The Daily Telegraph’s recent publication of a blog inviting Irish jokes has provoked strong emotions. Mr O’Dowd recently wrote a column commenting on my perspective on this issue: "Huffington Post column is in favour of printing anti-Irish jokes."
Mr. O’Dowd makes a very fair point about the sensitivities of those who lived in Britain in the past. Those people, he says, remember real and virulent prejudice against Irish people. I too recall being rudely searched in Heathrow and in ferry ports during the IRA bombing campaigns of the early 1990s. I can understand why people who suffered from real anti-Irish prejudice in the past would not like seeing Irish jokes being bandied about again.
But the point I make is that free speech requires us to be a little bit thick-skinned. Free speech is endangered in the world today, precisely because of new laws designed to stop people being offended. On a global scale, free speech as regards religion is under threat at since the UN introduced the concept of “defamation of religion” last year. Soon you may not be able to criticize any religious idea, however bad or dangerous it may be: all because people don’t want to be offended.
Most people in Britain today have a lot of respect for the Irish. Despite the current recession, Irish people remain on average wealthier than the British. The Irish have a massive impact on British culture and media, from Graham Norton, to Terry Wogan to Dara O’Brian. I think that we need to get over the idea that the British look down on us. They don’t any more. They envy us: our culture is strong and thriving while theirs is confused and in crisis. We have a strong sense of identity and kinship while Britain frets over its “broken society.” Here is West Cork there are thousands of English people who have fled a society that they feel is falling apart.
Some people have said that Irish jokes are “racist” but this is an abuse of the word. There is no racial difference between British and Irish people: take a hundred random pictures of Irish faces and British faces, and you won’t be able to tell the one from the other. Genetic studies also show that there is little or no racial difference between the two peoples. Both also share an inordinate tendency to drink tea.
Jokes about the English
And let’s not forget that in Ireland we have tons of jokes about the English, the Scots and others. If we ban all Irishman jokes, what next? If someone from Dingle claims offence, must we ban all Kerryman jokes? Then the cute hoors from Cavan will cop on to the “being offended” industry, and will sue people for making Cavan jokes. If we carry on like that, we will have no jokes, and no freedom of speech.
Many of the “offensive” commenters who left jokes had Irish names and mentioned their own Irish ancestry. They just weren’t overly sensitive about it and were happy to tell jokes at their own expense. Most of these jokes were harmless, but one or two peripherally mentioned the famine. That hits a deep vein with me, as it does with Irish people everywhere. Perhaps some British people don’t understand how the ancestral memory of that horror is still alive in us. Do such jokes cause hurt and cause offence? Yes.
Yet every nation and people has its horror stories: the Russians lost 18 million people in the Second World War. As recently as 1979, the Cambodians saw one quarter of their population eradicated. I need not mention what befell the Jews. These atrocities happened not because of racist jokes, but because books were burned and freedom of speech was curtailed.
Ireland is an amazing little nation which has had a disproportionate impact on the world. Irish people are at the top of every field of human endeavour: business, science, law, politics, literature, sport, everything. We do not need to get offended about outdated caricatures of ourselves, because the world knows that they are no longer true. Perhaps its time we learned that ourselves. British people tell jokes about Americans, and Americans have jokes about the “limeys”. They don’t get upset, they just laugh and get on with things.
We will know that we have truly overcome the legacy of British rule when we banish the old inferiority complex that causes every perceived slight to be amplified beyond reason. We will have arrived as a grown up nation, the equal of Britain, when we no longer get offended at Irish jokes but just shoot back (with a joke, that is). I do not say that Douglas Murray is wise in calling for Irish jokes. Where I agree with him is when he says this:
"If people honestly think that in a thriving democratic society you can police peoples' humour when it is not illegal, then you are going to be in real trouble.”
The alternative to a free society is an Orwellian tyranny where our thoughts and words are policed by the state. If the price of freedom is occasionally being offended, we should be willing to pay it.