Not that aul' Irish joke again


A UK prison mag has been accused of stirring up racism by printing Irish jokes, but should we just laugh it off?

FOR MORE than 400 years the Irish have been the butt of jokes in the UK and elsewhere around the world, so you’d think we would have gotten used to it by now. Controversy arose this week when a newspaper, Inside Time, circulated to prisoners in the UK, contained two Irish jokes.

When Irish prisoners complained that the jokes unfairly targeted an ethnic minority in prisons, the newspaper dismissed the complaints and carried a third joke in its October edition. Quoting Irish comedian Dave Allen, who once said, “You might as well laugh at yourself once in a while – everyone else does”, the newspaper described this as “sound advice at any time”.

Conor McGinn of the London-based Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas didn’t quite see the funny side and felt the article could fuel anti-Irish sentiment in British jails. He believed the Irish had been singled out unfairly above other ethnic minorities. At what point then does poking harmless fun cross over to unacceptable ethnic commentary?

Prof Des McHale of University College Cork, author of The Official Kerryman Jokebook, among others, says the controversy is misguided and nothing to do with racism or negative cultural stereotyping. He believes those objecting should lighten up.

“Look, these jokes have been doing the rounds for years. It’s folk humour rather than jokes. It’s crazy that people are objecting to it. The Irish have been in England for 500 years and you would think we would have developed a thick skin by now.”

Had the Muslim or black population in the prison been subjected to the same type of humour, though, would those jokes have been culturally acceptable?

“The black and Muslim communities are a more recent addition to the UK. It’s a touchier subject. The Irish have been well integrated into society; hence the joke is not nearly as offensive and difficult. If there is racial tension, then there might be some excuse for a reaction like this. But the Irish thing is so old, it’s time for us to get over it.”

Prof McHale believes that intent is key when assessing whether or not jokes are acceptable. He spent time in London in the 1970s and says the context can often make jokes more unacceptable. “It was a tense situation at that time, and there were jokes, but I never felt it was racist. It was always in good humour and the intent is important. I don’t believe the intent has been to insult with the Irish jokes.”

Prof McHale says that often the Irishman comes out on top of the particular joke. The typical narrative has him or her doing something crazy or different, and mostly he says it is a reflection of fear in a community at different arrivals. As an example Prof McHale cites a joke he remembers from his time in the UK.

“For example, there are two Irish workmen in the UK and one says to the other, ‘have you got that hammer, Paddy?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Where have you it?’ ‘I have it lost.’ Now, you see that will mean a different thing to an Irish and British audience. We use English in a different way so that we would have a different understanding of that joke,” Prof McHale says.

Irish comedian Paddy Courtney is so fascinated by the “Paddy Irishman” genre of humour, he is working on a pilot series for RTÉ that attempts to explore the roots of these jokes.

Courtney believes that during the Celtic Tiger years, Paddy Irishman jokes would have been tolerated more so than now.

“I think we get riled in this country when the Brits say these jokes,” he says, “But it’s just harmless fun to my mind. Everyone’s back is up at the moment. We are in recession and poor so we are turning more inwards and having a go at those poking fun. Whether it is Tommy Tiernan and the perceived anti-Semitism of his comments or this controversy – all this PC malarkey is nonsense. The humour should be seen for what it is. I don’t think we should get too riled up about it. To be honest, I get more offended when Irish surnames are mispronounced by British commentators.”

Charlie Flanagan, Fine Gael Spokesperson on Justice, Equality and Law Reform, takes a stronger view and feels that the jokes present a somewhat outdated view of Irish people.

“These jokes and put-downs are a relic of the 1950s,” he says, “I would have thought they served their course. I don’t think they can be in any way regarded as funny. If there were directed at other nationalities they would be subject to severe criticism. I wouldn’t think there is any place for them in any official magazine or publications.”

Flanagan says that the Irish in Britain have worked hard over the years to integrate themselves into that society and that this brand of humour seeks to undermine the success of the Irish overseas.

“Not only are they not funny, I don’t believe they are helpful in terms of the status of the Irish community in Britain, a community that has over the years fought hard to obtain a status in Britain. I mean, the concept of the Irish person being inferior to his British counterpart is outdated, and so are the jokes.”


Paddy Englishman, Paddy Scotsman and Paddy Irishman are stranded on a prison island and they find a magic lamp. By rubbing it a genie arrives and grants them one wish each. Paddy Englishman says he misses his family, and whoosh, he is transported off the island and back home. Paddy Scotsman says the same thing and he too is sent back to his family. The genie turns to Paddy Irishman and says, “Well, what about you?” Paddy Irishman replies, “I’m really lonely and miss Paddy Englishman and Paddy Scotsman.”