The Value of Irish Humor

With the world in such a tizzy these days; with so many people ready to shout and argue and poke each other in the eyes, I can’t think of a better time to embrace the Irish spirit.



It's my great good fortune to be a fellow of Irish descent. I share my good fortune with a quarter of all Americans, who can also trace their heritage back to the rolling green hills of Ireland.

As a lad, I remember my father, the Big Guy, sitting on the back porch on Sundays. Uncle Mike would sometimes visit for a couple of beers, and few things gave them more pleasure than swapping Irish jokes.

Such as the one about the fellow who was touring the Irish countryside. Hungry, he stopped at a farm and asked for refreshment. The lady of the house served him a bowl of soup. There was a pig in the house that kept running up to the fellow.

“That is the friendliest pig I ever did meet,” he said to the woman.

“He's not friendly at all,” said the woman. “That's his bowl you're using.”

I know that I'm not really “Irish,” but an American through and through. I know, too, that I'm also of German descent, and, much to my father's horror, my great grandmother on his side turned out not to be Irish, but 100% French.

Still, in my family we idealize what it means to be Irish. Being Irish means to laugh easily, to never take yourself too seriously, to be wary of getting lost in the narrowness of your own point of view.

Which reminds me of the one about the German spy who is sent to Ireland during World War II. The German is instructed to meet an Irish spy named Murphy and confirm Murphy's identity by saying, “The weather could change by Tuesday.”

After the German parachutes into Ireland, he sets off for town. Along the way, he asks a farmer where he might find a man named Murphy.

“Well, sir, it all depends on which Murphy,” says the farmer. “We have Murphy the doctor, Murphy the postal carrier, Murphy the stone mason and Murphy the teacher. As a matter of fact, I, too, am Murphy, Murphy the farmer.”

The German gets an idea.

“The weather could change by Tuesday,” he says.

“Aye,” says the farmer, “you'll be wanting Murphy the spy.”

James Thurber, one of my favorite humorists, says the wheels of humor are set in motion by the damp hand of melancholy. Aristotle wrote that comedy and tragedy are close cousins. The Irish have long known that humor and laughter are our chief weapons for combating sadness and pain.

Which reminds me of the time a young Irishman tells his mother he's in love. Just for fun, he brings home three girls and asks his mother to guess which of the three he has chosen to be his bride.

After his mother interviews all three, she says, “Your fiancĂ©e is the one in the middle.”

“That's amazing, ma. How did you know?”

“Because I don't like her.”

British academic and joke theorist Christy Davies says a good joke can help clarify and express complex feelings. A good joke can cut to the heart of the matter better than any speech or law or government policy.

If only every country and every culture held such a point of view. How much better the world would be if all people responded to humor by laughing or at least by thinking — instead of rioting and blowing things up.

These days, with all the conflict and disagreement going on, we could all profit from a better sense of humor.

Which reminds me of the time Pat explained to Mike why his valiant effort to scale Mount Everest fell short.

“Aye,” says Pat, “I would have made it to the top had I not run out of scaffolding.”

(Tom Purcell's e-mail address is TomPurcell@aol.com; his web address is www.TomPurcell.com.)

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

MENU