Channel 4 Irish Famine comedy fuels lively debate

London Irish Comedy Festival discussion focuses on planned C4 ‘Hungry’ script

Famine statue in Dublin: a debate hosted by the London Irish Comedy Festival about comedy and censorship was dominated by ‘Hungry’, a not-yet written commission for Channel 4 about the Famine. Photograph: Kate Geraghty

Famine statue in Dublin: a debate hosted by the London Irish Comedy Festival about comedy and censorship was dominated by ‘Hungry’, a not-yet written commission for Channel 4 about the Famine. Photograph: Kate Geraghty

 

Comedy can live long in the memory. Charlie Walsh, who left Urlingford, Co Kilkenny, for London in the early 1970s, remembers when jokes mocking the Irish were common- place on British TV screens.

“We were abused in the so-called comedies of the 1970s: the stupid Irish, Paddy and Mick. Do you think that that doesn’t have a bearing on how we think about ourselves and that it doesn’t hurt us?” he asks.

Walsh was among the audience in Shoreditch, east London, for a debate hosted by the London Irish Comedy Festival about comedy and censorship. It quickly became dominated by Hungry, a not-yet written commission for Channel 4 about the Famine.

Emotions for some have run high since Irish writer Hugh Travers began work, acknowledged the station’s head of comedy Phil Clarke, adding that much of this may be based on misconceptions.

“It has been misreported. We’re not doing a series. We are not even doing a pilot. We have commissioned a script,” Mr Clarke told the audience.

His words, however, cut little ice with some. The Famine was the third chapter in “800 years of extermination”, according to an audience member. “Humour is an affront to the genocide that was perpetrated in Ireland,” said the man from Co Offaly. “Should we mock our genocide, laugh at it?”

Laws and morality

Some in the audience sighed. “There should not be laws against this. There should be morals against it,” he said, to support from others.

Austin Harney, who is active in Irish community groups in the UK, has been one of the most vocal in demanding that Channel 4 abandons the idea.

“I didn’t find Blackadder or Father Ted offensive, but we have to draw the line here,” he said. “Why not make comedies about negro slavery? Why [not] make comedies about the Holocaust? I’m not going to be laughing about hundreds of thousands of people looking like skeletons in a comedy.”

Comedian Gráinne McGuire disagreed. “I have been offended by comedy. I have been offended by really badly written, lazy, cliché-ridden, tedious comedy. That offends me. If we laugh at something, it means we are not afraid of it.”

Sometimes, she argued, humour can mark the passage of grief. “It is our way of coping with the scary unknowingness of life; it shows that we are human and not scared. You can find the humour in anything.”

 

Cliché as offence 

“If there is a sitcom written about the Famine, I’ll be more offended if all of the female characters only want to have babies and complain,” she said, to laughter. “I’ll find that more offensive than the fact that it is set during the Famine.”

Jodie Ginsberg from the Index on Censorship campaign pointed out people had gathered in a Copenhagen restaurant last week for a similar discussion about free speech that ended in gunfire.

“Some friends of mine joked earlier that they were practising their ducking [coming here],” she said, drily. “I feel extraordinarily passionate about this. What protects people’s ability to say something also protects your right to be offended.”

Too often, the former Reuters Dublin bureau chief said, people confuse offence with harassment. “Of course, you may be offended, but there is no right not to be offended. There is a right not to face abuse or discrimination.”

Satire is valuable, said Eddie Doyle, RTÉ’s head of comedy, since its undermines prejudice. “That’s the function of comedians, almost to be the advance party testing the frontiers of what is sayable in society.”

Mr Clarke appeared to bring some to his side, when he described the Famine “as the Irish Holocaust”.

“I don’t think it is [Hugh Travers’s] intention or Channel 4’s intention to mock the suffering. I think it is an original, unusual and difficult subject to do well. We may not pull it off and we may not develop it further, but I think we must be allowed.”

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