The humour of Ireland
That the Irish people have a wide reputation for wit and humour is a fact that 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 feature 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 O'Daly and other satirists met with 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 serious 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 moderns — your 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 has 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 the heart.
An eminent French writer described humour as a fusion of smiles and tears, 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 wit, while Lover represents humour in 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 heard, and it is somewhat regrettable that Irish politics should have absorbed so great a part of Irish wit, and turned what might have been pleasant reading into a succession of biting sarcasm.
The Irish political satirists of the past and present centuries have often put themselves out of court by the ephemeral nature of their gibes no less than by the extra- ferocious tone they adopted.
Exorcising the Demon of Voracity — From the Irish.
The Roman Earl — From the Irish .... 7
The Roman Earl — From the Irish .... 7
The Fellow in the Goat-Skin — Folk-Tale . . 9
Often-who-Came and Seldom-who-Came — From the Irish. 22
The Old Crow and the Young Crow — Fron the Irish. 23
Roger and the Grey Mare — Folk-Poem . . -23
Will o' the Vfisv— Folk- Tale . . . . - 25
Epigrams and Riddles — From the Irish . . .32
Donald and his Neighbours. . -34
The Woman of Three Cows — From the Irish . . 39
In Praise of Digression . . .41
A Rhapsody on Vowtky— Jonathan Swift . . -45
Letter from a Liar — Sir Richard Steele . . .50
Epigrams—Winstanley . . . . -55
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