IRISH WIT AND HUMOR
By Charles L. Graves.
No record of the glories of Ireland would be complete without an effort, however inadequate, to analyze and illustrate her wit and humor. Often misunderstood, misrepresented, and misinterpreted, they are nevertheless universally admitted to be racial traits, and for an excellent reason. Other nations exhibit these qualities in their literature, and Ireland herself is rich in writers who have furnished food for mirth. But her special pre-eminence resides in the possession of what, to adapt a famous phrase, may be called an anima naturaliter jocosa. Irish wit and Irish humor are a national inheritance. They are inherent in the race as a whole, independent of education or culture or comfort. The best Irish sayings are the sayings of the people; the greatest Irish humorists are the nameless multitude who have never written books or found a place in national dictionaries of biography. None but an Irishman could have coined that supreme expression of contempt: “I wouldn’t be seen dead with him at a pig-fair,” or rebuked a young barrister because he did not “squandher his carcass” (i.e., gesticulate) enough. But we cannot trace the paternity of these sayings any more than we can that of the lightning retort of the man to whom one of the “quality” had given a glass of whisky. “That’s made another man of you, Patsy,” remarked the donor. “‘Deed an’ it has, sor,” Patsy flashed back, “an’ that other man would be glad of another glass.” It is enough for our purpose to note that such sayings are typically Irish and that their peculiar felicity consists in their combining both wit and humor.
To what element in the Irish nature are we to attribute this joyous and illuminating gift? No one who is not a Gaelic scholar can venture to dogmatize on this thorny subject. But, setting philology and politics aside, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Ireland has gained rather than lost in this respect by the clash of races and languages. Gaiety, we are told, is not the predominating characteristic of the Celtic temperament, nor is it reflected in the prose and verse of the “old ancient days” that have come down to us. Glamour and magic and passion abound in the lays and legends of the ancient Gael, but there is more melancholy than mirth in these tales of long ago. Indeed, it is interesting to note in connection with this subject that the younger school of Irish writers associated with what is called the Celtic Renascence have, with very few exceptions, sedulously eschewed anything approaching to jocosity, preferring the paths of crepuscular mysticism or sombre realism, and openly avowing their distaste for what they consider to be the denationalized sentiment of Moore, Lever, and Lover. To say this is not to disparage the genius of Yeats and Synge; it is merely a statement of fact and an illustration of the eternal dualism of the Irish temperament, which Moore himself realized when he wrote of “Erin, the tear and the smile in thine eye.”
A reaction against the Donnybrook tradition was inevitable and to a great extent wholesome, since the stage Irishman of the transpontine drama or the music-halls was for the most part a gross and unlovely caricature, but, like all reactions, it has tended to obscure the real merits and services of those who showed the other side of the medal. Lever did not exaggerate more than Dickens, and his portraits of Galway fox-hunters and duellists, of soldiers of fortune, and of Dublin undergraduates were largely based on fact. At his best he was a most exhilarating companion, and his pictures of Irish life, if partial, were not misleading. He held no brief for the landlords, and in his later novels showed a keen sense of their shortcomings. The plain fact is that, in considering the literary glories of Ireland, we cannot possibly overlook the work of those Irishmen who were affected by English influences or wrote for an English audience.
Anglo-Irish humorous literature was a comparatively late product, but its efflorescence was rapid and triumphant. The first great name is that of Goldsmith, and, though deeply influenced in technique and choice of subjects by his association with English men of letters and by his residence in England, in spirit he remained Irish to the end–generous, impulsive, and improvident in his life; genial, gay, and tender-hearted in his works. The Vicar of Wakefield was Dr. Primrose, but he might just as well have been called Dr. Shamrock. No surer proof of the pre-eminence of Irish wit and humor can be found than in the fact that, Shakespeare alone excepted, no writers of comedy have held the boards longer or more triumphantly than Goldsmith and his brother Irishman, Sheridan. She Stoops to Conquer, The Rivals, The School for Scandal, and The Critic represent the sunny side of the Irish genius to perfection. They illustrate, in the most convincing way possible, how the debt of the world to Ireland has been increased by the fate which ordained that her choicest spirits should express themselves in a language of wider appeal than the ancient speech of Erin.
On the other hand, English literature and the English tongue have gained greatly from the influence exerted by writers familiar from their childhood with turns of speech and modes of expression which, even when they are not translations from the Gaelic, are characteristic of the Hibernian temper. The late Dr. P.W. Joyce, in his admirable treatise on English as spoken in Ireland, has illustrated not only the essentially bilingual character of the Anglo-Irish dialect, but the modes of thought which it enshrines. There is no better known form of Irish humor than that commonly called the “Irish bull,” which is too often set down to lax thinking and faulty logic. But it is the rarest thing to encounter a genuine Irish “bull” which is not picturesque and at the same time highly suggestive. Take, for example, the saying of an old Kerry doctor who, when conversing with a friend on the high rate of mortality, observed, “Bedad, there’s people dyin’ who never died before.” Here a truly illuminating result was attained by the simple device of using the indicative for the conditional mood–as in Juvenal’s famous comment on Cicero’s second Philippic: Antoni gladios potuit contemnere si sic omnia dixisset. The Irish “bull” is a heroic and sometimes successful attempt to sit upon two stools at once, or, as an Irishman put it, “Englishmen often make ‘bulls,’ but the Irish ‘bull’ is always pregnant.”
Though no names of such outstanding distinction as those of Goldsmith and Sheridan occur in the early decades of the nineteenth century, the spirit of Irish comedy was kept vigorously alive by Maria Edgeworth, William Maginn, Francis Mahony (Father Prout), and William Carleton. Sir Walter Scott’s splendid tribute to the genius of Maria Edgeworth is regarded by some critics as extravagant, but it is largely confirmed in a most unexpected quarter. Turgenief, the great Russian novelist, proclaimed himself her disciple, and has left it on record that but for her example he might never have attempted to give literary form to his impressions of the classes in Russia corresponding to the poor Irish and the squireens and the squires of county Longford. Maginn and Mahony were both scholars–the latter happily called himself “an Irish potato seasoned with Attic salt”–wrote largely for English periodicals, and spent most of their lives out of Ireland. In the writings of all three an element of the grotesque is observable, tempered, however, in the case of Mahony, with a vein of tender pathos which emerges in his delightful “Bells of Shandon.” Maginn was a wit, Mahony was the hedge-schoolmaster in excelsis, and Carleton was the first realist in Irish peasant fiction. But all alike drew their best inspiration from essentially Irish themes. The pendulum has swung back slowly but steadily since the days when Irish men of letters found it necessary to accommodate their genius to purely English literary standards. Even Lever, though he wrote for the English public, wrote mainly about Ireland. So, too, with his contemporary Le Fanu, whose reputation rests on a double basis. He made some wonderful excursions into the realm of the bizarre, the uncanny, and the gruesome. But in the collection known as The Purcell Papers will be found three short stories which for exuberant drollery and “diversion” have never been excelled. That the same man could have written Uncle Silas and The Quare Gander is yet another proof of the strange dualism of the Irish character.
The record of the last fifty years shows an uninterrupted progress in the invasion of English belles lettres by Irish writers. Outside literature, perhaps the most famous sayer of good things of our times was a simple Irish parish priest, the late Father Healy. Of his humorous sayings the number is legion; his wit may be illustrated by a less familiar example–his comment on a very tall young lady named Lynch: “Nature gave her an inch and she took an ell.” In the House of Commons today there is no greater master of irony and sardonic humor than his namesake, Mr. Tim Healy. On one occasion he remarked that Lord Rosebery was not a man to go tiger-shooting with–except at the Zoo. On another, being anxious to bring an indictment against the “Castle” régime in Dublin and finding the way blocked by a debate on Uganda, he successfully accomplished his purpose by a judicious geographical transference of names, and convulsed the House by a speech in which the nomenclature of Central Africa was applied to the government of Ireland.
But wit and humor are the monopoly of no class or calling in Ireland. They flourish alike among car-drivers and K.C.’s, publicans and policemen, priests and parsons, beggars and peers. It is a commonplace of criticism to deny these qualities in their highest form to women. But this is emphatically untrue of Ireland, and was never more conclusively disproved than by the recent literary achievements of her daughters. The partnership of two Irish ladies, Miss Edith Somerville and Miss Violet Martin, has given us, in Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. (i.e., Resident Magistrate), the most delicious comedy, and in The Real Charlotte the finest tragi-comedy, that have come out of Great Britain in the last thirty years. The R.M., as it is familiarly called, is already a classic, but the Irish comédie humaine–to use the phrase in the sense of Balzac–is even more vividly portrayed in the pages of The Real Charlotte. Humor, genuine though intermittent, irradiates the autumnal talent of Miss Jane Barlow, and the long roll of gifted Irishwomen who have contributed to the gaiety of nations may be closed with the names of Miss Hunt, author of Folk Tales of Breffny; of Miss Purdon and Miss Winifred Letts, who in prose and verse, respectively, have moved us to tears and laughter by their studies of Leinster peasant life; and of “Moira O’Neill” (Mrs. Skrine), the incomparable singer of the Glens of Antrim. To give a full list of the living Irish writers, male and female, who are engaged in the benevolent work of driving dull care away would be impossible within the space at our command. But we cannot end without recognition of the exhilarating extravaganzas of “George A. Birmingham” (Canon Hannay), the freakish and elfin muse of James Stephens, and the coruscating wit of F.P. Dunne, the famous Irish-American humorist, whose “Mr. Dooley” is a household word on both sides of the Atlantic.
Goldsmith: Vicar of Wakefield, She Stoops to Conquer; Sheridan: The Rivals, The School for Scandal, The Critic; R. Edgeworth: Essay on Irish Bulls; M. Edgeworth: Castle Rackrent, The Absentee; Maginn: Miscellanies in Prose and Verse; Carleton: Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry; Mahony (Father Prout): Reliques of Father Prout; John and Michael Banim: Tales of the O’Hara Family; Lover: Legends and Stories of Ireland, Handy Andy; Lever: Harry Lorrequer, Charles O’Malley, Lord Kilgobbin; Le Fanu: The Purcell Papers; Barlow: Bogland Studies, Irish Idylls, Irish Neighbours; Birmingham: The Seething Pot, Spanish Gold, The Major’s Niece, The Red Hand of Ulster, General John Regan; Stephens: The Crock of Gold, Here are Ladies; Hunt: The Folk Tales of Breffny; Purdon: The Folk of Furry Farm; Somerville and Ross: The Real Charlotte, Some Experiences of an Irish R.M., All on the Irish Shore, Dan Russel the Fox.