No jokes please, we're Irish


This article was originally posted on Comment is Free

This is Brian Cowen. He is the Taoiseach of Ireland. He is a man noted for a certain belligerent political style, and certainly not noted for his sense of humour.

Earlier this week, a man called Conor Casby took two of his paintings of a nude Mr Cowen and placed them on the walls of the National Gallery and the Royal Hibernian Gallery in Dublin, together with satirical gallery notes. RTE, the national television station, found out about this and sent a news crew to cover this reasonably funny story, which ran on the national TV news later that day.

Which is where it should have ended: a nice ‘and finally…’ piece and then the weather.

But this is not what happened. The government’s press secretary called RTE and demanded an apology for the tone of the item. RTE, oddly, agreed, and issued an on-air apology to the Taoiseach for the report.

Which is where it could have ended.

But this is not what happened.

Conor Casby is being investigated by Gardai, and could possibly face charges for indecency, criminal damage and incitement to hatred.

For sticking (not nailing) a funny picture of a politician on a wall.

In Ireland.

In 2009.

One of the greatest myths we Irish ever sold to the world is the idea that, as a nation, we’re a bunch of irreverent, fun-loving, piss-taking wags.

The actual evidence for this is pretty thin on the ground. Apart from a few over-exposed stand-up comedians, there is not a great deal of funniness in Irish life. And there is practically no political satire. What satire there is is painfully insipid (with the honorable exception of the Private Eye-like Phoenix ).

The lack of healthy political satire is particularly notable on RTE. And there are two simple reasons for this. The first is that most Irish politicians take themselves incredibly seriously, as their salaries testify. The second is that the government feels it’s entitled to bully the state broadcaster, and the state broadcaster seems to broadly agree.

The last great political satire programme on RTE was the radio show Scrap Saturday. Scrap Saturday was a genuine phenomenon, possibly the last radio show in the western world that an entire nation was glued to. Starring future Father Ted actors Dermot Morgan and Pauline McLynn among others, it savaged the decaying Haughey regime, and Ireland’s political culture of backslapping and backhanders, brilliantly.

Scrap Saturday was shut down after a couple of years. Pretty much everyone in Ireland believes this happened because of pressure from politicians who, well, didn’t like it up ’em. Morgan, who had also been part of RTE’s last great satirical programme before that, (The Live Mike, in which he appeared as, among other characters, down-with-the-kids priest Father Trendy), was certainly disgusted with his and the show’s treatment by RTE.

The fact that Irish politicians feel they are entitled to be beyond jokes, and that they can actually stop people from making jokes, is alarming for a country that prides itself on it’s rebelliousness and irreverence.