When Oliver Cromwell’s forces sacked the Irish town of Drogheda in 1649 and massacred its inhabitants the comedy potential seemed limited. Thousands perished and that was just the start of a military campaign that wiped out much of Ireland’s population before Cromwell returned to England.
Four centuries later, however, those dark events and other landmarks of Irish history have been mined for humour – and the joke is on the British.
Oliver Callan, an Irish satirist, has questioned British comedians about their knowledge of Ireland and uncovered an apparently deep well of ignorance. For Killing Leprechauns, a six-part BBC podcast that launches on Saturday, Callan asked a dozen young comics about Irish stereotypes, history and current affairs. The general response: obliviousness.
It validated the old joke about the Irish never forgetting their history and the British never remembering theirs, Callan said in an interview. “It was much worse than I expected.”
The comedians appeared unaware that Britain’s closest neighbour had a young population and tech-driven economy, he said. “Their view is it’s still an old place, mass-going, the Catholic church still has a grip, we’re still backward; it’s a misty, old-fashioned country that’s taken to the drink.”
Comedians tend to consume a lot of media and to focus on what audiences find familiar, said Callan. “So if British comedians don’t know about Ireland and aren’t talking about Irishness, it’s indicative that their audiences don’t either and this is because their media and their establishment are not paying attention.”
In the series Callan pokes fun at the Irish, suggesting they were created when a red-haired rabbit copulated with a long streak of misery that floated through upper Cavan. But after prodding his guests to recount Irish tropes, such as drunkenness, he responded with facts and statistics that challenged the stereotypes.
The comedians, who include Rhys James, Glenn Moore, Ana Magliano, Josh Weller and Sophie Duker, submitted themselves to tests on their “Mick ignorance”, regarding Irish culture, and a segment called “Great Britain or hate Britain” that asked them how aspects of Britishness are regarded in Ireland.
Few were aware of Cromwell’s record in Ireland, though James recalled learning in school the Puritan leader had invaded and irked the natives with “cosmic ways”. Told about massacres and that Drogheda’s governor was beaten to death with his wooden leg, James replied, tongue in cheek: “Now you’ve told me I’m furious about it, mate. If you’re listening in Ireland, I’m livid about it.”
Knowledge about the Great Famine was scant but Callan said the Irish extracted a revenge of sort when the resulting emigrant tide to Britain produced an infamous descendent, Piers Morgan. “So things have a way of evening out.”
The British comedians were fuzzy about Éamon de Valera, who dominated Irish politics for much of the 20th century, but noted his name’s resemblance to “devil” and Cruella de Vil.
Questions about Ireland’s taoiseach, Micheál Martin, and his predecessor Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s first openly gay and mixed-race leader, drew a blank. The comedians were surprised to learn Joe Biden, John F Kennedy and other US presidents celebrated their Irish roots, and that Ireland had become a liberal, secular state.
Callan, who hosts radio and TV shows in Ireland, including Callan’s Kicks, an RTÉ podcast that mimics and excoriates politicians, said Ireland had a “daddy complex” with Britain. Irish people followed British TV, British sport, British politics, but Britons showed little awareness or interest in Ireland. “Our intense focus on British matters is not even reciprocated at a micro level.”
Britons had little reason to share navel-gazing Irish obsessions such as Biden’s Irish heritage but it was a shame they did not follow the example of King Charles, his late mother and other members of the royal family who have visited and engaged with Ireland, said Callan.
The satirist said Irish people had their own blinkers, such as ignorance about Northern Ireland and aspects of Britain, especially its geography. “We couldn’t place many cities on a map.” Brexit gave the Irish licence to create their own stereotypes, he said. “We milked it quite a bit to portray Britain as narrow-minded.” Even so, the Irish yearned for attention. “We just want the Brits to notice us.”
• Killing Leprechauns is available on BBC Sounds.