Jeanne Rathbone

Sceal eile – PAXMAN


In 1996 I was contacted by Newsnight to comment on Des Mac Hale’s defense of Irish Jokes. Here is the wikipedia entry on him. “Desmond “Des” MacHale is a full-time legend/associate professor of Mathematics at University College Cork, Ireland. He is a prolific author on various subjects, most notably humour.”

Here is some background on the situation in Britain for the Irish then. This was in the nineties when there was still plenty of anti-Irish sentiment in Britain.  This was abated later with the ‘peace process’ in northern Ireland and Good Friday Agreement. Such sentiment had existed for as long as the English/British were an invasive colonising force in Ireland. Wikipedia entry:  “Negative English attitudes to Irish culture and habits date as far back as the reign of Henry II and the Norman conquest of Ireland. In 1155 the Papacy issued the papal bull Laudabiliter which granted Henry II’s request to subdue Ireland and the Irish Church.”

‘Nothing but the Same Old Story’ documented this in the 80s after a decade of virulent anti-Irish racism. Here are some quotes: The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.
-Charles Trevelyan, head of administration for famine relief, 1840s

Ireland is like a half-starved rat that crosses the path of an elephant. What must the elephant do? Squelch it – by heavens – squelch it.
– Thomas Carlyle, British essayist, 1840s

The 1862 song, “No Irish Need Apply”, was inspired by NINA signs in London and later travelled to America.

Now in May 2010 there is a call for ‘Show racism the red card’ to challenge anti- Irish hatred in soccer in Scotland which has persisted and in February 2010  Douglas Murray who is director of the United Kingdom’s Centre for Social Cohesion has defended his decision to invite and allow Irish jokes on his Daily Telegraph newspaper blog. Up to 70 jokes have been placed on the blog in what has been described as “an orgy of Irish bashing jokes.”

This institute was founded “to promote human rights, tolerance and greater cohesion among the U.K.’s ethnic and religious communities and within wider British society.”

Here is a response to that from Irish Central an American-Irish magazine by Niall O’Dowd:  “The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs has already complained about the absurdity of an alleged civil-rights worker openly encouraging such bigotry”.

AND bigotry is what it is. If you lived in Britain as I did during the 1970s, the vicious strain of anti-Irish sentiment was no laughing matter. Everywhere from tabloid media to television comedians to construction workers among whom I worked were “Paddy” jokes depicting us as thick, dumb and lazy.” he wrote. In England anti-Irish racism was rife because of the ‘troubles’ and the jokes were the acceptable face of it. I was involved then in initiatives to counter the ugliness of the press like the Sun and Evening Standard and in getting an Irish dimension into the multicultural curriculum.  Our telephones were tapped then, too.

I had my own experiences of my children’s school’s Headmaster telling Irish jokes at a parents evening. A Headteacher come steaming in to a presentation that a friend and I were doing on St Patricks day in her child’s Primary School Honeywell. She had reacted when we showed our little Irish flag along with other artefacts and started shouting that she wanted no ‘indoctrination’ going on in her school. Another funny one was when we were being introduced by the Head of Latchmere School by the Head John Bartholomew who asked the children to put their hands up if they ever told Irish jokes. Almost all hands were raised enthusiastically,  including John’s. Then he proceeded to say that it was wrong to tell Irish jokes and why and those little hands soon came down quickly.

Anyway, getting back to my anecdote this nutty Professor of Maths from Castlebar has a most nerdy obsession to collate puerile jokes, mainly ethnic and Irish compilations as a sideline or to ingratiate himself with his students. He was being invited to be a spokesperson in defense of racist/ethnic jokes/humour and developing further opportunities for remuneration over and above his salary from the Universtiy.  However, on this occasion he was not available for comment for the Newsnight programme so they invited some Welsh Professor to defend the position that Irish jokes are not racist and me, as a comedian Sheela-na-Gig, to put the opposite view.

As I was invited as a comedian I asked Paxman if I could do two very quick visual gags with an English and Irish reference. In my act I used a novelty penis and made a further gag about how it made me think of the Irish  deputy Prime Minister who was called DICK SPRING and for balance I showed the British audience a packet of cigarettes called MAJOR implying the Irish were ‘taking the mickey’ by naming a cigarette packet after John Major the Prime Minister at that time. When I spoke to Paxman for the briefing he reacted vehemently against this and he put his researchers on ‘handbag duty’ to make sure that I didn’t make a move to reach for my props. Perhaps he doesn’t like to be upstaged or his programme seem to irreverent  I was disappointed although I know it is a bit of a cheap laugh.

I compared the Irish and the Welsh stereotypes saying that the Irish being portrayed as stupid, drunken, violent and potential terrorists had more serious effects compared to the Welsh being depicted as ‘sheep shaggers’.  He got caught in a ‘have you stopped beating your wife’ scenario by having to to reply that he didn’t mind at all if he was perceived as a ‘sheep shagger’ !!

I have this abiding memory of Paxman and team viewing me as a potential hijacker and being under surveillance to make sure I didn’t reach for  my handbag.

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