Fun with Mammy and Katie


HUMOUR:The collected wit and wisdom of the Irish mammy and the political thoughts of a less-than-happy baby citizen make entertaining – if pricey – stocking fillers

Isn’t It Well for Ye? The Book of Irish Mammies, By Colm O’Regan, Transworld Ireland, 236pp, £9.99

Angry Baby: Ireland’s Youngest Political Activist Speaks Out, By Arthur Mathews, Hachette, 200pp, £10.99

Seven years working in a bookshop taught me one thing about Christmas: clear the bookmarks, flyers and pens off the counter, replace them with small piles of stocking-filler joke books and stand back while the shoppers indulge in a lot of last-minute gift buying. They’re the literary equivalent of snack-sized Rocky Road Mini Bites beside the tills in Marks Spencer or bags of Tayto next to the self-service counters in Tesco: impulsive, indulgent, disposable.

The comedian Colm O’Regan’s Isn’t It Well for Ye? The Book of Irish Mammies started life as a Twitter feed, 140-character words of wisdom uttered by mammies throughout the land and endlessly retweeted by followers. The concept loses some of its humour in book form where brevity is replaced by lengthier pieces that veer from laugh-out-loud funny to mildly amusing to predictable and stale.

Perhaps the problem can best be summed up in an early section titled Bunreacht an Tí (or Constitution of the House). A series of articles with witty titles – I Hope You Didn’t Use the Good Scissors for That; That’s the Good Tea Towel, Hold on a Second and I’ll Get You a Rag, for example – are undermined by long paragraphs extrapolating on the premise, which tend to kill the joke and leave the reader thinking, Yeah, we get it. An argument, if ever there was one, for the concise nature of Twitter.

The more observational pieces are the most successful. An essay titled Stranded recounts almost perfectly the experience of family holidays down the country when I was a child: “Those sun-drenched memories started the night before, with the making of the Holiday Sandwiches . . . A 500 ml bottle of TK White Lemonade, its packaging and labels gone, would carry the milk.”

And there is also A Cautious Reception, which recounts the seismic shifts and sensibilities of the Irish mammy, not to mention the twin rabbit ears of the television aerial, on the momentous day in September 2000 when Coronation Street moved from RTÉ Two to TV3.

Special praise, however, should be reserved for Doug Ferris’s neat and witty illustrations, which appear throughout the text and never fail to raise a smile.

Righteous infant

The politics of the house give way to the politics of the country in Arthur Mathews’s Angry Baby, a “diary” of baby Katie Woods, born February 2010, who glares out from the cover wearing an expression of righteous fury and a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Bertie Ahern Ruined My Country”. Katie spends her early months trying to understand the country that she has been born into: “Enda is ancient as hell, but looks 30 years younger . . . He is very neat and tidy, and his mama obviously sends him off to the Dáil every day in a lovely suit and tie.”

As with Colm O’Regan’s book, the illustrations are consistently funny. A photo of Katie staring at a rubber duck with great concern on her face suggests that she was actually worried about the implications of the Anglo-Irish bailout.

But it’s the asides that often work best, as in: “Dada and Mama are always around the house. (I find this slightly sinister.) She is on maternity leave, and I think he does something in ‘the media’ – possibly a ‘film maker’.”

And when Katie becomes entranced, not by The Gruffalo or The Incredible Book-Eating Boy but by Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger, the stage is set for one of the great student-mentor relationships of recent times: baby Katie and the editor of these very pages, Fintan O’Toole.

Fortunately for us, this is a relationship that her childminder, the enigmatic Siobhan Devlin, encourages: “She knows how interested I am in the economic situation of the country and how keen I am to learn from Fintan.”

Katie is convinced that Fintan would be good at cuddles and is keen to pursue this avenue. The tone of the book, wisdom and humour from an unexpected source, is a familiar one; it worked to great effect in Paul Howard’s recent Triggs: The Autobiography of Roy Keane’s Dog, and works almost as well here.

As Katie grows, so do her acquaintances. She forms friendships with a group of politically astute infants, Babies for Change; her incipient friendship with one merits comparison with the first meeting of Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens; another suffers under the suspicion that the baby shows signs of being a neocon. Soon, Siobhan Devlin has suggested an Angry Baby! blog, which ultimately leads to media appearances, a potential tour with the O’Toole/David McWilliams/Shane Ross triumvirate and a tickle under the chin from Ryan Tubridy on The Late Late Show.

Dipping in and out

These are the kind of books that you pick up to dip in and out of but end up reading from cover to cover in one sitting, skimming the boring stuff, laughing out loud at the funny stuff – and which are ultimately as forgettable as they are entertaining. I could be a Grinch and suggest that spending € 12 on a hardback joke book might be considered something of a luxury in what Katie Woods would no doubt call these straitened times, but perhaps that would not be in keeping with the festive season.

Unlike dogs, books like this are not for life, they’re just for Christmas, and if you’re looking for a little ho-ho-ho then they’ll certainly pass the time between the midday dinner and the late-night turkey sandwiches.

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