The Irish Comic Tradition (OUP 1962; Souvenir Press 1991)


The prevalence of the comic spirit in Anglo-Irish literature of the twentieth century needs no demonstration. One has only to start listing the names of writers - Joyce, Synge, O'Casey, George Moore, James Stephens, Lady Gregory, Frank O'Connor - and at once the point is made. Even W. B. Yeats or Samuel Beckett has his own special vein of defiant or despairing humour. / During the nineteenth century Irish wit and humour were already proverbial lin the English-speaking countries. Indeed, it has often been remarked that most of the masters of English stage comedy since the Restoration - Congreve, Farquhar, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw - either grew up in Ireland or came of Irish stock.

All sorts of theories have been advanced to explain these indisputable facts. Shaw actualoy gave the credit to the Irish climate, as if wit or a sense of humour were a disease like rheumatism or tuberculosis, both of which are often blamed on the prevailing dampness of Ireland. It seems more reasonable, however, to attribute cultural phenomena in the first place to cultural causes. If it can be demonstrated that Gaelic literature has from the earliest times shown a bent for wild humour, a dielight in witty word play, and a tendency to regard satire as one of the indispensable functions of the literary man, then the prevalence of these traits in Anglo-Irish literature is most probably due to cultural continuity.

Gaelic literature is notorious for its conservatism: the use of archaic diction and orthography, of archaic allusions, of an archaic subject matter recurs throughout its long history - no doubt primarly because for many centuries most of the literature was produced by a professional caste or class of poets, inheritors of the druids and most familiar fo English-speaking readers under the name of “bards”. As a result, it is easy to trace a [ix] continuous comic tradition in Gaelic. The chief problem which confronted me in writing this book was how to prove the existence of a continuity between Anglo-Irish literature and Gaelic literature. I do not wish to exaggerate this problem, however: cultural interchange at the oral level, in idioms, metaphors, proverbs, folk tales, folk beliefs, has been continuous from the first English invasion down to the present moment.

Direct literary influence before the Anglo-Irish Literary Revival, which began in the 1880’s, is harder - and often impossible - to prove, for two reasons: first, few earlier writers of English could read Gaelic; secondly, most Gaelic speakers were illiterate in their own language. But when we notice striking similarities between literary works in the two languages, where direct influence was clearly impossible, the resemblance can often be explained by the fact that both works were drawing upon a common stock of themes and attitudes, and even, at times, of techniques: Gaelic metres were sometimes employed in English by bilingual song writers and then borrowed by those who knew no Gaelic.

Although a glance at the Table of Contents should reveal much of the plan and scope of this book, perhaps the chapter headings require some explanation and amplification. I have divided a vast subject into a few basic rhetorical categories: humour, wit (including word play), satire, and parody. These categories are neither numerous enough to include every aspect of the comic nor, in certain respects, mutually exclusive. Satire in particular employs wit, humour, parody, and even word play besides the irony which is often regarded as its most characteristic device. On the other hand, I have given no separate treatment to the best known and most easily identifiable branch of the comic, stage comedy. Gaelic civilisation never developed a theatre, although some of the mumming and miming at weddings and wakes contained the rudiments of drama. Since my subject is the continuity of Gaelic and AngloIrish tradition, it seemed pointless to increase the size of this book by a chapter which dealt with Anglo-lrish stage comedy in isolation. As a matter of fact, I wrote such a chapter and then omitted it at the suggestion of my wife.

Obviously an entire book could be devoted to Irish humour alone. My two chapters on this subject deal with what I regard [x] as its most characteristic aspects: fantasy, the macabre, and the grotesque. The so-called ‘rollicking’ type of Irish humour emphasizing drunkenness, pugnacity, clumsy amorousness, superstition, boasting, hyperbole, malapropisms, and Irish bulls - I have chosen to ignore, for two good reasons. On the one hand, it is already excessively familiar to most people; on the other, it is largely an Anglo-Irish phenomenon, resulting from the observation of Gaelic folk ways through the lenses of a different culture. A similar type of humour can be found in Gaelic,.but it is a relatively late development that originates in social satire: the behaviour of uncultured Gaelic speakers is viewed contemptuously by an educated class after the unity of Gaelic civilization disintegrated in the seventeenth century. (See the section ‘Social Satire’ in Chapter 6.)

The inclusion of three separate chapters on satire is a matter of mere expediency. Satire proliferates so enormously in Gaelic literature that a single chapter on the subject would have taken up almost half the book. Even now, the chapter ‘Satire in Modern Irish’ is by far the longest. I hope the reader will agree with me that it would have been a pity to shorten it further.

As regards method, it will be seen that this book is descriptive rather than critical or historical. I am less concerned with evaluating Irish comic literature than with establishing its outlook, characteristic methods, and favourite subject matter. Nor have I attempted a complete literary history of the subject. The recurrence of an identical comic pattern in widely separated periods might be too readily overlooked if I followed a purely chronological plan. The progress of each chapter is roughly chronological, but where a certain vein of wit, say, has remained virtually unchanged through the centuries, I follow it to the end before turning back to another type which emerged later. In general, I have given more space to the Gaelic material, as being less familiar to the English-speaking reader, than I have to the Anglo-Irish.

Where a comic trend in Gaelic literature seemed unparalleled in Anglo-Irish literature, or vice versa, I have sometimes omitted it altogether; the reader should therefore be wary of assuming a greater homogeneity between the two literatures than actually exists. Still, I have tried not to act the special [xi] pleader too much: although 1 have omitted a number of writers and works that I consider insignificant, I might well have omitted more and included fewer quotations had I not wanted to give the reader sufficient evidence on which to base his own conclusions. The whole subject of the relationship between Gaelic and Anglo-Irish literature has been bedeviled by so many intemperate generalizations on both sides of the argument that I was determined not to force my own views upon the reader.

One further self-imposed limitation will become evident in the course of this book: except in my last chapter, 1 have virtually ignored many of the Anglo-Irish writers who neither lived most of their lives in Ireland nor continued to write much about Ireland after they had left her. Thus I have a great deal to say about Swift and Joyce, but very little about Shaw and Wilde, though I have made an exception in favour of Samuel Beckett. Also, in the absence of a chapter on stage comedy, I have said less than I should have liked to about Synge and O’Casey. Both studied Gaelic, and the work of both shows a general affinity with the Gaelic tradition, but their very originality has made it difficult to link them with any one specific branch of that highly conservative heritage. In any case, I think it is fair to say that a framework has been established into which the alert reader can fit those writers who, he feels, have been unjustly neglected: for instance, Brendan Behan, whose meteoric career began when this book was already well under way.

Some of the limitations imposed on this book can hardly be described as voluntary: I am not a Gaelic scholar but rather a student of Gaelic, and my reading knowledge of Modem Irish has been acquired in the most desultory fashion. After I first began to think about this book eight years ago-and indeed after one chapter had been written-I spent a year studying Old and Middle Irish at Trinity and University Colleges in Dublin. In dealing with the Gaelic material, I have made use wherever possible of translations by reputable scholars, sometimes consulting the Gaelic only where a difficulty or omission was apparent in the translation. If no translation of an important text was available, I grappled with the original; as one might expect, texts which have never been translated [xii] are either very easy or fiendishly difficult. I have made no use of manuscript or oral sources.

Clearly my task would have been far easier if a comprehensive account of the Gaelic comic tradition were already in existence, but even the available histories of Gaelic literature give the subject sketchy, almost grudging treatment. Fred Norris Robinson’s ‘Satirists and Enchanters in Early Irish Literature’ is the only adequate handling known to me of any substantial part of the tradition. In his vast Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature Tom Peete Cross allots little more than half a page to humour and refers to one short article on the topic. I was therefore compelled to attempt almost single-handed a synoptic view of a subject matter ranging over eleven centuries and two languages: that is, if we agree to call Old, Middle, and Modem Irish - which differ at least as much as Old, Middle, and Modern English - one language. Let me add humbly that I could never have made the attempt at all but for the work which countless scholars and literary men have been doing piecemeal for over a century. Detailed acknowledgements of my debts will be found in the notes to the individual chapters. I can only hope that those who investigate this fascinating subject in the future will find much in my pages to agree with while profiting by my mistakes.


Great Neck, New York
17 March 1961

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