CSotD: Laughing Only at the Well-Healed

Constant Readers know how much I hate March 17, but that means I got a kick out of John Cole’s contribution to the day, because it’s entirely silly start to finish.

Darby O’Gill and the Little People is not, by far, the worst Irish-American film ever shot, but it does play on sentimental archetypes and so why not add the Village People?

John Ford did worse in playing to Irish-American sentiment, with occasional moments of green glurge in his Westerns giving away to the treacle of The Quiet Man, which is set in postcard Ireland and bears little resemblance whatsoever to the taut, classic Maurice Walsh short story.

In his defense, Ford was the American-born son of Irish immigrants at a time when sentimentalism was a major defense against prejudice.

The Irish were one of the last ethnic groups let in the door, which explains why their portrayals aren’t seen as offensive as those laid upon other less homogenized and assimilated groups.

In 1996, I reissued a history of the Champlain Valley, with Sid Couchey, known for Richie Rich, Little Dot and other Harvey titles, who had done the original for our paper during the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Plattsburgh.

Before the booklet was slated to go out to area schools, I drove up to Salmon River, where the school’s enrollment is nearly 2/3rds Mohawk and from a very militant community. I pointed out to the superintendent that, as seen in that first panel, Sid made fun of every group, and that, for instance, the joke in the second panel was on the English, not the natives.

He agreed, but explained that ethnic humor is mostly funny once your group is established and accepted, and, for those who have not gotten there yet, things remain touchy.

Our decision was that the booklets would not be automatically delivered, but would be available to any teachers who requested them.

None did. Nor was I surprised.

Which by the way earns today’s Bizarro (KFS) a special award for mocking one of the most hated stereotypes in cartooning. Smoke signals are 99% a white man’s invention, though also the name of a really good Indian-produced movie.

A little pushback is a good thing.

Hogan’s Alley, though it bore an Irish name and featured Irish urchins, was the invention of Richard Felton Outcault, who was not Irish, despite creating a memorable little fellow named Mickey Dugan, later known as the Yellow Kid.

Nor, despite his name, was Happy Hooligan of Irish origin, being the creation of Frederic Burr Opper, the son of Austrian immigrants.

Both characters were loveable ruffians, and, while they may seem crude and perhaps offensive in retrospect, they were accepted at the time as giving the Irish some presence, albeit a low one.

They were certainly a step above what Irish-Americans faced a generation earlier, when Thomas Nast was drawing them as evil, ape-like creatures.

Nast also argued that voting for an Irish Catholic like Francis Kernan for governor of New York would be the equivalent of turning the state over to the Pope.

Today, the Pope’s influence on foreign affairs is mocked by Chip Bok (Creators), which may indeed reflect his decreased ability to direct his flock.

When John Kennedy ran for president, nearly a century after Kerner’s campaign for governor, it was still thought by many that the US would be ruled from the Vatican if JFK won.

I’ll admit it took some inner wrestling for me to settle my opinion of Nast, but, again, I’m sure my charitable take was influenced by the Irish no longer being oppressed in this country.

George McManus, who by-gawd was Irish, earned true affection for Bringing Up Father, which didn’t deny the appeal of corned beef and cabbage or beer, but was based on the conflicts between Jiggs, an unrepentant example of “shanty Irish” and his social-climbing “lace curtain Irish” wife, Maggie.

The strip regularly depicted Jiggs as trying to sneak out to play cards and drink with the boys down at Dinty Moore’s saloon, while Maggie worked to polish her image as an up-and-coming member of a snotty, exclusive society.

It was the type of insider humor we’ve seen arise in the humor of other minority groups, too, perhaps with a sense of “I can laugh about this, but you’d better not.”

The issue for St. Patrick’s Day now is finding that sweet spot where you are laughing at stereotypes rather than at the ethnic group they apply to. Dave Whamond could have used another panel or two in today’s Day By Dave to make clear whether he’s mocking green beer or the people who drink it. (I choose to mock both.)

Frazz (AMS), meanwhile, marks the day in relation to another faux holiday, giving neither of them any respect. Caulfield’s joking reference to drunkenness is jolting, but the overall theme works: It is truly ridiculous to make such a fuss over the groundhog but never bother to check his prediction.

Now here’s a bit of marketing trivia: At some point in the early 80s, I came across some drunken Irish jokes among St. Patrick’s Day cards in a Colorado supermarket and complained to management.

They were quite apologetic and, between the lines of their corporate response, I gathered that drunk jokes were banned on the East Coast where Irish Americans are a significant group, but that the card distributor had shipped its remaining stock of offensive gags west in hopes nobody there would notice.

Nice try.

I found an old playlist of my Irish pub band, and discovered that drinking songs made up maybe 10 percent of our material. Most drinking songs come from the music halls rather than the countryside and are not of Irish origin any more than Stephen Foster’s music hall tunes reflect the Black community.

But some of them really are funny, wherever they came from, and we’re certainly in a position to laugh, having done well in society.

So in lieu of a single tune today, here’s a Youtube playlist of songs we used to do, done by other folks since we were together back in the days when recording was expensive and so we never bothered.

But I’m attaching the liner notes so you can follow along if you’ve a mind to.

14 thoughts on “CSotD: Laughing Only at the Well-Healed

    1. A word on smoke signals. They were in use by the natives of NOrth America from coast to coast at time of first contact. DeSoto saw them in Florida in 1539 and Cabrillo had the same experience in California in 1542. The only contribution from newcomers was the idea that you could convey a complex message with smoke. There were only two signals: a steady column for “HI, friends here” and puffs for “danger.” Sermon over.

  1. O.K., this is appropriate to today. As insulting as it is, it’s funny. There is a story often told at Brennan’s Pub (over a pint of green beer) about a lazy Irish relative who was always just laying around the backyard. his name was Paddy O’furniture. (Groan)

  2. “It’s not the Pope I worry about; it’s the Pop !” supposedly remarked by Harry Truman about JFK’s religious affiliation.

  3. I guess it’s a nice reminder that everyone is demonized or held in suspicion at some point.

    Nowadays the notion of the Irish or Catholics as “undesirables” is absurd, but it was a very real issue 100+ years ago.

    If only all marginalized groups could be so successful at gaining acceptance…

  4. Nice playlist! My dad’s records were more Paddy Noonan and Dennis Day, I had to learn about real Irish music on my own…

  5. my 2012 column on Nast’s cartoon treatments of the Irish, Catholics, and Chinese (as well as blacks) includes my take on the “Chinese Question” cartoon Mark B linked to:
    i should also note that Nast once warmly welcomed the Irish immigrants who’d fled famine and oppression under British rule (see the Irish couple in Nast’s “Come One, Come All” cartoon*), he radically shifted his views as he witnessed the rise of barbaric atrocities committed against minorities by the, yes, “evil, ape-like” racists and murderers among them.

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