Serious business – Frank McNally on the alleged loss of Ireland’s sense of humour

Maybe we are a bit more po-faced than heretofore

A headline in this week’s Spectator magazine poses the alarming question: “Is Ireland losing its craic?”. The accompanying article seems to think so, citing health warnings on wine bottles, outrage over an Irish joke at the Oscars, and even Sally Rooney as evidence of decline in the nation’s sense of humour.

The Irish Times gets a mention too, via the recent F*ke T*n controversy, for alleged excess of cultural sensitivity. As the Spectator reminds its (mostly English) readers: “This is the paper that the comic genius Flann O’Brien wrote for.”

So is Ireland taking itself too seriously these days? Well, maybe we are a bit more po-faced than heretofore. But if so, as usual, we can blame the English.

The toxic fumes of Brexit, passively inhaled over several years, were bound to affect our mental health. That and having to be the “adults in the room”, as commentators put it, while our usually serious neighbours had an adolescent meltdown.


But we may also be losing the “craic” in a literal sense – because England is stealing it. It’s not long ago that some of us were still complaining over the faux-gaelicisation of a word formerly spelt “crack”.

That horse has long bolted, however. “Craic” is standard spelling now, even in Britain. And what’s worse is that they’re not just spelling it, they’re having it.

Even that bastion of Anglo-Saxon reserve, cricket, is no longer immune. When there was a row in a cricket match with India last year, the London Times reported batsman Johnny Bairstow, playing it down as only “a bit of craic”.

The cultural appropriation would be bad enough. But like tan from a bottle, the English can put the craic on for brief periods, to make themselves feel better, and then wash it off and resume their normal dourness. We are expected to have the craic all the time. And even Flann O’Brien could find that wearing.


I see from Dan Snow’s On This Day in History that June 9th was the date of not one but two major events in the life of Charles Dickens. The second, marginally more important, was his death (in 1870). But the first, which may have hastened the second, was his involvement in an 1865 train crash.

Dickens was travelling to London when, mid-way across a viaduct, the engine left the tracks. Seven carriages ended up in the river. His hung precariously over the edge, allowing him escape.

Although permanently traumatised by the event, he helped the injured as best he could. Then, like a true writer, he returned to the suspended carriage to retrieve something important: the manuscript of his penultimate novel, Our Mutual Friend.


Speaking of which and returning to Myles na gCopaleen (Flann O’Brien’s newspaper persona), I’m reminded of a column he wrote once on the alleged talent of Dubliners for holding scurrilous – even criminal – conversations without mentioning names or other details that might be used in evidence.

It purported to be a transcript, recorded by a “limey rozzer” (English policeman) working undercover in a Dublin pub and eavesdropping on two men suspected of smuggling nylons. Here’s how their conversation began:





Mick! The Usual.

I was down there last night.

I see.

Your man was there.




Your man. A sairtin paticular party that I know and that you know.


Our mutual Friend.

You mean ---?

My nabs with the hat.

Oh…I see. Him?

Yeah. Told me a certain job was being worked up in a certain place in Camden Street. The other chiner was seen up there a Tuesda stuck in the back snug with that hop-off-my-thumb from Carlow. He seen them.

I thought the big man was gone out of the country.

He’s here and he’s not here if you know what I mean.

(And so the transcript continued, to full column length, but with absolutely nothing that might be of assistance to investigators.)


Following Wednesday’s Diary – on a grisly 1904 murder in Monaghan – long-time reader Mattie Lennon writes to say that his father used to sing a song with the lines: “As two men were carting dung/They brought this crime to light.” Mattie asks: “Was there a ballad about the murder of the egg-dealer Flanagan?”

There was indeed. It’s listed at No. 2919 in the Roud Folk Song Index, as The Clones Murder. I’ve also found it on a collection of Fermanagh ballads (more cultural appropriation). And among the interesting things about it is that, while the dead Flanagan is elegised by name, the living murderer (Fee) is unidentified, although everyone knows who it is.

“Suspicion rests upon a man/Who in Armagh gaol does lie,” is as far as the lyricist goes. Maybe the matter was still sub judice. Or maybe, as with Myles’s barflies, the writer was being instinctively vague. On the other hand, some singers of the song sang in more ways than one. The title is listed elsewhere as “Fee and Flanagan”.