On Irish jokes and Australian casual racism

Iau_irish‘ve been thinking about the relationship between Ireland and Australia so I read with interest yesterday Pádraig Collins’ angry article in the Guardian. The article was headlined “When it comes to smearing the Irish, Australia is the world’s serial offender” which was over-precious and over the top, though the writer made some good points. Collins is, like me, an Irish-born journalist now living in Australia, and I know why he is angry.

Collins was responding to TV footage of Liberal apparatchik Grahame Morris’s bizarre anti-Irish rant during a same sex marriage debate. After saying he “loved the Irish”, Morris used Irish caricatures such as failed potatoes, silly shamrocks and funny accents to explain why Australia should pay no attention to the stunning “yes” vote in Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum. No doubt being an equal opportunities bigot, Morris would have found equally hilarious reasons why Australia should not follow the example of Britain, New Zealand or the many other jurisdictions that have legalised SSM.

Collins didn’t think the shamrock as a weed joke funny, nor the inability to distinguish to pronounce “th” funny, though he didn’t mind people having a crack at them. (I know British people found it funny when I pronounced tree and three the same way and in the end I did “thry” to differentiate them when I lived in the UK in the 1980s). But what most annoyed Collins was the crack on the Famine.

The Famine of the late 1840s is Ireland’s defining event, its Holocaust which left two million dead and another two million emigrants in five years. The Irish are touchy if you make jokes about it. Personally I think both the Holocaust and the famine are fair game for jokes, but it depends on the attitude of the teller and who or what is the butt of the joke. Morris’s big butt was if the Irish were too stupid not to survive food shortage caused by potato failure, then you shouldn’t trust their opinion on anything. The actual reasons for the famine are complex – and Irish and British attitudes are at fault – but it is this sense of the “stupid Irish” that helps define Australian attitudes to Ireland.

It was an attitude that started well before the Famine. The Irish were a constant undercurrent to those swearing loyalty to the Union flag on Australian shores from 1788. Even the enlightened marine Watkin Tench laughed at the stupid Irish convicts who escaped from their Sydney prison thinking China was just a hundred miles to the north. When the Irish weren’t been stupid, they were being drunk and that remains equally funny. On St Patrick’s Day, Tony Abbott made several jokes at Irish expense in a “cringetacular” 70-second video including a fake apology for not having “a Guinness or three” with the Irish (or a Guinness or tree, as Morris might say.)

As Collins reminds us, Abbott is a serial offender of Irish jokes and unafraid to use other Celtic stereotypes. In his joke “the English made the laws, the Scottish made the money and the Irish made the music”, the Scottish are mocked for their meanness, the Irish for their irrelevance outside the arts, while the adult English get on with the job. It explains why despite his religion Tony Abbott has no sympathy for the Irish. Abbott is an English Catholic, who, like his mentor BA Santamaria and his friends Cardinal George Pell and Greg Sheridan, tries to keep his religion out of the conversation. Of these only Sheridan is an Irish Catholic, which probably explains why the joke is usually on him. He might be among those Irish, according to Abbott in another joke, who not only lost money on the race, but also on the action replay.

It’s not just politicians that lose money on race. The Age spoke of a “drunk Paddy in $500k flood of tears” adding to a rich history of Australian media discrimination against the Irish, that also dates to colonial times. Though the man’s name was Padraig (the Irish for Patrick, and hence for Paddy) it stung too much like “grasping Jew” and the financial size of the mess he created allied to the man’s public shame caused his suicide a day later. As the Irish ambassador Noel White said the headline “drunk Paddy” simultaneously demeaned an individual as well as taking a swipe at an entire national group. White reminded his Sydney Morning Herald readers the Irish were part of the Australian narrative since European settlement and that still arrive “young, talented and hard-working” in the Australian cause. But that image is less memorable than being stupid and drunk. The drunken Irishman was popularised by Punch magazine in the 19th century and it still leads to uncritical acceptance of a distorted national stereotype that affects the Irish in Australia. White reminded Australians the stereotype also diminishes those who use it.

Collins cited Peter FitzSimons who, during an impassioned article on getting rid of the monarchy and the Australian’s “plain” obituary of Colleen McCullough, unexpectedly segues to an Irish joke. According to FitzSimons, “Paddy and Margaret” live “outside Dublin” so their suburban problem is one Aussies will get: loud barking dogs in the neighbour’s yard during the night. Paddy’s solution is stupid and hence Irish but there is a dash of sense in it that makes it funny. Paddy moves the dogs to his garden and says “now we’ll see how dey fookin’ well like it”. Again there is the tree/three problem and an added sense of foul-mouthed language made acceptable Irish style: “fookin” or “feck”. But what we find funny is not the stupid Irish but the absurd truth that barking dogs will annoy neighbours more than their owners. Collins quotes another FitzSimons Irish joke about an antique expert asking “Paddy” what his stuffed dogs would fetch if they were in better condition. “Sticks”, Paddy replies. This obvious punchline is potentially funny but why does the man have to be Paddy? Is it only the Irish who would either misunderstand the question, or understand it but deliberately misinform with the answer? Again with another FitzSimons “joke of the week”: Paddy texts his wife: “Mary, I’m just having one more pint with the lads. If I’m not back in 20 minutes, read this message again.” No doubt FitzSimons thinks it hilarious “Paddy and Mary” are drunk and stupid.

FitzSimons would defend his right to tell Irish jokes due to his Irish heritage or his Australian heritage, which is half Irish anyway. Collins puts him to the sword as a “regular one man Charlie Hebdo, keeping the world safe for Paddy jokes”. But what it really shows is endemic casual racism in Australia. Australia is an accepting country but much Australian humour is unreconstructed as “Abo jokes”, blackface on television or cricket signs of “curry munchers” show. It is not that the Irish are the butt but anyone who is the “other”. That the Irish remain “the other” in Australia despite 237 years of simultaneous colonisation, tells us more about Australia’s amnesia to its history rather than Irish sensitivity to jokes against it.

Collins says Irish jokes died with the dinosaurs but I disagree. They are still there – and the Irish are telling them. My own Irish jokes are self-deprecating but the Irish are never reduced to “Paddy” and they are not quite the butt of the jokes. Abbott is unintentionally on the money when he claims Bill Shorten’s straying from a political point was an “Irish joke”. Irish absurdism turns the joke upside down, making the world look stupid. Collins should ignore the idiocy of Morris and Abbott. The joke will eventually be on them and their decrepit views.

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