Why did the Irishman break the rules?

Des MacHale is his country's Public Enemy No 1: he likes Irish jokes. Paul Vallely meets the academic who thinks ethnic gags help us release our hidden feelings
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It was a mistake to tell the Cork taxi driver that I was on the way to University College to see Des MacHale, not in his capacity as Professor of Mathematics, but wearing his funny hat as the man who wrote Ireland's best-selling paperback ever, The Book of Kerryman Jokes. "Ask him," the cabbie said, beginning a flow of jokes which ceased only when we reached the university, "if he knows how you spot the Kerryman on an oil rig?"

He did. "He's the one throwing the bread at the helicopters," said Professor MacHale, pointing out that this was a classic ethnic joke, combining as it did an awareness of technology with a contempt for another group. Likewise the Kerryman's computer - "it's the one with the screen covered in Tipp-Ex". (Kerrymen clearly take on the role in Ireland that Irishmen occupy in racial jokes in England).

By contrast, another of the taxi man's offerings - Q: How does a Kerryman launder his underpants? A: He hangs them on the line and beats the shit out of them - was not a proper ethnic joke, but merely a crude play on words, the prof said.

For all this, Des MacHale is a stout apologist for the ethnic joke. As a sideline from his academic specialism on Boolean algebra he has written some 30 joke books or reflections on the place of humour in the human daily round. They are international successes; in addition to his Kerryman jokes being translated into Irishmen ones for the UK, the works have undergone more thorough transmutations into German and Danish, among other languages. This week he has another book out, Wit, a collection of his favourite quotations assembled over the past 20 years which, unlike most other books of humorous quotations, is actually funny. He recently led a summer school at the university on Irish humour which was such a success that one of its participants later wrote, he said, paraphrasing Victor Borge, to tell him she hadn't laughed so much since her husband died.

Yet MacHale is now on the defensive. Not that he appears so. He arrived to meet me outside the Boole Library across from the spired limestone quadrangle of the old college like a cartoon of affable self-confidence. A Billy Bunter of a man, bursting out of a battered old tweed jacket, he looked like the image of a comic prof, with two pencils, three ballpoints and three marker pens clipped into his top pocket. But in the opinion of the Irish Post, the paper which serves Irish emigres in London, Des MacHale is, he tells me, Public Enemy No 1. Despite his books of Englishman jokes, and even a volume of Margaret Thatcher gags, the paper regards him as a traitor. The backlash against the Irish joke is not confined to that. Recently the state government in New South Wales introduced a law making it a crime to tell a racial joke, with a $5,000 fine. "No wonder they've just had to introduce euthanasia there," MacHale quipped.

"Humour is as important in waking life as dreaming is in sleeping," he said. "You need to laugh every day ... It's significant that you can't make a clinically depressed person laugh ... People who never laugh are crazy. So are people who laugh all the time," he laughed. (Ellipses above indicate where jokes have been removed in order to maintain the flow of his argument and the sanity of his interviewer).

It was coffee-time in the senior common room. Discreet political conversations and understated academic disputations were going on amid the leather armchairs surrounded by shelves of ancient erudite journals. In the corner Des was talking about Bernard Manning, of whom he approves. "Humour dissipates tension, but the tension is there already. If you want to make kids laugh you tell jokes about teachers or parents. For businessmen you do employees or taxmen. For men you do women and mother-in-laws. Manning understands that. Did you hear about the Jewish man who won pounds 10m on the lottery? When he picked up the cheque he said, `I knew those numbers tattooed on my arm would come in handy some day.' I told that at an international humour conference. Half the academics thought it was funny; the others said it was tasteless. Actually it's both. The interesting question is what it does: it allows the release of feelings which are normally kept hidden and it allows people to release them without guilt or responsibility.

"Wit is never kind; there's always a sting. But with good humour you recover from that sting quickly. If you don't, it's not humour, it's malice. Malicious intent is what makes the difference. I don't think Bernard Manning is malicious. He looks it, which is unfortunate, where, say, Victoria Wood, who can be just as pointed, doesn't. Manning just understands his audience. And he's funny."

Not everyone agrees. There are those who think that Manning does more than make his fans laugh. He bolsters their world view, which respectable society finds repellent. Last week two black waitresses who were the butt of Manning's racist jokes won an appeal against a decision that their employers were not responsible for the way they were treated. Des MacHale protests: "These days society is more interested in non-discrimination than truth. There is no hope of solving problems if you're not admitting to the true nature of them. Have you heard about the morning-after pill for men? It changes your blood group. That joke embodies a truth about men's lack of responsibility over paternity. There is no proof that jokes bolster tension or feed hatred. It is far more likely that they release it and substitute for it. The correct response to jokes against you is to joke back."

Hence, I suggested, the famous riposte about the Irishman forced to take an intelligence test on a building site who, when asked to differentiate between girder and joist, replies that the former wrote Faust and the latter Ulysses? "I've always thought that too contrived," Des responded. "I prefer: Q: How do you make love to an Irish woman? A: I don't know. Q: And you think the Irish are stupid? or, Q: Why did God create alcohol? A: To stop the Irish from ruling the world."

As proof of his insistence that humour defuses hatred rather than fuels it, he points to changes in jokes in Northern Ireland in recent times. Old formulae about "the Catholic and the Protestant who ... " have largely vanished. "The jokes deal with new fears. They centre not on belief, or tribe but on violence. What's the fastest game in the world? Pass the Parcel in a Belfast pub. Or, Have you heard about the new hospital they're building in Belfast for IRA explosives experts?"

There is nothing new about the Irish joke. The English have been rude about their neighbours since the 12th century (though a Greek geographer, Strabo, started 2,000 years ago), but the first recorded Irish joke dates from Mrs Pilkington's Joke Book published just before 1600:

English captain (to Irish seaman): Go below and fetch me a bottle of ale. Seaman: I will not. Sure while I was down there the ship would sail away without me.

The point is, Des MacHale insists, that the ethnic joke only works because it cannot be true. "Maths helps here. Chaos theory proves there is gross simplification in any model. List 100 characteristics - liking onion, preferring rugby to soccer and so forth - and the likelihood of any two people ticking exactly the same is 2 to the power of 100. To spell that out would be a number which would fill this room - a number bigger than the number of atoms in the universe. The fact is that all people are unique. If it is possible to pin down some racial characteristics, not every member of a group will share them all. The fact that racial differences are perceived rather than real is what makes the joke. It's the process that's funny, not the substance."

There is some disagreement between us here. If it's just the process that is important why do we always pick on Irishmen? Des is not minded to argue. On the grounds that a joke is the shortest distance between two points of view, he cracks another. It is in the form of the Irish joke which humorists call a "bull" and centres on self-contradiction. "Did you hear about the wake where a man asks the widow why the corpse is smiling? She replies: Well, he died in his sleep and he doesn't know he's dead yet. He's smiling 'cos he's dreaming he's still alive and I'm afraid that if he wakes up and finds he's dead the shock will kill him. The contradiction there is subtle. And it points up that the language of living is not adequate to describe the reality of death.

"Did you hear about the Irish tadpole? It turned into a butterfly. Or the Irish caterpillar who looked up at a butterfly and said, `You'll never catch me up in one of those things'. There is something of the surreal, the magical, of mysticism and spirituality in Irish humour. Laughter is defiance in the face of death. In the end that is all there is to do, laugh. In the end, I want to die with dignity and serenity like my grandfather did ... unlike his passengers."

`Wit', by Des MacHale, is published by Prion Books today, price pounds 9.99

OK, what is the difference between a Saxon and a Turk? The French tell Belgian jokes, Americans tell Polish jokes, Brazilians tell Portuguese jokes, Canadians tell "Newfie" jokes (about Newfoundland- ers) ... the theme is universal and the punchlines virtually interchangeable: "Here is the kind of people who go into a shoe shop and try on the boxes for size. My, don't they make us look clever!" But there are variations on the theme:

Russians tell jokes about "Chukchis", the Eskimo-like people of the Chukhotka peninsula, which tend to play upon their supposed unworldliness. Ukrainian meanness is a recurrent theme, and Georgian jokes are based around two caricature boneheads, "Gogi" and "Givi".

Japanese humour is mostly impenetrable to the Western ear, but kabuki and old-fashioned revue make familiar stock characters: the pompous samurai, for example, and his stupid, drunken retainer.

In India, Punjabis are the butt of humour, viz: a Punjabi leaves works abroad for two years. On his return, he finds his wife the mother of a bouncing baby boy. "You've been unfaithful!" he shouts, and makes as if to beat her. "No, no!" she cries. "Every night I slept with your picture. The child is yours!" A day goes by, then the husband confronts his wife again. "You lied," he says, "the child is not mine." "But how did you find out?" she asks him. "The picture," he says, "the picture of me was only from the waist up."

Spaniards pick on the inhabitants of Galicia, "Gallegos", whose caution and ambiguity are famous - "What's your name?" you ask a Gallego. "It depends ..." he answers - along with a certain naivety. For example, the Galician pilot is coming in to land and being talked down by air traffic control. "You see the city?" asks the controller. "Yes, I see the city." "You see the airport?" "I can see the airport." "You see the runway?" "Yes ... but it's so short ... and so wide."

Throughout Latin America, Argentines are picked upon for a perceived uppityness: "Italians who speak Spanish and think they're English," is the view. The defining Argentine joke is this: "What's the best deal in the world? Buy an Argentine for what he's worth and sell him for what he says he's worth."

Germans pick mainly on East Friesians. Multiple prejudices appear: "What's the difference between a Turk and a Saxon?" (Saxons being inhabitants of the former East Germany, around Dresden and Leipzig.) "The Turk speaks German and has a job."

Italians tell jokes about the carabinieri, playing on their supposed stupidity and the system of favours which is believed to get them their jobs. Hungarians also tell policeman jokes - "Did you hear about the river police who drowned in the Danube? Their boat stalled and they got out to give it a push."