Want of Wit

The serious side of Irish humor
Episode Trailer

Why do traditional musicians place a premium on humor and social rapport? Rory Makem, John Doyle, John Williams, Aidan Collins, Pauline Logue, Lisa Coyne, and Siobhan and Brendan McKinney help Shannon investigate the deep wellspring of Irish wit. Whether you already have an arsenal of quick comebacks, or you’ve never heard Irish people slag each other, this episode digs behind the banter.


Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Matt Barlow, Brian Benscoter, and Mark Johnson

Episode 09 – Want of Wit: The serious side of Irish humor
This Irish Music Stories episode aired October 10, 2017
– transcript edited by John Ploch –

Speakers, in order of appearance:

>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 
>> Aidan Collins:  Belfast-born, Galway-based writer and editor
>> John Williams: Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist with All Ireland titles and numerous film credits
>> Pauline Logue: Donegal-born, Galway-based lecturer in the fields of Teacher Education and Religious Studies 
>> Lisa Coyne: Melrose, Massachusetts-based flute player and clinical psychologist
>> Brendan McKinney: Chicago-based flute player and piper, and co-proprietor of Chief O’ Neill’s pub
>> Siobhan McKinney: Sliabh Luachra born, Chicago-based flute player and co-proprietor of Chief O’ Neill’s pub 
>> John Doyle: Irish guitar player and songwriter who has collaborated with and produced numerous Celtic and American folk projects 
>> Rory Makem: Folksinger and guitar/banjo player, who learned from his grandma Sarah and father Tommy


>> Shannon:  Hi, it’s Shannon Heaton. And before I offer Episode 9 of Irish Music Stories, I wanted to invite you to visit Irish Music Stories.org. There are links to past episodes and playlists of all the music featured.  AND there’s a donate button. Your support helps me banter with musicians and dancers around the U.S., Ireland, and beyond.

And speaking of banter….

This is Irish Music Stories, the show about traditional music… and the bigger stories behind it. 

[ Music: “Tap Room, Mountain Road, Galway Rambler” (reels), from Rehearsal
Artist: Dan Gurney (accordion), Shannon Heaton (flute), Matt Heaton (guitar) ]

Like how Aidan Collins finds connection in caustic banter:

>> Aidan:  That’s how you know they love you, that’s how you know you’re accepted, if someone insults you, hahaha.

>> Shannon:  Humor is complicated. It’s nuanced. Stuff that’s funny and appropriate in one context might not translate in another. Like Richard Pryor: he said stuff I couldn’t and wouldn’t ever say, but it really resonated with his experience of being a black man in America.

And within Irish circles, and in Irish music circles, there are particular conventions as well. I talked to Chicago accordion player John Williams about this, since he makes me laugh. He thinks humor is a key part of Irish music. That it’s a big way in to the tradition.

>> Shannon:  When Irish musicians play together, there’s a real premium on, ah, wit, maybe…

>> John Williams:  Yeah…

>> Shannon:  …that well-timed …

>> John: Yeah. The give and take, the banter, the rapport is almost, ah, part and parcel of the musical exchange. In fact, one might say it’s where the music comes from. And unless you’re having that—you might not be having the full experience.

And you know, that back-and-forth banter exchange that happens, either with session and audience or amongst the session, you know, there’s, there’s kind of a sporting humor aspect to it. And on occasion I will find myself in a somewhat humorless session.

>> Shannon:  Hahaha

>> John:  And ah, I will have to rectify that sometimes and sometimes I do not succeed. But out in the car, I can always go out to the car. I have a joke book of 1000 jokes.

>> Shannon:  Hahaha

>> John:  And sometimes I have to go out there and bring it in. Just because there’s not enough wit going on, you know. There’s a thirst for wit, it’s been—that lyric comes up again and again in songs:  The Parting Glass:  “all I’ve done for want of wit, it’s a mem’ry now I can’t recall.” I mean, that’s why people are coming to sessions really, I mean—the wider community. They’re not coming to learn the 5th part to “The Kid on the Mountain.” They’re learning, they’re coming for a few laughs. So that’s fun.

>> Shannon:  Entertainment.

>> John:  Yeah, it’s a mixture of aesthetics and anesthetics—you might like that.

>> Shannon:  Hahaha.

>> John:  I think it does apply to Irish music, because there’s a certain amount of anesthetics that you might get from the drink. I’m not all about encouraging drinking—let’s just admit that it needs no encouragement in Irish music. But there’s an aesthetic quality–the beauty within the art form. And then there’s this other lighthearted, jovial thing with the anesthetic.

>> Shannon:  So, alcohol aside (that’s probably another episode), Irish sessions can be lighthearted and fun. The jokes can also get more pointed. And sometimes the more “fun” you’re having, the rougher it gets. 

Aidan Collins helped me unpack this one. He was a grad student of my mom’s and years ago, he arranged for me to meet my flute hero Matt Molloy backstage at a concert. Our families have stayed in touch. And the last time that I was in Galway, Aidan and his wife Pauline (and my friend Lisa Coyne from Boston) started talking about humor. 

[ Music: “Ramblin’ Man” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

Now, Aidan and Pauline really know Irish music, but they’re not musicians. When I told them about my early experiences with Irish music and humor, they got right into it with me. 

>> Shannon:  When I started in Irish music, I remember, you know, really having a nice time, people welcomed me. They were so kind. And then, like, SOON I felt like everybody was teasing me. 

>> Pauline:  Oh, no!

>> Shannon:  And I didn’t like it. 

>> Pauline:  Oh, no!

>> Shannon:  And then suddenly, I, you know, it unfolded. 

>> Pauline:  Oh, right!

>> Shannon:  And then I’d see them tease each other.

>> Aidan:  Yeah.

>> Shannon:  And then suddenly it became very funny. And then I’d tease somebody and see how much I could get away with.

>> Aidan:  Yeah.

>> Shannon:  And then eventually you realize it’s part of joke telling…

>> Aidan:  It’s part of acceptance. You’re being accepted into the community. 

>> Shannon:  Yeah, it’s a way of fending off praise. (All laughing)

>> Pauline:  It is and sifting out who’s going to be in and out.

>> Shannon:  Yeah, cuz invariably people come up (and say) “This sounds great…”, you know, and that really …

Aidan:  We’re in a zone…

>> Shannon:  We’re in a zone. Don’t judge it. Because then we become self-conscious. 

>> Shannon:  The zone takes work.  You’ve got to build it and protect it and humor can help sculpt a moment or a community. 

Now, Irish pubs can be noisy. So, can cities and factories. So, if you’re trying to build this moment and create this vibe in these kinds of settings, it helps to be punchy with your stories and jokes.

>> Aidan:  Belfast was a big industrial town. The biggest in the country. Ah, a lot of mills and I’ve been in them. As a school kid, we were brought to visit them. And my mother worked in them for a while. And they’re very, very noisy places. So, if you’re having conversation with the person beside you and you’re telling jokes, you can’t do it all narratively.

>> Pauline:  No big long chat—that’s a good theory

>> Shannon:  That is a good theory.

>> Aidan:  You know? And that sort of carries in down onto the streets.

>>Lisa:  And that’s so funny, because that would work with sessions, too.

>> Pauline:  Yeah.

>> Shannon:  You’d find it in a city naturally …

>> Pauline:  Yeah, you’d find that in the middle of the …

>> Aidan:  There’s a window to say something—to tell a joke, to make a quip. And it’s like a nanosecond.

>> Shannon:  And then it’s over.

>> Aidan:  And then it’s over.

[ Music: “John’s Theme” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Aidan:  I’ve been asked how do you come back so quickly. The only way I can explain it is that you remove a filter and just say it. That’s the speed and you need to trust yourself not to put your foot in it and insult someone.

>> Pauline:  I’m also saying that that doesn’t happen in all of Ireland. There are pockets. 

>>Lisa:  Hmm.

>> Pauline:  See, Belfast, inner city Dublin, inner cities in general have that with the real fast speed. You wouldn’t get it in more rural areas. Or you would not get it, say, even where I was born in Donegal. 

>> Aidan:  Yeah.

>> Pauline:  Not like in your family where everyone are (rapidly snapping of fingers) firespeed.

Aidan:  Well in Belfast when you come into a company. And people who come into the company think, they’re insulting each other. 

>> Pauline:  Yeah

>> Aidan:  But that’s how you know they love you, (laughing) in a perverse way.  And that’s how you know you’re accepted, if someone insults you, you’re accepted. You don’t do it to a perfect stranger because that perfect stranger’s going to go away thinking they’ve just insulted me. You get to know a person and trust your instinct around what you can say to that person. And they you let it fly (all laughing).

>> Shannon:  I asked Aidan to give me an example.

[ Music “Sabai Sabai” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Aidan:  A short phrase, like someone might be “Yer Ma”…

>> Pauline:  One short word.

>> Aidan:  …or “Ask yer Ma”, Ask yer sister.” This sort of thing, you know—nothin’s been said. But there’s an implication, right?

“You’d never get a girlfriend—Aye ask your sister.” “You’d never get a girl—Ask your Ma.” You know? That sort of thing.

>> Pauline:  An onlooker would say, what’s going on there?

>> Shannon:  So, do you think it can be learned?

>> Pauline:  By being in the environment you absorb it. That’s how a child learns how to speak. Trying to mimic. Feedback.  I’ve seen Mairéad do that.

>> Aidan:  My sister.

>> Pauline:  His sister’s really quick! And she’ll say, you don’t say that. We can say it, but you don’t say it. So, you’re not in there yet. 

>> Shannon:  For you to come in and to suddenly, like, assert yourself in exactly that same way, would be very awkward.

>> Pauline:  It would be very awkward.

>> Shannon:  It would be very—you know, it wouldn’t be organic at all.

>> Aidan:  No, no. It’s something that grows on you, all right. (all laughing)

>> Pauline:  Like, “Aidan, you’re very intelligent.”

>> Aidan:  Ah, yes, yes, keep going…

>> Pauline:  And Mairéad is so intelligent. I just think some people that are highly intelligent (fingers snapping) are quicker at it. And, ah, you know have just got deeper nerves.

>> Shannon:  I’ve met a lot of people from the North of Ireland, like Aidan, who are very quick. Their wit can really bite. 

[ Music “Hometown Lullaby” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Pauline:  There’s the north/south divide in terms of this as well. You know, people not wanting to live with people from the six counties because they found them too abrupt. They didn’t see the humor.

>> Aidan: The six counties being the northern part of Ireland.  Our humor can be seen as quite rough as times.

>> Shannon:  And divisive.

>> Pauline:  It’s linked to the politics of those six counties as well, against the oppressor. I think there’s a whole politics and history around the banter there too.

>> Aidan:  Possibly.

>> Pauline:  It was a way of attacking, a verbal attack.

>> Shannon:  The politics of humor. Yeah, there are reasons American Jews and African Americans have their own savage and self-deprecating humor. It’s survival, right? It’s backlash against oppression. It’s fun, but it’s also serious. Humor is serious protection. And different groups need different protection, so they expect and accept different behaviors. And different people can play different roles.

Like for Aidan, humor is a nuanced game, for active play and for Pauline it’s more of a spectator sport. Even though she’s quite funny as well.

>> Pauline:  You’re more comfortable with words.

>> Aidan:  Hmm.

>> Pauline:  So therefore, he doesn’t…I would have a reserve—in the bantering. Because of this dilemma of being brought up with Irish and then switching to the English. I love it. I love watching it. I totally get it. But I’d be more watching on and having a laugh. 

>> Aidan:  I think you’re afraid? It’s a fear.

>> Pauline:  Do you think so? Yeah.

>> Shannon:  So, removing that filter, removing that fear.  That might help to fuel the craic (that’s C-R-A-I-C). It means, basically, having a good time. Here are Brendan and Siobhan McKinney. They’re flute players and own the Chicago pub Chief O’Neill’s.

>> Brendan:  There’s so many components, but nothing greater to or equal to the craic. So that’s really what it comes down to. And the craic really is, it’s a kind of  loosely-used term but in Irish music. Craic has a deeper meaning of encompassing everything. ‘Cause you’re actually doing something. You’re not just having the craic, but you’re having the craic—you know?

>> Siobhan:  I mean, the music is so sweet, it’s so—the melodies are gorgeous. I mean, who doesn’t want to come as often as they can to share, to share those melodies? Enjoy them if you don’t know the tune—you know, you don’t know every tune. Um, and…

>> Shannon:  It’s a lot of fun and I mean, there’s not just music going back and forth. There’s a lot of wit. 

>> Siobhan:  Yeah.

>> Shannon:  And a lot of slagging.

>> Siobhan:  Definitely.

>> Shannon:  You definitely have to be kind of in shape and ready to give and take a bit of ah…

>> Siobhan:  You definitely need to have your slag portfolio up to date.

>> Shannon:  That’s right, that’s right.

>> Siobhan:  You know that firsthand.

>> Brendan:  And your extra layer of thick skin! (All laughing!)

>> Shannon:  Guitarist John Doyle remembers the craic from his pre-music days—when he was four. And this is probably another important backdrop for John’s lovely ballad singing and his driving guitar playing. That extra musical stuff. I think it gets bundled into the actual music too. 

John Doyle:  When I, when I started going to sessions first—which was a long time ago and this was before I played, like I was four years old. Myself and my brothers used to go and my grandfather was playing in County Sligo—in a little place called Coolaney in County Sligo. 

[ Music: “Dawn Song and The Killavil” from Rehearsal

Artists: Dan Gurney, Shannon Heaton, Matt Heaton ]

And my grandfather used to run a session there on Saturdays and Sundays, he was an accordion player. As my father said, he was more enthusiastic than good. (both laughing) which is true! His name was Tommy Doyle. And he played the accordion and he had one finger missing, you know. But, ah, I remember all the tunes, and they’re all the old Sligo tunes, you know, the classics. 

But I do remember that—I remember all the people there, you know, and of course the place was full with smoke, you know, and that it was all the old people in the old shirts and the suits and ties. You know, the Hunts were there. You know, Peter Horan. You know, Fred Finn.  When they would play, they would play a tune—it was like a conversation, you know. Then they would stop and chat. And their chat was about life, and just getting to know each other and just have fun. Because it was a social event. And I love that about these things, you know. That’s what I loved, you know. 

And that’s what I miss about them now as well. Because there’s a tendency now just to go, “This is the next tune, this is the next tune, this is the next tune, this is the next tune” right after someone stops, you know. The session stops and then all of a sudden it’s like, back in again, you know. So, there’s no time to breathe. There’s like a, there’s like a natural breathing that happens in a session, you know. And that’s what I figure those stops are—like a little breath of fresh air, and chat. 

[ Music: Abbey Reel,” from Kitchen Session
Artist: Matt Heaton ]

I know that the old kind of conversations, and the craic, you know that comes from that, you know. But more it’s like a human aspect I think, like kind of a fundamental coming together. It was about, it was about drink, it was about playing, it was about talking, you know. So, we have, like, so when I would go in, you know if I went to Chicago, of course, and it was with John Williams and yourself, the craic would be hilarious, you know. (Both laughing) You can already hear it, you know! And so, because we have this context.

>> Shannon:  Right.

>> John:  You know, we have this context—a long time of playing music together, you know and we’d have this context. Of course, if you’re meeting somebody for the first time, there’s always a little bit of weirdness, you know. And so, you get over that by a little banter.

>> Shannon:  Right, so without the humor, and without all the conversation and stuff, is it a session?

>> John:  I would call it a session still, but it’s, um, it’s just, it’s not the full, the full Monty.

>> Shannon:  Yeah.

>> John:  Yeah, it’s not the full Monty. 

[ Music:  “Travel Theme” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

Because when put simply, it’s about humanity and it’s about getting to know each other in times when everybody has their own little phones and their own thing and it’s about socializing. And it’s about music. 

>> Shannon:  Right.

>> John:  The music was a social event—is a social event.  And so, you’re really playing for the sake of yourself, and just having the fun. And having, maybe learning a tune. Maybe, um you know, hearing someone else play, you know. Maybe, ah, you like playing with some other person and they’re there that week or something, you know. It’s about generally, kind of socializing.

>> Shannon:  Yeah.

>> Shannon:  Some of the quicker witted people that I know at the sessions tend to feed off of each other. You have to be a bit quick.

>> John:  I think, I think, like Dublin wit is famous, you know, there’s a famous Dublin wit. Like, there’s a certain type of thing, you know—and I do remember that in Dublin. You have to have a bit of a thick skin. They can be very nice to you, very nice to you.  The more polite they are, the less they know you. 

>> Shannon:  Right! (laughing)

>> John:  You know, really. So. I personally love it—I think it’s because, there’s ah, just you don’t take yourself so seriously. You know, it’s just not taking yourself or life…

>> Shannon:  Or other people…

>> John:  Or other people so seriously. (both laughing) And it’s form of bringing you down to a level. And, and some people were saying it’s, it’s because the Irish were put down for so long, that there’s a certain type of way that’s about them, you know for good and bad. There’s a certain thing of bringing people down to size. 

>> Shannon:  Hmm.

>> John:  You know, and so you have a little bit of that going on. A little bit of niggling going on, you know. But mostly it’s in good fun. Sometimes you wouldn’t know, you know.

>> Shannon:  Do you think it’s a preemptive way of, boy, you know, if you bring things way down, that they can’t turn against you? (both laughing) If you already make fun of yourself and everybody else, there’s nothing to lose?

>> John:  Well, that’s how a lot of people do it. 

>> Shannon:  There’s nothing to lose.

>> John:  That’s a lot of peoples, ah—way of doing things, if you’re self-deprecating. You know, that’s why there are so many Irish people self-deprecating because if you’re not going to do it, you know. Someone else will. 

>> Shannon:  So, you might as well get it over with it? (laughing)

>> John:  So, you might as well get it over with. (laughing). Yeah.

>> Shannon:  Yeah.

>> John:  And there is humor always, of course there is. You know, because you’re not talking about deep things.

>> Shannon:  Or you are in which case, humor is essential.

John:  Humor is very needed. But you’re like, you really are more of like just shooting the breeze, you know. So, when I mention my grandfather and those people, you know.  Like he was probably in his 70’s then, I suppose, you know. So, so he was ancient to me. And they were all ancient, you know. But I remember them talking and it was like they had known each other for donkey’s years. And they talked about cattle and they talked about this other session and they talked about other—but it did get to me. It was like a certain kind of—this other language. 

>> Shannon:  Hmm.

>> John:  This language, you know, and it was intriguing.

[ Music “The Hawk And The Crow,” from The Light And The Half-Light, 2004
Artists: Sean Doyle with John Doyle ]

>> Shannon:  In other musical circles (like, say bluegrass), you might have a little more backslapping in between songs. Musicians might encourage and complement each other. Or clap for each other. With Irish musicians, when a session is really flowing, the quietest time among the musicians is right when the music stops. Someone might comment on a tune; but there’s probably going to be more looking at the floor or into the pint of beer while the music settles, before the next joke or story starts up. And then humor is a great way to ease out of that moment of reflection. 

>> Rory Makem:  I think humor is very disarming. And it really makes people comfortable with maybe strangers. And it quickly, ah, takes the tension out of a room. Or, maybe not tension, but the, ah, reluctance to participate. You know, get people laughing at the same joke and people feel better. And they loosen up. That’s what I’ve found. So.

>>Shannnon:  That’s Rory Makem. He’s thought a lot about the songs that he learned from his dad Tommy and about the wit that both of his parents valued and instilled in him. 

>> Shannon:  How do you think this sort of rapport, this technique of having quick wit—where does that come from?

>> Rory:  I have found the funniest people I know are the most intelligent, most well-read. My father was a very funny man. He left school in what we would, it would be about 6th grade. He was 14. 

>> Shannon:  Uh huh.

>> Rory:  But he was the most intelligent man I ever met. And he was a voracious reader. Everything, you know. Smartest man I ever knew and the funniest man I ever knew. 

>> Shannon:  Huh.

>> Rory:  I heard—I was listening to an NPR show a few weeks ago. And they had a man on, I guess there’s a professional pun, professional pun people. 

>> Shannon:  (Laughing)

>> Rory:  And they have conferences. And they all get together. And this man was one of their, ah, superstars. 

>> Shannon:  OK…

>> Rory:  And he worked at it! He worked—that’s his job—he works at puns. 

>> Shannon:  So, puns might be a particular…

>> Rory:  Very particular

>> Shannon:  …vocabulary. Right, and if you get good at puns, you can insert them everywhere.

>> Rory:  Right.

>> Shannon:  My friend Sean Gannon was so quick on the fly.  And he had this arsenal of canned one liners. Like we’d always play one for the road and one for the one I never wrote, and I think those go-to phrases—I think that was a technique for him. I think that was one of the ways that he could find his rhythm.  One of the reasons why he was so quick.

>> Shannon:  So maybe there is a vocabulary of quick come-backs.

>> Rory:  Right, sure. I think the Irish are particularly good at it. I think there’s a lot of slagging going on. And it just comes immediately to most people who—if there’s something you can say funny to a friend or in a situation, it just always happens. My wife has told me to shut up many, many, many times. 

>> Shannon:  (Laughing)

Rory:  Nobody thinks that’s funny! 

Guitar music

Rory:  I don’t even do it for the laugh. I do it because I think it’s funny. And, I mean, I…, so many times I’ve said things and I think are funny and nobody else does. But it doesn’t bother me.

Shannon:  And you’re going on instinct. 

Rory:  Instinct yeah. If you swing from the fences every time, Shannon, you’re bound to hit a home run, right?

>> Shannon:  That’s right.

>> Rory:  You’re gonna strike out…

>> Shannon:  That’s right.

>> Rory:  …but you’ll hit a home run.

>> Shannon:  Yeah, unless the ball hits you back.

Rory:  Which has happened many times.

Shannon:  Yeah, yeah. Which can be funny as well.

Rory:  Yeah.

Guitar music

>> Shannon:  So, what about that kind of self-effacing. I mean, that is another technique.

>> Rory:  It is, yeah. That comes naturally to me, I think. Ah, I feel that in this business I’m in, I don’t feel that—I sort of feel I have a place, you know. But there are people I admire quite a bit in our business. And I don’t think I have any reason to be onstage with them. But that’s my self-effacement. I have to face that every day and keep practicing and trying to be better, so.

[ Music: “Mountain Dew,” from Irish Drinking Songs
Artists: The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem ]

>> Shannon:  So, by bringing humor into it, and maybe is a way to comfort yourself in that situation?

>> Rory:  I think so, yeah

>> Shannon:  Where we all feel our inadequacies.

>> Rory:  For me it works, I was raised, you know, at Catholic school.

>> Shannon:  (Laughing) Which is funny!

>> Rory:  Which is funny unto itself and a lot of our audience would have been raised that way—by Nuns. So, I can always bring the nuns into it. I mean, what’s not funny about being raised by Nuns?

>> Shannon:  Hahaha

Song/[ Music: “Mountain Dew,” from Irish Drinking Songs
Artists: The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem

>> Rory:  I see humor in pretty much everything. There’s a mindset. There’s something in the brain, I think maybe it’s a different part of the brain—that is more active. God knows the academic side of my brain wasn’t very active for years. 

>> Shannon:  (Laughing) Yeah.

>> Rory:  That’s what the nuns had a real problem with. Ah, but humor is—I think it is so important in everyday life. To lighten a situation or to make people more comfortable. And, you know, every teenager (we all went through that phase) where making fun of people you thought was funny. But it’s not funny. Making people feel good is funny. 

>> Shannon:  The experiences of playing music with other Irish musicians… there is humor, there is slagging each other.

>> Rory:  Absolutely, yeah.

>> Shannon:  It’s a way to kind of get through the experiences.

>> Rory:  Sure, yeah, yeah.

>> Shannon:  It’s a way to connect. 

>> Rory:  Yeah.

>> Shannon:  But it’s not just all about a good laugh, is it?

>> Rory:  No, no. Absolutely not, no. It’s about everything. 

>> Shannon:  Humor is serious.

>> Rory:  Humorous. Serious. Loving. Ah, melancholy. It’s everything. It’s the family of being with the family of musicians, and people who are so likeminded that is such a comfortable place to be. And you can be yourself among all of these people. And that’s why there is so much laughter, and so much music shared, I think.

[ Music: “Parting Glass,” from Live Farewell Concert at EnVie, Boulder, CO, 2001
Artists: Siúcra featuring Beth Leachman Gadbaw ]

>> Rory:  I wonder why that is? Why the Irish are quick-witted? Our why humor plays such a role in their every-day lives? You know, we came out of some pretty dark times—and it wasn’t that long ago. My grandfather was born in 1890. My great-grandfather lived through the blight. It was horrible times. And they always saw humor and I think that passed down through the generations.

>> Shannon:  Yeah, so a way to deal with it.

>> Rory:  We’re all in it together and you have to make the best of it.

>> Shannon:  Humor is a way through.

>> Rory: It is, yeah.

>> Shannon:  Yeah.

>> Shannon:  What seems like emotional reserve might actually be a show of deep connection and affection. And what parades as humility and self-deprecation might actually be a succinct way of safeguarding a moment.

Understanding Irish humor—and session humor. The rhythm of the craic. This is part of playing Irish music. I didn’t always get it and I’m not particularly good at it. But I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy the slagging. When we’re all having that give and take, it means I’m not alone. It means I’m in it alongside everyone else. It means it’s not all about me and my insecurities and moods. 

So, maybe humor is the light, casual way in. So, we can bear the intimacy and the tougher business of putting up with each other. And then we might have a chance at locking in and lifting up the music—and each other—just a little higher.

My thanks to Aidan Collins, Pauline Logue, and Lisa Coyne. To John Williams and John Doyle. To Siobhan and Brendan McKinney, and Rory Makem for lifting me up higher with these great conversations. And thanks to all of you for tuning in!

This episode of Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton. With support this month from Matt Barlow, Brian Benscoter, and Mark Johnson.

Thank you for your donations. They help me pull Irish music stories together, to share with everybody.

If you’d like to learn more about the people and the music in this episode—or if you can kick in with a show of support—please head to IrishMusicStories.org. 

Next month’s show will air on Tuesday November 14th. I hope you’ll tune in. Thanks again for listening, everybody!


>> Siobhan: You guys are just kidding around, and I’m trying to be serious here! What’s going on here?

>> Shannon:  This is the yin and yang of Irish music. And do you like my pronunciation of YANG?

>> Brendan  Yes, we did. We noticed that.

Bonus Content

Related videos

Companion Chapters

Related essays

Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Aidan Collins


Belfast-born, Galway-based writer and editor

Donegal-born, Galway-based lecturer in the fields of Teacher Education and Religious Studies 

Lisa Coyne


Melrose, Massachusetts-based flute player and clinical psychologist

John Williams


Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist with All Ireland titles and numerous film credits

Brendan McKinney


Chicago-based flute player, piper, and co-proprietor of Chief O’ Neill’s pub

Sliabh Luachra born, Chicago-based flute player and co-proprietor of Chief O’ Neill’s pub

John Doyle


Irish guitar player and songwriter who has collaborated with and produced numerous Celtic and American folk projects 

Rory Makem


Folksinger and guitar/banjo player, who learned from his grandma Sarah and father Tommy

The Heaton List