The newspaper, Inside Times , carried two jokes submitted by prisoners in its September issue, and then dismissed complaints from Irish prisoners in its October issue, when it carried a third joke.
One joke reads: “A condemned man sat in the electric chair awaiting his execution, but there was a fault. They called in Paddy the electrician to try and sort out the problems. After two hours, he still hadn’t found it and told the Governor, ‘This thing is a bloody death-trap.’”
A second read: “An Irishman goes for a job on a building site. The boss asks, ‘Can you brew tea?’ Yes, he says. The boss then asks, ‘Can you drive a fork-lift?’ ‘Why, how big is the tea-pot?’” Describing the jokes as “deeply offensive”, an Irish prisoner wrote to the newspaper to complain they implied Irishmen “are basically stupid”, and asked if similar jokes would have been directed at black people or Muslims.
The average Irish Times reader is unlikely to be offended by the jokes involving Irishmen published in a British prison newspaper, since it’s almost a middle class pastime in Ireland to tell imaginary English people how open-minded you are, and how you’re not at all like the quick tempered coat-trailing savages of yesteryear. The sophisticated critique of the jokes from such quarters would be something like this: we all know that Irish people are not like that, because lots of them have university degrees, and we also know that English people are not anti-Irish, because some of them are my best friends, and it’s time to move on from the bad old days. The critique might also point to the universal form of the joke: all cultures have their inferior other, you could hear similar jokes getting told in Russia, or the US, only they wouldn’t have anything to do with Irish people at all. So it would be impossible to take offence at this particular instance of the joke because we all know that Irish people aren’t like that, and furthermore, Irish people are no longer even the inferior other in British culture. OK?
For me there’s no denying the jokes are funny. In a way they are very fine jokes indeed, but what really matters is the particular context in which they are presented, and the function of the jokes within that context. If I share these jokes with another Irish person, their function is not at all the same as if they are shared between two English persons. In the latter situation, if they’re found to be funny, it’s more likely that there’s a shared feeling of superiority in play, founded on national affiliation: ‘we’ -the English non-Irishmen sharing the joke- are normal people, whereas they -the Irishmen- are stupid.
The function of the Irishman here has little to do with what Irish people are really like; rather, it’s more to do with showing how people like ‘us’ -the English non-Irishmen- are reasonable, perceptive and wise. Shared between two Irish people, on the other hand, there still be a shared feeling of superiority, but the joke may carry an ironic inflection, based on a knowledge of the history of Irishman jokes and the assurance that whoever told the joke originally didn’t have us in mind. In Ireland, for the more prosaic ha-ha-they-stupid stuff, you always have the travellers.
‘Irishman’ is a peculiar locution. It has no direct translation into other European languages. English describes the man from Ireland as an Irishman, the man from France as a Frenchman, yet the man from Spain is a Spaniard, the man from Greece is a Greek. Spaniards, Greeks, Iraqis, Indians, Italians are lack this sense of ‘man’-liness. There is no universality in the application of the -man suffix. Other languages, in ascribing nationality, entail no such irregularity. The bearer of the ‘-man’ suffix is a member of an elite English club: ‘-manliness’ is the product of an intimate, particular, historical relation.
Who’s the Irishman of these jokes? In the first joke, he’s an electrician. In the second, he’s a building site labourer. In both cases, he’s an idiot. Let’s take three hypothetical contexts and explore how the joke might work. One, the jokes get shared at the coffee dock in a City law firm. How the joke works may depend on how the lawyers view not only Irishmen, but also the work the Irishman does. So the joke may work not only on account of the Irishman being particularly stupid because he is an Irishman: it may also work because the protagonist is a manual labourer, and he is an Irishman for the purposes of the joke because that is what Irishmen do. Or, the fact that it is an Irishman may be completely besides the point of the joke. Or, the scenario is simply implausible since typically speaking jokes do not get shared in City law firm coffee docks any more than babies get eaten in Texaco filling stations. I surmise, nonetheless, that there are quite a few City lawyers who tell jokes about Irishmen and feel quite pleased with themselves, on grounds of both class condescension and of national affiliation (the two, of course, are often intertwined), for so doing.
Two, the jokes get shared in a supermarket warehouse somewhere in the south of England. Here, the jokes may work differently. The fact that the Irishman is a manual labourer may not matter so much, though the aforementioned norm of superiority is still in play: less, perhaps, on account of overt class condescension, but on account of national affiliation. Still, even though the Irishman is an idiot, he is saying something about power and authority. What that something is, I’m not too sure, but the Irishman-as-idiot seems to throw a spanner into the normal works of things. In the first joke it’s the process of the state killing people. In the second it’s the power enjoyed by the interviewer/boss.
So the jokes are not merely about laughing at Irishmen, even though they depend on the figure of the Irishman as idiot. But what does this mean for my third hypothetical context of publication in a prison newspaper? First, I think we’re still left with the fact that the corollary of the Irishman-as-idiot is the reasonable, perceptive and wise joke teller and audience. Yet if you’re locked up in prison, it’s not because the state considers you reasonable, perceptive and wise (even though you may very well be all these things). So the publication of the jokes for prisoners in British jails may, for the British prisoner, deliver a sense of relatedness to an ordinary existence, of a country in which people go to work, run into difficulty with the boss, in which Irishmen are still Irishmen, and nationality is a common bond, even though the prisoner who reads the jokes is totally denied any such ordinary existence. The Irish prisoner in the British jail, however, runs the risk of being transformed by the joke into an Irishman.
One other thing:
Denying the paper had been racist, Inside Time operations director John Roberts said he had asked Mr McGinn to write to him to explain “so that we can see exactly what the issue is”. “We do not do anything with a view to offending people. Obviously, it isn’t our intention to do so,” said Mr Roberts, who is married to an Irishwoman.
Not that there is anything wrong with being married to an Irishwoman, but I do wonder why this detail has been included. If a spokesman for a paper denies it has been misogynist, would it be sensible to describe the spokesman for the paper as ‘married to a woman’?