivan, who particularly excels in personal and political squibs in verse, is shown only as the notlior of a prose sketch of more general application. Besides what has been wasted in this way, from a literary point of view, a good deal of the native element of wit has been dissipated [xiii] as soon as uttered. After fulfilling its mission in enlivening a journey or in circling the festive board, it is forgotten and never appears in print. How many of Lysaght’s and Curran’s best quips are passed beyond recall? It cannot be that men like these obtained their great fame as wits, on the few sample witticisms that have been preserved for us. Their literary remains are to scanty and inconsiderable, and their reputation so universal, that one can only suppose them to have been continuously coining jokes and squandering them in every direction.

Irish humour has been and is so prevalent, however, that in spite of many losses, there is abundant material for many volumes. It is imported into almost every incident and detail of Irish life - it overflows in the discussions of the local boards, is bandied about by carmen (who have gained much undeserved repute among tourists), comes down from the theatre galleries, is rife in the law courts, and chronic in the clubs, at the bar-dinners, and wherever there is dulness to be exorcised. Jokes being really as plentiful as blackberries, no one cares to hoard so common a product. A proof of the contempt into which the possession of wit or humour has fallen may be observed in the fact that no professedly comic paper has been able to survive for long the indifference of the Irish public. There have been some good ones in Dublin - notably, Zoz, Zozimus, Pat, and The Jarvey - but they have pined away in a comparatively short space of time, the only note of pathos about their brief existence being the invariable obituary announcement in the library catalogues - “No more published”. But their lives, if short, were merry ones. It was not their fault if the people did not require such aids to vivacity, being in general able to strike wit off the corners of any topic, no matter how unpromising it might appear. Naturally enough, the chief themes of the Irish humorist have been courting and drinking, with the occasional relief of a fight. The amativeness of the poets is little short of marvellous. Men like Lover (who has never been surpassed perhaps as a humorous love-poet) usually confined their humour in that groove; others, like Maginn, kept religiously to the tradition that liquor is the chief attraction in life, and the only possible theme for a wit after exhausting his pleasantries about persons. [xiv]

Maginn, however, was very much in earnest and did not respect the tradition simply because it was one, but solely on account of his belief in its wisdom. There can be no question, it seems to me, of Ireland’s supremacy in the literature devoted to Bacchus. It is another affair, of course, whether any credit attaches to the distinction. All the bards were not so fierce as Maginn in their likes and dislikes when the liquor was on the table. It may indeed be said of them in justice that their enthusiasm for the god of wine was often enough mere boastfulness. It is difficult to believe Tom Moore in his raptures about the joys of the bowl. He was no roysterer, and there is wanting in his Bacchanalian effusions, as in others of his light and graceful school, that reckless abandon of the more bibulous school. A glance at the lives of the Irish poets shows that a goodly number of them lived up to their professions. The glorification of the joys of the bottle by so many of our poets, their implication that from no other source is genius to be drawn, suggests that the Irish inclination to wit was induced by drinking long and deep. Sallies flowed therefrom, and the taciturn man without an idea developed under the genial influence into a delightful conversationalist. Yet as the professional humorist is often pictured as a very gloomy personage, gnawed by care and tortured by remorse, his pleasantries probably strike more in consequence of their vivid contrast to his dismal appearance. But to return to the bards’ love of liquor. One and all declare of the brown jug that “there’s inspiration in its foaming brim”, and what more natural than that they should devote the result to eulogy of the source. It may be somewhat consoling to reflect that often they were less reckless than they would have us believe. Something else besides poetic inspiration comes from the bowl, which, after all, only brings out the natural qualities.

As a rule, Irish poets have not extracted a pessimistic philosophy from liquor; they are “elevated”, not depressed, and do not deem it essential to the production of a poem that its author should be a cynic or an evil prophet. One of the best attributes of Irish poetry is its constant expression of the natural emotions. Previous to the close of the seventeenth [xv] century, it is said, drunkenness was not suggested by the poets as common in Ireland - the popularity of Bacchanalian songs since that date seems to prove that the vice soon became a virtue. Maginn is the noisiest of modern revellers, and easily roars the others down.

Not a small portion of the humour of Ireland is the unconscious variety in the half-educated local poets. Sometimes real wit struggles for adequate expression in English with ludicrous and unlooked-for results. A goodly number of the street ballads are very comic in description, phraseology, or vituperation, and “Nell Flaherty’s Drake” may be taken as a fair specimen of the latter class. Occasionally there is coarseness, usually absent from genuine Irish songs; sometimes a ghastly sort of grotesquerie, as in “The Night before Larry was Stretched”. Only a few examples of such are necessary to form an idea of the whole. Maginn’s great service in exposing the true character of the wretched rubbish often palmed off on the English public as Irish songs deserves to be noticed here. He proved most conclusiveIy that the stuff thus styled Irish, with its unutterable refrains of the “Whack Bubbaboo" kind, was of undoubted English origin, topography, phraseology, rhymes, and everything else being utterly un-Irish. The internal evidence alone convicts their authors. No Irishman rhymes O’Reilly to bailie, for instance, and certainly he would never introduce a priest named "Father Quipes" into a song, even if driven to desperation for rhymes to “swipes”. Any compiler who gives a place in a collection of Irish songs to such trash as "Looney Mactwolter” “Dennis Bulgruddery”, or any other of the rather numerous effusions of their kind, with their Gulliverian nomenclature and their burlesque of Irish manners, is an accomplice in the crime of their authors. In this connection it may be pointed out that not only in songs, but in many stories and other writings purporting to be Irish, the phraseology is anything but Irish. Irishmen do not, and never did, speak of their spiritual guardian as the praste. The Irishman never mispronounces the sound of ie, and if he says tay for tea and mate for meat he is simply conforming to the old and correct English pronunciation, as may be seen by consulting the older English poets, who always rhymed sea with day, etc. To this [xvi] hour, the original sound is preserved by English people in great and break.

to leave the anonymous, the hybrid, and the spurious, it will be well to consider the continuity of the humour of Ireland. The long line of humorous writers who have appeared in our literary history has never been broken, despite many intervals of tribulation. In Anglo-Irish literature they commence practically with Farquhar, whose method of treating the follies of fine ladies and “men of honour” is anticipatory of that of the Spectator. Swift’s irony, unsurpassable as it is, is cruel to excess, and has little that is Irish about it. A contemporary and countryman, Dean Smedley, said he was “always in jest, but most so in prayer”, but that is an exaggeration, for Swift was mostly in grim earnest. The charge implies that many of bis contemporaries, like several moderns, had a difficulty in satisfying themselves as to when he joked and when he did not. Smedley is also responsible for another poem directed against Swift, which was posted upon the door of St. Patrick’s, Dublin, when the great writer was appointed its Dean, and of which the following is the best stanza:

This place he got by wit and rhyme,
And many ways most odd,
And might a bishop be in time,
Did he believe in God.

The impassive and matter-of-fact way in which Swift, using the deadliest of weapons, ridicule, reformed the abuses of his time, deceived a good many. He never moved a muscle, and his wit shone by contrast with his moody exterior as a lightning-flash illuminates a gloomy sky. It has that element of unexpectedriess which goes far to define the nature of wit.

ReaI drollery in Anglo-Irish literature seems to have begun with Steele. In the case of Steele there is rarely anything to offend modern taste. His tenderness is akin to Goldsmith’s, and the natural man is clearly visible in his writings. A direct contrast is seen in Sterne, who was more malicious and sly, full of unreality and misplaced sentiment, and depending chiefly upon his constant supply of doubles entendres and the morbid tastes of his readers. Writers like Derrick and Bickerstaffe were hardly witty in the modern sense, but rather in the [xvii] original literal meaning of the term. There are many wits, highly popular in their own day, who are no longer readable with any marked degree of pleasure. Wit depends so largely upon the manner of its delivery for the effect produced that the dramatists are not so numerously represented in this collection as might be expected from the special fecundity and excellence of the Irish in that branch of literature. To extract the wit or humour from some of the eighteenth-century plays is no easy task. In men like Sheridan, it is superabundant, over-luxuriant, and easily detachable; but others, like Kane O’Hara, Hugh KelIy, William O’Brien, James Kenney and so on, whose plays were famous at one time and are not yet forgotten, find no place in this work on account of the difficulty of bringing the wit of their plays to a focus.

There never was a writer, perhaps, concerning whose merits there has been less dispute than Goldsmith. Sheridan, with all his brilliance, has not been so fortunate. Lysaght and Millikin were and are both greatly overrated as poets and wits, if we are to judge by the fragments they have left. Lysaght, however, must have been considered a genuine wit, for we find a number of once popular songs wrongly attributed to him. He most unquestionably did not write “The Sprig of Shillelagh”, “Donnybrook Fair”, “The Rakes of Mallow”, or “Kitty of Coleraine” though they have all been put down as his. The first two were written by H. B. Code and Charles O’Flaherty respectively. Millikin’s fame is due to one of those literary accidents which now and then occur. Henry Luttrell in his verse had something of the sprightliness and point of Moore.

Very few specimens of parody have been included in this collection. Two extracts are here given from Eaton Stannard Barrett’s burlesque romance, which ridiculed a school of writers whose mannerisms were once very prevalent. Maginn was a much better parodist. He was a great humorist in every way, and may be claimed as the earliest writer who showed genuine rollicking Irish humour. “Daniel O’Rourke “ is here given to him for the first time, probably, in a collection; though it appeared in Crofton Croker’s “Fairy Legends” it was known to their contemporaries as Maginn’s. He could be both coarse and refined; his boisterous praise of the bottle was not a sham, but his occasional apparent delight in savage personal criticism [xviii] was really quite foreign to his character, as he was a most amiable man, much loved by those who knew him. It was different with “Father Prout”, who was one of the venomous order of wits, and certainly not a personal favourite with his colleagues. His frequent and senseless attacks on O’Connell and other men, dragged into all his essays, are blots on his work. His wit is too often merely abusive, like that of Dr. Kenealy, who, almost as learned as “Prout”, was quite as unnecessarily bitter. It is from Lover that we get the cream, not the curds of Irish humour. He is the Irish arch-humorist, and it is difficult to exaggerate the excellence of his lovesongs. Others may be more classical, more polished, more subtle, but there is no writer more irresistible. Among his earlier contemporaries Ettingsall was his nearest counterpart in one notable story. It must not be forgotten, either, that “Darby Doyle’s Voyage to Quebec" appeared in print before Lover’s “Barney O’Reirdon. Carleton and Lever were admirable humorists, but only incidentally so, whereas Lover was nothing if not a humorist before all. There are many excellent comic passages in the novels of both, as also in one or two of Lefanu’s works, and if it should be thought that proportionately they are under-represented. it need only be pointed out that though a large volume might easily be made up of examples of their humour alone, other writers also have a good claim to a considerable amount of space. It has been thought preferable to restrict the selections from such famous novelists in order to give a place to no less admirable but much less familiar work.

O’Leary and the other Bacchanalians who came after Maginn were worthy followers of the school which devoted all its lyrical enthusiasm to the praise of drink, while Marmion Savage showed rather the acid wit of Moore. Ferguson and are better known by their verse than as humorous storytellers. We find true Irish humour again in Kickham and Halpine. The Irish humorists of the present day hardly need any introduction to the reader.

The treatment of sacred subjects by Irish wits is similar to that in most Catholic countries. St. Patrick is hardly regarded a conventional saint by Irish humorists, and it is curious that Peter is accepted by the wits of all nationalities as a legitimate [xix] object of pleasantry. If, however, Irish writers occasionally seem to lack reverence for things which in their eyes are holy, “it is only their fun”, as Lamb would say. Only those who are in the closest intimacy with sacred objects venture to treat them familiarly, and the Irish peasant often speaks in an offhand manner of that which is dearest to him. Few nations could have produced such a harvest of humour under such depressing and unfavourable influences as Ireland has experienced. And it may be asserted with truth that many countries with far more reason for uninterrupted good-humour, with much less cause for sadness, would be hard put to it to show an equally valuable contribution to the world’s lighter literature.

Though it has been sought to make this volume as comprehensive as possible, some familiar names will be missed; it is believed, however, that it contains a thoroughly representative collection of humorous extracts. There are some undoubted humorists whose wit will not bear transferring or transplanting, and it is as hard to convey their humour in an extract as it is to bottle a sunbeam. In others, the humour is beaten out too thin, and spread over too wide an area, to make selection satisfactory. The absence from this collection of any example of Mr. Oscar Wilde’s characteristic wit is not the fault of the present writer or the publishers. I have to thank nearly all the living authors represented in this collection for permission to use their writings, the one or two exceptions being those whose writings are uncollected, and whom I could not reach; and I have also to express my indebtedness to Mr. Alfred Nutt for allowing me to quote from “The Vision of McConglinne" and Dr. Hyde’s “Beside the Fire”; to Messrs. Ward & Downey for the extract from Edmund Downey, to Messrs. James Duffy & Son for the extract from Kickham; to Messrs. Routledge for poems by Lover; etc. I am also deeply obliged to Dr. Douglas Hyde, the eminent Irish scholar and folk-lorist, for copies of some of the earlier extracts, and to Messrs. F. A. Fahy and P. J. McCall for some later pieces. For the proverbs I am chiefly indebted to Dr. Hyde, Mr. Fahy, Mr. T. J. Flannery, and Mr. Patrick O’Leary.


[1]. For the recurrent phrase ‘a tear and a smile’ considered as an Irish - or, more broadly a Celtic - trait, see under Thomas Moore, [supra].


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