WHAT MAKES IRISH EYES SMILE
Speaking lightly of death is just tradition for many
“It’s not just Irish using it. . . . It’s almost kind of a private, street-smart comment among confidants,” TIM SAMUELSON, Chicago cultural historian
The Irish Scratch Sheet. The Irish Racing Form. The Irish Sports Pages.
Sometimes, they’re even called Irish Comics.
The catchphrases have nothing to do with racetracks. Instead, they refer to death notices, or obituaries, in cities with large Irish-American populations.
At St. Patrick’s Day, it seems fitting to check out the origin of the expressions. Irish-born professors say they are never heard in Ireland. They’re “Irish-Americanisms” that use black humor to convey a wry acceptance of death — and celebration at being freed from worldly care.
“I’ve heard it called the Irish Racing Form,” said Thomas Lynch, an undertaker, poet and writer based near Detroit, in Milford, Mich.
“The Irish see a good laugh and a good cry the way it ought to be seen,” Lynch said. “It uses the same facial muscles.”
Cleveland crime novelist Les Roberts penned “The Irish Sports Pages,” featuring his creation, Slovenian private eye Milan Jacovich. “Hearing ‘ the Irish Sports Pages,’ in Cleveland, it’s what inspired me to write the book,” he said.
“I’ve heard it often, in the context of newsrooms; newswriters; among the police,” said Tim Samuelson, Chicago cultural historian. “It’s not just Irish using it. . . .It’s almost kind of a private, street-smart comment among confidants.”
“I’ve heard lots of people use it, from different ethnicities and religious and social backgrounds,” said Eric Herman, a former Sun-Times reporter who has worked among pols in county government. He is managing director of ASGK Public Strategies. When he worked at the New York Daily News, a fellow journalist used to mail obituaries to his retired dad in Florida.
“He wrote on the outside of the envelope, ‘Irish Sports Pages,’ ’’ Herman said.
It’s an Irish tradition to add levity to the topic of death, said two Irish natives, Andy Wilson, a professor of Irish History at Loyola University, and Diarmuid O Giollain, a professor of Irish language and literature at Notre Dame University.
“I think the Irish joke, themselves,” said Larry McCaffrey, professor emeritus of history at Loyola. “And I think everybody else picked up on it.”
“My father always read the obituaries first — he used to say to see if he was still alive,” said Patricia Harty, editor-in-chief of Irish America magazine.
“But really, it was to see if he had a party to go to.”
“There is an Irish obsession with knowing who died,” said O Giollain. It could be a characteristic handed down from Ireland’s close rural farm communities, according to O Giollain and McCaffrey.
Chicago historian Ellen Skerrett recalls her parents discussing “who died” after reading the death notices. “Death was always just a part of life, and as children we went to many wakes.”
In Ireland, when obituaries are read on the radio, “their listenership spikes,” said Notre Dame’s Professor Kevin Whelan, who is based in Dublin’s O’Connell House.
“The death notices are important, because people almost do want to keep score, and to see if there is somebody’s [ funeral] we should be going to.”
“The Irish see a good laugh and a good cry the way it ought to be seen. It uses the same facial muscles.” “I think the Irish joke, themselves. And I think everybody else picked up on it.”
DIARMAID O GIOLLAIN (RIGHT)
THOMAS LYNCH (above) “My father always read the obituaries first —he used to say to see if he was still alive. But really, it was to see if he had a party to go to.”
PATRICIA HARTY (LEFT)