by Angelica Joy (AJ) Calapiz
(UBC Arts One LA3, Siobhan McElduff)
As James Joyce, the most influential Irish novelist, writes, Flann O’Brien is “a real writer with the true comic spirit”, a spirit that pervades The Poor Mouth. There is no doubt humour is a crucial factor of the book, a momentous aspect that seems to make the misery and suffering described enjoyable. While the humour riddled through the text can be read as the author’s natural style, with deeper examination, it becomes obvious the humour, and particularly the use of satire, disguises the horror faced by the Gaelic people. Simultaneously, this manoeuvre of evoking laughter draws attention to the suffering faced by the Gaelic people, stimulating indignation among the audience.
Although naturally dependent on an individual’s sense of humour, for the purpose of this essay, I will define satirical humour as a type of humour that mocks human weaknesses or aspects of society; humour that exaggerates its targets to ridicule. Aside from satirical humour, despite the fact that humour is the basis of this essay, I will not attempt to define humour as a whole due to its numerous variants, and instead will define the types of humour moving forward as I introduce them into my discussions. I will also use Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian as a point of comparison, as the text is also a book that “humour pervades”. King also uses multiple types of humour in his text, including but not limited to morbid humour, irony, and dry humour. Similar to Flann O’Brien, King’s use of humour makes the disgusting conditions described “readable” (ibid) while concurrently drawing attention to these despicable conditions (ibid). In preparation for my analyses of the satire utilized in The Poor Mouth and The Inconvenient Indian, I will discuss the tradition of Irish satire, including its branches, popular authors, and its function, as well as the (albeit less established) tradition of American satire, including its history and function. For these introductions, I will utilize A Companion to Satire, edited by Ruben Quintero, as well as Ailís Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh’s “Satirical Narrative in Early Irish Literature” to strengthen my discussion. I will also explore the possible theories of the purpose of humour in literature, utilizing Taking Humour Seriously by Jerry Palmer. As I explore the relationship between satire used and the horrors recounted in the The Poor Mouth, I will examine three specific passages, including the retelling of the Captain’s story, the recording of the Gaelic language, and the beatings of the ‘Jams O’Donnell’ (O’Brien 30-34). All events are comprised to some degree of the belittling of the Gaelic people, yet are disguised as humorous instances through the abundance of atrocity that they entail. In The Poor Mouth, “a bad story about the hard life” (O’Brien), Flann O’Brien’s use of humour and satire I argue, truly changes the way we interpret the misery and suffering described, somehow concealing the intensity of the horrors faced, while simultaneously emphasizing the atrocious hardships experienced by the Gaelic people.
Lying at the heart of Ireland’s literature, satire holds a well-established, long and varied tradition in Irish culture. With an extremely high proportion of Irish literature containing satire, the genre can be split into two branches. Satire dating back to the Old Irish period (eighth and ninth centuries) is generally associated with “verbal magic and cursing”, developing over time into “the tradition of literary invective” (Lanters 476); specifically, we are discussing invective that includes expressions of highly critical, abusive and insulting manner, sometimes lacking the humorous aspect most other traditions of satire contains. The second branch, often regarded as the Menippean tradition, or narrative form of satire, criticizes mental attitudes rather than entities, thus making it more general in its targets. While the first is much more widespread and much older in Ireland, the second has no roots in the Gaelic tradition. In terms of Old Irish satire, “magical maledictions uttered by satirists… often strike the modern reader as being closer to curses and spells than to “proper” satire” (Lanters 476). These curses are essentially aimed at known and specific entities/individuals, abusively mocking and ridiculing them, bringing disgrace and shame onto these targets – even to death, in some cases. The idea of being able to use satire to shame individuals to death accentuates the importance of the satiric genre as a social function. In the Old Irish tradition, numerous words can be utilized to refer to ‘satire’, indicating the “importance and pervasiveness of the genre” (Lanters 477). Alongside the more recently adopted Menippean satire, this Old Irish invective is still widespread today. As mentioned above, James Joyce often wrote using this form of verbal magic and satire, and often times even directed these attacks at the Irish literary world, including his first published work, the poem “The Holy Office” (1904), where he accused writers of “lacking the courage of their literary convictions” (Lanters 478) and called their works “filthy streams” and termed them “timid arses”. Following this branch is that of Menippean satire, considered more ‘general’ and ‘proper’, perhaps due to its roots in Roman literature. Narrative satire is not nearly as widespread as the Old Irish branch possibly due to the fact that it “requires a worthy opponent: there is nothing to be gained by ridiculing the weak, the poor, and the powerless” (Lanters 480), and the targets of Old Irish satire tended to be the socially and economically powerful. This less personal form of satire flourished in periods of “cultural turmoil and political upheaval” when new values were being established (Lanters 484) – a period that perfectly describes the newly minted nation of Ireland in the 1930s and ‘40s, when the Poor Mouth was composed. These new values and rules allowed for opposing opinions on the attitudes held relevant during these times, including greed. One notable author who often wrote in this form was Jonathan Swift, whose satire was one that “heals with morals what it hurts with wit” (Imitations of Horace cited in Lanters 481). Although directly describing Swift’s style of satire, this phrase captures the essence of narrative satire, satire that targets abstract justice, aimed at ideological positions and rising above the level of name-calling.
Despite having two varying branches, the function between these variants is quite similar, differences only including targets of attacks and the manner in which these targets are criticized. A strong public and social function was found in the Irish tradition of satire, especially within a culture engrossed in reputation, honour, and respect, a “shame culture” (Lanters 476). Satire gave access to a method of criticizing others, and was so predominant that ancient Breton laws had to formally distinguish lawful and unlawful satire, the latter including damaging nicknames or making fun of a person after death (Lanters 476). Using satire as a way of either expressing superiority over others or opposing particular mental attitudes—in expressions that do not implicate with ideas of unlawfulness—proves very functional, a basis for the tradition of Irish Satire. Flann O’Brien, the author of our primary text, uses satire to engage his audience in the “dethroning” of entities he targets, and writes in Menippean form to further attack ideological attitudes (Lanter 488). O’Brien seems to adopt a “mask of misanthropy”, openly questioning whether humans are “capable of making their own decisions, given their propensity to commit fatal errors of judgement” (Lanters 490). Just as the hardships displayed in The Poor Mouth prove depressing and disturbing when given deeper insight, this strategy taken on by O’Brien evokes the same emotions—that thankfully we have humour through satire to lighten the mood.
As opposed to a very well-established tradition of Irish satire, American satire is certainly not as customary or prominent. Although varying branches may be distinguished, they are not as established as the branches of Irish satire, so we will omit them from the discussion below. As a general definition, American literary satire from the eighteenth century onwards “relies upon humour to expose human and institutional failures” (Morris 376). Similar to Menippean satire, this humour is written with authorial indignation targeted at human shortcomings and mental attitudes including greed, corruption, self-indulgence, and more (Morris 376). This generally negative genre concentrates on the conspicuous absence of traditional values, making the world appear “grotesque” (Keenan 1965 cited in Mhaoldomhnaigh 37). Albeit disturbing when closer thought is given to the horrors expressed by satire, part of the success of a satirical piece is the underlying hope for reform—hope riddled throughout King’s writing. Perhaps the largest difference between American and Irish satire is the absence of the tradition of Old Irish satire, that is, satire that thrives on invectives. Or to put it another way, “without humour, satire is invective; without literary form, it is mere clownish jeering”, an idea that slightly varies from that of Old Irish tradition (Ency. Brit. cited in Mhaoldomhnaigh 37). A prominent factor in American satire is the use of irony. In being ironic, the satirist “praises what he loathes, speaks with enthusiasm of utopias he proves to be wastelands” (Kernan cited in Mhaoldomhnaigh 42). This opposition of what the satirist explicitly expresses and what the audience infers as the satirist’s true perspective creates satirical humour that draws attention to the horrors the author shares.
Despite the differences in establishment, values, and forms between American and Irish satire, the functions within each respective culture remain universal; both use satire to criticize entities or oppose mental attitudes, in hopes of abstract justice and reform. As displayed in the discussion above, satire is a complicated genre, and thus covering the entirety of complicated reasons why King utilizes satire is impossible. But one important reason is that he seeks to make the stories he reveals “readable” for his audience, and liven up the discussions many regard as ‘boring’ in everyday life (Rogers). By using theories of satire and its function in Palmer’s work, we can see multiple reasons why the humour expressed in Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian is so successful. Palmer’s first theory considers a study performed by Rose Laub Coser, an American sociologist, which studied the various functions of laughter in a hospital. Out of this study, she concluded humour was a way of
expressing various gripes, but whereas a gripe expressed in a straightforward assertion is an expression of a purely individual experience, jocularity makes it a collective expression by that of ‘transforming a personal experience into one that can be shared’ (Coser cited in Palmer 59).
In other words, expressing straightforward complaints against mental attitudes is purely individual, whereas expressing complaints using humour can create a shared experience, allowing more comprehension and solidarity. Because King utilizes humour in his writing, he is able to create a more shared experience of the horrors he reveals, building accord and compassion. Another theory of humour as a function in King’s work includes the function of humour allowing the mention of taboo subjects (Palmer 60). Subjects people may perceive to be too sensitive to talk about with others, including the history of Indigenous peoples in North America, are much easier to discuss when humour is utilized – as King demonstrates. Certainly the theories on the functions of humour could continue for pages and pages, yet the two I have included are functions I believe allow for King’s text to be as successful as it is. This success in writing using humour to highlight hardships faced is apparent in the both texts, The Inconvenient Indian and The Poor Mouth, despite the varying concepts of satirical humour in each culture.
Then I saw the dead person… settle himself on his stony seat, to shove his hooves in the direction of the fire and to clear his throat for storytelling.
– It is unknown wherefore the yellow-haired, small, unenergetic man was named the Captain… He was wont to spend the year… carousing in Scotland… (O’Brien 109)
As our protagonist, Bonaparte O’Conassa (aka Jams O’Donnell; see below), stands frenzied in the Hunger-stack after he discovers O’Poenassa’s stolen treasures and nourishes himself with the streams of whiskey, the apparently deceased O’Poenassa begins to let out “ghostly words” that send a “flood-tide of sickness or terror or disgust” through Bonaparte (O’Brien 109). This reaction of terror is made satirically humorous not only by the surprise of the dead man apparently coming back to life, but by the story being told and the manner it is told in. In Chapter 5, Bonaparte also hears the identical story, told by Ferdinand O’Roonassa, a friend of the Old-Grey-Fellow. In O’Roonassa’s “little house in the corner of the glen”, he sat by the warm side of the fire (just as O’Poenassa did), “fixed his backside carefully beneath him, shoved his two hooves into the ashes… cleared his windpipe and began to spew discourse”— all very similar to the manner in which the ‘dead’ man told his story (O’Brien 69). Along with the identical descriptions of their positions, their stories prove indistinguishable, as Ferdinand begins: “I did na know… why he was called the Captain… ’Twas said that he spent a good bit of his life carousing in Scotland” (O’Brien 69). Although satirically humorous considering the lack of likelihood of the same story being told in two varying places in an identical manner, with deeper thought, this seemingly harmless humour becomes satirical humour, exaggerating the ideas placed upon the Irish to ridicule, and mocking the way Irish people were viewed at the time by the English and some loathsome non-Gaelic speaking neighbours. During the horrific time when the Irish (especially Gaelic speakers) were belittled by the English, many individuals even considered the Irish people to be extremely inferior. This example emphasizes a belittling assumption, the assumption being the lack of variation in stories and topics discussed in Gaelic culture. Although true to some extent, the synonymy of the two events seems too humorous to be unintentional. O’Brien’s use of this humour accentuates the belittlement and creates a powerful effect.
Similarly, in his text, The Inconvenient Indian, Thomas King uses humour to describe similar instances of belittlement, including by profusely listing products North America has created from the image of the Dead Indian (King 57-59). This almost endless listing seems humorous initially, and emphasizes the belittling treatment experienced by the Indigenous peoples from the Whites. Not only were Indigenous peoples very inaccurately categorized, some were unjustly stereotyped, while some had their status changed against their will. Over the centuries, both Gaelic and Indigenous cultures have been historically presented by their respective settler cultures as fixed, childish, non-productive and ‘wrong’ in the eyes of others. Furthermore, despite the variance of styles between the two authors (O’Brien with satirical humour and King with dry humour) both writers are successful in drawing attention to the hardships faced by their respective cultures; King takes a Western tradition and makes it work for his writing (that in itself acts as a type of revenge) and O’Brien reworks an Irish tradition, to show that writing in Irish isn’t dead. Taking a look at more historical examples not mentioned in either text, we can see the similar despicable conditions each culture was placed under through the photos taken of ‘dying’ lifestyles. Just as individuals took photos of ‘dying’ lifestyles of the Indigenous peoples of North America, so too did the Irish and others—including the English—of Gaelic cultures, sometimes in textual ‘snapshots’, as in anthropological studies. This perspective on Gaelic and Indigenous peoples proves despicable, often belittling their culture through widespread stereotypes. Similar to O’Brien’s use of identical repetition highlighting the suffering faced by the Gaelic people, King’s use of humorous over-listing highlights the suffering faced by the Indigenous peoples.
The master again brandished the oar which was in his grasp and did not cease until he was shedding blood plentifully, the youngster being left unconscious and stretched out on the floor, a bloodied bundle. And during the beating the master screamed once more:
- Yer nam is Jams O’Donnell!
He continued in this manner until every creature in the school had been struck down by him and all had been named Jams O’Donnell. No young skull in the countryside that day remained unsplit. (Author’s italics; O’Brien 31)
On Bonaparte’s first (and supposedly only) day of school, he is quickly beaten by the master O’Loenassa, a man with “a ferocity of anger” who “cared not a whit for anyone” (O’Brien 29). When asked for his name, Bonaparte replies politely with “Bonaparte, son of Michelangelo, son of Peter…” and so on, only to get screamed at and hit with the oar gripped in his master’s hands (O’Brien 30). This horror continues throughout the class, as seen in the passage above. An act of assimilation, this event strips Bonaparte of his historical identity and connections, an undoubtably horrific situation exacerbated by the fact that it appears widespread and somewhat acceptable. The situation is somewhat guised by humour as Bonaparte later asks his mother “Woman…I’ve heard every fellow in this place is called Jams O’Donnell. If that’s the way it is, it’s a wonderful world we have and isn’t O’Donnell the wonderful man and the number of children he has?” (author’s italics; O’Brien 31). Despite the light nature of the reactions to the abuse, the notion behind the uniform names proves horrific. This act of naming all the children (including the girls), “Jams O’Donnell” and abusing them in class showcases the abusive acts committed in order to assimilate the Irish people into English culture. The Irish children suffer horrendously under this act of assimilation, and the way in which the event can be viewed with satirical humour makes the matter all the more depressing. Due to the widespread view that the Irish were much more inferior than the English, through stripping the students of their Irish names (albeit Bonaparte’s first name is already not exactly Irish; the same is true of his father (Michelangelo) and son (Leonardo) as well), and literally and figuratively bashing a new English name into their heads, the English hoped Irish culture would slowly vanish. Just as in makeup, concealer disguises the dark areas of the face, the humour the horrific situation is relayed with—in this case the way in which all the names are identical—conceals the intensity and seriousness of the abuse.
In The Inconvenient Indian, King also uses humour to make the terror of abuse and assimilation more readable. As King finishes discussing topic of Residential Schools and the apologies expressed by various governments for the devastating effects the schools brought upon Indigenous cultures, he adds in a humorous sidenote: “maybe Obama is waiting for the Pope to clear his schedule, so the two of them can apologize at the same time” (King 122). As King teaches the reader about the unwarranted abuse suffered by Indigenous children in residential schools, he goes on to explain the apologies and lack thereof issued by the government and Catholic church. Although Obama and the Pope did not directly cause the detrimental effects of these acts of assimilation, it would be expected on their parts as public figures to formally apologize for all the trauma it continues to cause. This sarcastic humour King adds creates a powerful emphasis on the lack of reconciliation around past and present assimilation.
The creature was lost without delay in the darkness… the gentleman’s heart leaped when he heard a great flow of talk issuing from that place. It was really rapid, complicated, stern speech… but the gentleman did not tarry to understand it. He leaped up and set the machine near the one who was spewing out Gaelic… It was said later in the area that the gentleman was highly praised for the lore which he had stored away in the hearing- machine that night. (O’Brien 44)
This last example of the simultaneous existence of humour and horror is perhaps the most insulting to the Irish culture. The terrible idea that the Irish were somewhat unintelligible and less human than the English is only disguised by satirical humour to a certain extent. Although the event is seen humorously, considering the way in which a pig is mistaken for a human solely due to its outfit and presumed culture, the message behind the satire is clear; the Gaelic people are undeniably less intelligent than the English (if they are even lucky enough to hold intelligence at all) and are more beastial/similar to animals than ‘real’ human beings. Not only is the pig mistaken for a Gaelic man, his ‘speech’ is described as if “the old fellow was swearing drunkenly” (O’Brien 44). The gentleman-from-Dublin’s thoughts are described with even more astounding detail in the following sentences, wrongfully thinking that Gaelic was extremely difficult, and understanding that “good Gaelic is difficult but that the best Gaelic of all is well-nigh unintelligible” (O’Brien 44). Understanding, as if a positive correlation between the difficulty and the unintelligibleness of Gaelic language were a widespread fact. This wrongful thinking continues as the “gentleman” (he is the only one referred to by this title) brings the recording to Berlin, and is academically awarded for absorbing a fragment of ‘Gaelic’ “so good, so poetic, and so obscure” (O’Brien 44). To make matters even more disturbing, it is relevant to note the man in power in Berlin during the time of O’Brien’s writing was none other than Adolf Hitler, a man primed in his mindset of believing races/cultures could be superior to one another. This apparently playful and humorous situation all seems innocent until the message beneath the story is uncovered, and is perhaps the most belittling example of all as it denies the Gaelic people the intelligence/human-ness to create their own intelligent language.
Thomas King points out a very similar situation in his text, as the Whites deny the Indigenous people intelligence, as when he quotes the author James Cooper stating, “God gave each race its gifts. A white man’s gifts are Christianized, while a red-skin’s are more for the wilderness” (James Fenimore Cooper). Although seemingly generous in his choice of wording, King is quick to point out Cooper’s maliciousness, explaining that what Cooper implied was “Whites had a pre-frontal cortex and Indians did not” (King 29). This horrific distinction between Indigenous peoples and the Whites is all too similar to the distinctions showcased in The Poor Mouth, and only emphasizes the suffering both cultures faced.
As I have discussed and explored, The Poor Mouth depicts Gaelic sufferings in a very powerful manner as he combines satire and suffering, humour and hardship, to accentuate and emphasize each other. Thomas King’s use of humour in multiple forms, and especially satire, in The Inconvenient Indian proves extremely effective in provoking discussion and thought about ideas and events many deem difficult to read or think about. After reviewing the varying foundations of Irish and American satire, we are able to discern the difference the application of satire and humour in literature makes, when writing on experiences of hardship. This literature simultaneously disguises and draws attention to the horrors discussed—whether discussing the history of Indigenous peoples in North America or the Gaelic people—in particular Gaelic speakers—in Ireland. The various examples O’Brien encompasses in his writing obviously have a potent effect, and it is important to note that my choices of observation did not include all of the possible and powerful passages in the text. Thomas King, as the undeniably talented writer that he is, is fully aware of the potency of this combination in literature, acknowledging it as he ends that, “sometimes looking at a tragic moment through a particular angle provides a bit of humour and deepens the tragedy at the same time. Makes it more powerful” (King 285).
Nì Mhaoldomhnaigh, A. Satirical Narrative in Early Irish Literature, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2007.
Palmer, Mr Jerry;Palmer, Jerry. Taking Humour Seriously. Routledge, 2003. 16 April 2018 <http://www.myilibrary.com?ID=6790>
Quintero, Ruben, and Wiley Online Library. A Companion to Satire. vol. 46, Blackwell Pub, Malden, MA, 2007.
 Shelagh Rogers interview with Thomas King in King 267-85, hereafter cited as Rogers for convenience.
 We can see one such example on King 114 where he references Duncan Campbell Scott’s use of the term “final solution in 1970.”
 The only change O’Brien makes is that of the form of Irish; whereas O’Roonassa speaks in Ulster Irish, O’Poenassa employs Old Irish when he speaks; the variations in the translation are meant to show that difference, rather than a change in the story.