Satire runs deep in the Irish Republic, documenting antibiosis with Britain and its hard, ongoing self-discovery. Looking back at this output in our happier times, you’re spoiled for choice.
It’s nearly two years exactly since I last set out to explore the world’s satire. That expedition took fever and perished. At the time I had planned a wildly optimistic schedule of themed daily posts – a comic and chronic overestimation.
A lot of things have occurred in the interim, but undeniably the most relevant was the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris back in January 2015. I wrote about the magazine in one of my first posts on this blog, when it was known only to savants of satire; doubtless it is familiar now to anybody politically aware. The magazine has become a contested symbol since. I may say something about the event in future, but suffice to say that a devotee of the medium like myself could not fail to be moved by it.
Nonetheless, on this Easter weekend, I, like Jesus, felt suddenly quite compelled, extraordinarily, to raise my corpus from the dead. Perhaps, like Jesus, it may rise to heaven again about a month afterwards, never to be seen again until the end times and leaving most observers sceptical as to its ingenuity. Best-case scenario at this stage: the blog becomes a bi-annual event. Here’s hoping.
Since we’re on the subject of Easter and sacrificial symbolism, a striking place to get the ball rolling again may be found by casting our satirical eye slightly westwards: to our near and dear neighbours on the island of Ireland.
Certainly near, but dear, not always. Easter Monday 2016 marks the centenary of the Easter Rising, regarded in historical and popular memory as a baptism of fire for Irish nationhood – the most important 20th-century event on the path to the independence of the Irish Republic. Members of a small Irish republican group holed themselves up in the middle of Dublin and proclaimed an Irish republic. They were crushed by the British Army. At first, the Rising was seen in Ireland at the time as a bit inappropriate considering the First World War was going on at the same time, and mainstream Irish nationalists had plumped for helping Britain out. Hearts and minds were famously changed, however, when the rattled British gifted republican public relations by executing the rebel leaders. The reverberations of this showdown were arguably momentous, pointing the way for 20th century anti-imperial resistance movements the world over; but as is usual with such things, the event itself was much more complicated and farcical than later hagiographies make it out to be.
Ireland is a fitting venue for our new departure, not only because of my personal liking for Irishy things but also because Jonathan Swift, one of satire’s elder masters in the English language, was himself Anglo-Irish – a Dublin man. Any self-respecting enthusiast knows that his iconic A Modest Proposal speaks to the long, tortured, yet inextricable relationship between Ireland and Britain, bound in uneasy union from 1800 to 1921, and shows amongst other things the depth of the satirical tradition in Irish politics and society.
Within the cartooning subset, you’re spoiled for choice. On Irish Home Rule alone – the big issue leading up to Easter 1916 – there’s an awful lot of ink on paper out there. Dozens of little magazines went in and out of business in Ireland throughout the late Victorian period, when Irish Home Rule was one of the talking points in British politics – so vexed that it turned half of one of Britain’s two then-major political parties (the Liberals) into members of the other (the Conservatives). At this time, British magazines also added to the volume, commenting on what was still an imperial back yard. This 1887 cartoon below is fairly typical of contemporary depictions of Ireland and the Irish (a subject that would easily fill an article in itself) – crude and stereotyped, frustrated and uncomprehending: a running theme in British cartoons even in the post-independence 20th century, especially later in relation to sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
Among the many magazines published at home in Ireland were titles like Weekly Freeman, the weekend supplement of the long-running and leading nationalist newspaper Freeman’s Journal (which later became part of the Irish Independent, which still exists today). The Weekly Freeman published coloured lithographic prints, like the one below, exhibiting the work of prominent political caricaturists.
Thomas Fitzpatrick went on in 1905 to found The Leprecaun, a monthly cartoon magazine that was prominent in Dublin by the time of the Easter Rising. (The Fitzpatrick artistic tradition was carried by his grandson, Jim, famous for creating the two-tone image of Che Guevara beloved of T-shirts the world over.)
Conflict is a remarkable spur to humour, but even in Ireland’s ‘quieter’ period, between independence and civil war in the 1920s and the Troubles in the 1960s, irreverence still found expression – not only through its famous theatrical talents, but also artistically. The primary outlet, besides the work of prominent newspaper editorial cartoonists, was the Dublin Opinion, with its motto: ‘Humour is the safety valve of the Nation’. This magazine kept the send-up mill turning in a somewhat repressed period in which frivolity was generally frowned upon – conservative Catholic customs and expectations ran through society as the government and its formerly revolutionary supporters tried to bed down ‘Irishness’ in a young and pretty hard-up country. One likes to think it’s no accident that the son of Charles E. Kelly, cartoonist and co-founder of Dublin Opinion, was none other than the late actor Frank Kelly, who played the drunkard Father Jack in Father Ted, a comedy driven by a similar impulse in a newer age, and one of Ireland’s most acclaimed cultural products.
Dublin Opinion continued strongly until the early 1970s, finally taking its leave after a revival attempt later in the decade. It would be missed at a time of continued social upheaval in Ireland, with violent unrest clamouring across the border in Northern Ireland. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the dynamics of conflict, this was a moment when artists and publications from Northern Ireland dominated the satirical life of the wider island. Notable among these was Rowel Friers, a Belfast cartoonist, who contributed regularly to The Irish Times, by then the Republic’s liberal broadsheet. Again, satire during the Troubles is meaty enough to warrant a treatment all of its own, but the below example by Sunday Independent cartoonist Meredith Branson (signature ‘Warner’), one of the few house names working in the Republic, broadly illustrates a sliver of this politically- and creatively-charged period.
Perhaps Ireland’s best known satirical publication today is The Phoenix, first established in 1983 and based in tone and format on Private Eye magazine, although more unambiguously left-of-centre than its British counterpart. Online, Waterford Whispers News is Ireland’s Daily Mash equivalent, scoring a couple of major goals with its content. In 2015, the esteemed German magazine Focus misreported a Whispers ‘story’ about a stampede in Lidl as real news. Esteem was duly reallocated westwards.
Political cartooning in Ireland today remains no mean business. English-born Martyn Turner, a product of the conflict-era interaction of talent, who went to university in Belfast in 1967, just before the Troubles, and never looked back, is one of the Irish Times‘s leading hands. Recently, the newspaper pulled one of his cartoons: a comment on long-awaited child protection legislation in Ireland, introduced in April 2014 following the 2009 Ryan Report into institutional child abuse (including child abuse by members of the clergy). It would seem to appear that the Times wanted to avoid offending the sensibilities of elements of its Catholic readership.
Turner may have ruffled some feathers, but history will bend towards him, as Irish satire is nothing if not replete with the grim – take Swift’s baby-eating in A Modest Proposal, if nothing else. Another earlier cartoonist who was no stranger to grimness was Ernest Kavanagh, an ardent young trade unionist and nationalist, who made his name publishing a series of cartoons in reaction to the 1913 Dublin Lockout. The Lockout was the biggest industrial dispute in Irish history, involving around 20,000 workers in a series of strikes and walkouts over several months.
Kavanagh was killed, three years later, on the second day of the Easter Rising. Though sympathetic to the 1916 rebels, he was a non-combatant caught in the crossfire, presumed to have been shot dead by a British Army sniper.
Kavanagh, like Turner, and others before and since, serve as useful reminders of the polemical dimension of satire. Cartoons amuse and abuse, but at their best they mirror and discomfit. In a country whose experience of nationhood and institutions has been so coloured and combative, you can see how this unvarnished edge might be necessary or essential; it is certainly an honest reflection of Ireland’s historical character. Sketching out that character as I have is merely skimming the ice sheet, and diving full-on into this immersive satirical tradition will richly reward anyone interested. Long may it continue too, to the 1916 bicentennial and beyond.