Why do Irish artists and comedians lack the nerve to ask society's really awkward questions?

Why do Irish artists and comedians lack the nerve to ask society's really awkward questions?

BEAR with me for a while but this is about Irish comedy.

Somehow, I realise now that there was a brief period of time in Britain when society opened up and there were opportunities for kids like me.

It meant that in the 1980s the opportunity of going on to third level education was a possibility for a working-class kid from an immigrant Irish family growing up in an inner-city area.

Most university students, most undergraduates, who continue to be from middle class backgrounds, do not realise that the progression to a degree course is not something that everyone is on from the moment they start school. College, university, or in my case polytechnic, is not a given.

Indeed, in Ireland, listening to the media furore over Leaving Cert results you could be forgiven for forgetting that in Irish society well under 50 per cent of kids go onto third level education.


Believe me, it doesn’t sound like that when you are listening to university educated journalists interviewing university-bound students in a make-believe world where every kid in Cork, Galway and Dublin is sweating on a college place.

So it might still be unusual now in Ireland but in 1980s Britain it was unusual too. Yet, with the only other option the dole, a degree course with fees paid and rent allowance and the possibility of dole/work in the summer meant that university was no longer the never-never land it once had been and with student loans the one it may well have become again.

So, yes, it seems as if there was a brief time there where education was a possibility for kids from red brick terraced houses on tight city streets. Did the same ever happen in Ireland? It doesn’t appear to have. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of that.

What got me thinking about this, strangely enough, was a comedy show. Now I realise that I am in many ways still that chippy working-class kid who got lucky and found himself off the dole and on a degree course. It was great. I had a ball.

But it also made me realise that the secret middle-class world of academia that I had previously been shut off from was far from all it was made up to be, that it was in fact quite a sham and that I had met plenty of more intelligent people in pubs, bookies and the back of work vans as I was ever meeting in the lecture halls.

So the passage into the respectable world of degrees didn’t smooth me out but instead made me even more chippy, more interested in asking awkward questions about a world where those with power seemed to maintain that power with a charade.

A charade of learning and intelligence and the mystique of correct pronunciation and refined manners. And what could an Irish immigrant know about that. And around me I had a culture asking awkward questions, whether it be Spitting Image, second-generation Irishman Johnny Rotten or second-generation Irishwoman Clare Short. The world was opening up.


Coming back to Ireland though I did not find that.

Who asked the awkward questions here? Who, in a supine media, even raised the obvious corruption going on? Why were the Irish outside of Ireland seen as so rebellious and untamed when the Irish in Ireland seemed so subservient and so respectable? Why, for instance, did the height of Irish satirical comedy seem to be someone doing imitations as safe as a 1970s Mike Yarwood?

After all, this is the country where RTÉ wouldn’t take a punt on Father Ted. And in the 15 years I have been living here I had never come across any kind of satire or comedy that could be considered awkward or dangerous.

That is until I recently saw a programme called Callan’s Kicks on RTÉ. For the first time I saw somebody on RTÉ not only doing frighteningly exact impressions of celebrities and politicians but in a way that was genuinely funny and genuinely asking questions.

Now I have thought about it since and Oliver Callan might not even be that funny. He might just be a thoughtless muckraker but what his biting performance does is show up the poverty of Irish comedy and by extension Irish cultural expression.

It still strikes me, for instance, that during the astounding changes and excesses of the boom that Ireland’s leading novelist wrote a searching novel about the Famine.

But at the end of his recent series, when one of Callan’s characters exhorts Ireland to go back to sleep instead of thinking about world events, it sounded as if an impressionist’s comedy show was for once saying more than it sounded like.