The Jonathan Swift Festival kicked off this week with a riotously funny conversation between Roddy Doyle ad Tommy Tiernan in St Patrick’s Cathedral. The event was sold out, as over a few hundred people gathered in the historical cathedral where Jonathan Swift was once Dean. The conversation revolved around questions of comedy: where it comes from, what’s its purpose and why the Irish seem to be so devilishly good at it. All these questions pertain to the work of Swift and yet, peculiarly, in an event named after him, the poor chap wasn’t even mentioned once. Luckily there were plenty of laughs to be had.
Does comedy come from a place of suffering? Tiernan began the evening with this question, one of the oldest debates in the comedy business. It is an idea that is old enough, and contentious enough, to be etched onto Swift’s tomb: “He lies where furious indignation can no longer rend his heart.” Describing himself as being “born into trouble”, Tiernan wondered whether the Irish sense of humour is inextricably tied to the fact that, throughout our history, we have been a “suffering people”. Roddy Doyle responded with a resolute “no!”, to the delight of the crowd, arguing that he had a happy childhood and that the enduring popularity of works such as The Snapper was because it was “a labour of love”.
Despite this initial disagreement, both agreed on one fact – comedy is utterly impotent when it comes to affecting real societal change. Tiernan dismissed most comedy as “preaching to the choir”, although he did acknowledge comedy’s therapeutic properties, noting that it is often the last refuge of the “dispossessed and the disempowered”. Doyle agreed, adding that comedy offers a certain personal freedom to say things that we otherwise couldn’t express.
And of course comedians have a license to say whatever they want, said Doyle. But Tiernan shook his head. He pointed to a newspaper headline that took a Holocaust joke of his out of context and cost him a US tour. Undeterred, Doyle suggested that freedom to say what you like doesn’t quite mean freedom from the consequences. Tiernan remained adamant, but responded in good humour, saying: “If your Da was to tell you that you can have that cake but he’s going to hit you if you do, are you really free to have that cake?”
What seemed to unite the two was their ability to laugh at anything, even themselves. Doyle recalled one evening, near Tara station, when he was walking by a group of “young fellas” in tracksuits – “you know the kind, those lads who walk like pigeons”, he tells us. One of the pigeon-strutting youngsters came up to Doyle and asked him: “Are you Roddy Doyle?” Doyle said yes. “So what?”, the pigeon-walker replied, flying off before a gob-smacked Doyle could respond.
What had proved a boisterous evening concluded with questions from the audience, with the last question falling to a young man. He began: “I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say what an honour it is to see you two up there sharing a stage, my favourite author and my favourite comedian…”, before he was briskly cut off. “You can’t speak for everyone now”, Tiernan corrected him, laughing. Mocking the man, Doyle added: “Do you wish your favourite racehorse was up here too?”
If there was a dominant theme to the evening then this was surely it. That the Irish, for better or worse, have a strong sense of humour and that we’ll find a laugh anywhere. I doubt that St Patrick’s Cathedral has ever held such a laughter-filled evening.