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Con Houlihan: Ireland’s Own journal of limericks and jokes

IT is a remarkable story: in an age when newspapers and magazines of all kinds are falling like leaves, in a stormy October, Ireland's Own celebrated its centenary a few months ago. In my childhood we looked forward to it every week, for jokes and limericks.

I remember very clearly my first experience of that kind of verse:

There was a young man in Whitehall

Who went to a fancy dress ball

He decided to risk it

And dressed up as a biscuit

But a dog ate him up in the hall.

Then there was a limerick which wasn't really a limerick. It had its own peculiar shape:

Mary had a little mule

One day he followed her to school

The teacher like a fool went up behind the mule

And hit him with a rule

There wasn't any school.

We loved that one because small boys embraced the idea of a chaotic universe.

In Ireland's Own we encountered our first examples of the pun. Some people call it the lowest form of humour but don't tell that to small boys. "Three girls went for a tramp in the woods. He ran away."

In the old days the first page of Ireland's Own was devoted to jokes. There was a prize of five shillings every week for the best joke. When a woman in our community won the prize, she achieved a kind of immortality. Five shillings then was a working man's pay for a day. I can still remember the joke. Like many of the jokes in that magazine it was a little exchange between husband and wife. "Wife: I'm putting on weight in all the wrong places. Husband: You should keep out of those places."

The jokes in later years are becoming more sophisticated. We read of a girl who sends a letter to her boyfriend asking him why he has stopped seeing her. She talks about the good days when they walked the mountains together and went to the cinema and went to football games and were looking forward to getting married. And she asks what has happened between them. The letter ends with a postscript: "Congratulations on winning the Lotto."

In those old days there was also a column about men and women hoping to get married. You might see something like this: "Gentleman. Musical. Fond of Poetry. Has his own business. Would like to meet lady of similar tastes and of independent means."

Dublin Opinion once did a spoof on this column: "Gentleman. Successful in business but wishing to expand. Would like to meet lady with shop. Send photo of shop."

Ireland's Own wasn't all about humour. It could be very serious. I remember reading a very harrowing story. A young Limerick man was sentenced to be hanged. His sister went to Dublin on the day before the execution to plead to have him reprieved. She failed. On the train coming home she wept until a gentleman asked her of her trouble and did all he could to console her. He told her that there was still hope. The Lord Lieutenant might think again about her brother and save him from the gallows. When the train arrived in Limerick, her new-found friend was greeted by two constables. One of them said "You're welcome, Mr Marwood." And the girl knew then that her friend was to hang her brother at dawn.

Then there was the famous story of 'The Man They Couldn't Hang'. The story goes back to the late 19th century in England. A rich lady was found murdered. A man who worked for her was charged and despite little evidence he was found guilty. He was sentenced to be hanged and at dawn on the appointed morning he ascended the gallows and stood on the trapdoor. When the hangman pulled the lever, the trapdoor didn't budge. The prisoner was led back to his cell.

The next morning he again stood on the trapdoor. The hangman pulled the lever. Once again the trapdoor didn't budge. Many people believed that this was a sign from God that he should be reprieved. Queen Victoria seemed to share this belief and the convicted man walked free.

Various theories have been put forward to explain the mystery but when you know the name of the accused man, you begin to understand. His name was John Lee. He was a gypsy. When one of their people is in trouble, gypsies do all they can to save him. Beyond all doubt they bonded to bribe the hangman. That is a simple explanation.

Trapdoor

John Lee toured with a circus and every night the grim scene of the gallows and the trapdoor that didn't budge was seen by cheering crowds all over Britain and Ireland.

We are reminded of the story about Jesse James and Robert Ford:

Jesse had a wife

He loved her all his life

His children they were brave

But that dirty little coward

Whose name was Robert Ford

Sent Jesse James to his grave.

As everyone knows, Robert Ford shot Jesse in the back while he was dusting down a picture. A vaudeville company showed that scene all over America with Charlie Ford cast as Jesse James and Robert Ford cast as himself.

There was a woman who appeared every week in Ireland's Own called Kitty The Hare who was even more popular than Mary Robinson later became. She travelled around the country from house to house, Kitty not Mary. She always had places to stay because she brought all kinds of news. She was a roving reporter before her time. The author of her stories was a man called Victor O'D Power. When he passed away, Kitty went with him.

There is far more to Ireland's Own than I have shown here. It can look forward with confidence to another century.

Fogra: Neighbourhoods are very important in a crisis -- I am lucky in the people who live near me. I especially thank two young gardai from Kevin Street who were a great help to me last week