Being offended has become a sport of sorts. The sitcom we laughed at last night is the one riddled with racial derision the following morning, and that innocuous comment on a talk show at breakfast is headline news by lunchtime. We treat the hypersensitive with kid gloves and tiptoe on eggshells, hoping not to offend anyone. But the Irish? Well, that comedic pot o’ gold gleams as bright as it ever has.
But why the Irish? The short answer is they roll with the punches and can take a good joke. The longer answer, however, takes more twists before it reaches that Celtic cul-de-sac.
While the Cartoon Network sent Speedy Gonzales and his ratoncitos packing in 1999, and Aunt Jemima tossed off her slavetime doo-rag to reveal a raven coif, beaming leprechauns are still “always after [their] Lucky Charms” — only today they’re made with whole grains.
Tom O’Rahilly, director of the National Leprechaun Museum in Dublin, told Glittersnipe, “If the joke’s funny, what’s not to laugh at?” The very fact that the museum even exists is proof that the Irish not only love their folklore, but are a people very much in on the joke.
“Irish people sense the absurdity of things, and are tolerant of ambiguity,” O’Rahilly said. “We have a love of language that overrides stereotypes. People tell stories about themselves, and audiences hear what they want.”
It is, however, easier for a group to take a joke when they’re significantly less oppressed than they once were.
From the mid-1800s through the early 1900s, the streets of New York City’s Lower East Side bustled cheek-by-jowl with newly arrived immigrants: Italians, Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, Hispanics, Chinese, and Irish. At the time, estimates show that the neighborhood crowded between the Williamsburg and Brooklyn bridges was the most densely populated in the world, and it is here that many of our most reviled epithets were conjured — including “mick.”
Many theories swirl around the etymology of that most derided Irish term, yet like most epithets, its initial introduction to the lexicon was innocuous. Some linguists claim it stems from the “mc” in McSorley, McMullin, etc, or the hypocoristic for Michael, while other more apocryphal theories say “mick” stemmed from the sound of a drunkard’s hiccup.
Regardless of its origin, the word grew out of a time when signs like “No Blacks – No Irish – No Dogs” were placed in storefront windows in Lower Manhattan, and “no Irish need apply” littered the classifieds. “Mick” quickly became a word that was frequently spat.
“I can take a good gag and I love the ‘ol hoor’ jokes,” Irish historian Paidraig Downey told Glittersnipe. “And the stereotypical ‘paddy Irishmen/Englishmen, Scotsmen,’ jokes are mostly clever and funny — but every fiber in my being rejects the word, ‘mick,’” he said. “The Irish have been pissed upon in the past for centuries and we never use the race card — but an epithet is an epithet.”
Today in New York’s Lower East Side, the stereotypical hooch-sodden leprechauny Irishman is alive and well on stage in the on-going camp classic Man Men parody The Mad World of Miss Hathaway. Angela Di Carlo, the show’s writer and one of its stars, says the show has received no flack from audiences or critics because of the stereotypes represented.
“The bottom line is that the crowds roar when Mr. Shenanigans (played by Casey Spooner) is on the stage,” Di Carlo said. “Listen, I’m a quarter Irish and I’m a natural redhead for Christ’s sake, and in this show pretty much nothing’s off limits. I mean, the whole musical is about exaggerating the socially inappropriate behavior, misogyny, and racism on Mad Men but to the nth degree.”
That’s all good and well under a spotlight but how does the Irish lush stereotype fare for an actual Irishman? “I can tell you firsthand that, in America, if I’m sick in the morning, people just assume I’m still drunk,” Downey said.
“Socializing and sharing information is practically what being Irish is all about,” he explained. “We love the banter and the chat — the craic as we call it — and along with that comes the deoch or the drink. And what does it tell you that whiskey in Gaelic (uisce beatha) means ‘water of life?’ Indeed, drinking is a social affair.”
“That said though,” Downey told us, “I generally pass on the ‘drunk jokes.’ But hey, if they’re funny, they’re funny — it’s just that simple.”