Do the Irish really swear more than other nations? Who gives a f***

Ardal O’Hanlon’s charming documentary ‘Holy F***’ is based on a slightly rickety premise

Ardal O’Hanlon: has a talent for looking like the most guileless person on the planet. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Ardal O’Hanlon: has a talent for looking like the most guileless person on the planet. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

The slightly rickety premise of Holy F*** (RTÉ One, 9.30pm) is that the Irish swear more than almost any other nation. Is this true? Irish people certainly like to think so. Indeed many of us regard our supposed potty mouths as a sort of national bragging right.

Little substantive proof of that claim is provided by presenter Ardal O’Hanlon. But it hardly matters. O’Hanlon makes for charmingly breezy company in a film that takes a rambling tour of the expletive-laden side of the Irish psyche. Who gives a feck whether any of it would stand up to peer review.

O’Hanlon isn’t Dougal McGuire, the idiot priest he portrayed so iconically in Father Ted. And yet he can come across as winningly Dougal-esque and has a talent for looking like the most guileless person on the planet. Perhaps that is why people are so eager to talk to him.

Bob Geldof zooms in from London to explain that an expertly deployed F-bomb can fall as forcefully as a physical blow. He gives as an example a hard-hitting f*** he offered up during Live Aid when urging the public to whip out their wallets.

“Perhaps there is a mellifluous quality,” says Geldof of Ireland’s relationship with expletives.

Tommy Tiernan ventures further by stating we enjoy hearing our children swear. “With most Irish parents … the first time their child curses is a moment of delight,” he says. Is it?

There is a cameo, too, by the Irish Times. Reflecting the uptight mores of Irish society it is revealed the newspaper didn’t dare use the word “pregnant” until the 1920s.

O’Hanlon also goes above and beyond by acknowledging the very specific milieu of swearing at football and hurling matches.

“We’re champions of f***ing Ireland, ” says a player in old footage. If that doesn’t open a skylight on the Irish soul, I don’t know if anything could.

A more forensic documentary might have explored how swearing has changed across the generations. Having come of age in the 1990s, Dr Emma Byrne, author of Swearing Is Good For You, explains that she regarded the use of the C-word by women as an act of reclamation. Today we have shifted to the perspective motre common in the US that the word is the epitome of misogyny. It might have been interesting if the programme had delved into the arguments for and against.

O’Hanlon, though, isn’t here for an anthropological deep dive. He thinks the Irish swear in a distinctive way, providing a window into our national character. And this film is at heart a celebration of turning the air blue rather than an exercise in linguistic analysis.

“Part of it is that we’re just a little histrionic by nature,” says O’Hanlon as he drives into the sunset. “We magnify our grievances, we’re well versed in the art of begrudgery … I’m surprised we don’t swear more.”

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