I was musing yesterday on the art of comic blasphemy, citing Billy Connolly's Glaswegian version of the Passion, Alfred Jarry's "The Crucifixion seen as a Uphill Bicycle Race", and other tales from round about. I might too have cited Gay Byrne's story about the Irish priest who was convinced that his bicycle had been stolen by one of his parishioners.
And a good tale it is too. Here's the brief version. The bishop comes to visit the priest and hears about the missing bike.
"Here's what to do," he says, "preach a sermon next Sunday on the Ten Commandments and when you get to 'Thou shalt not steal', have a look out into the congregation, and you'll see a twinge of guilt somewhere."
A month goes by and the bishop comes calling again. "Did you get the bike back?" "Yes, I did." "Through the Ten Commandments?" "Yes, but not quite how you thought I would," explains the priest. "I was going through the Commandments in my sermon," he says, "and I came to 'Thou shalt not commit adultery', and I suddenly remembered where I had left it."
Of course, that's not blasphemous. It's not a joke about God at all, only about the Church, which is a quite different bag of groceries. In one way, it's a very anti-clerical joke, suggesting that priests go round seducing men's wives. In another way, it's quite pro-Catholic, maintaining as it does that not all priests are paedophiles and some have normal instincts. But the big thing about the joke is that I heard it told on prime-time television in Ireland, and I truly believe you would not have heard it on British prime-time television. Not because it is too indelicate or daring for us, but because we are not a Catholic country and set little store by religious irreverence.
All the instances I have given of anti-religious daring have come from places with a strongly Catholic tradition - Ireland, Glasgow, France. We Anglicans are too wishy-washy for good blasphemy. In an interview with the Irish playwright Frank McGuinness the other day, he was asked if there was anyone he would wish to meet if he ever got to Heaven. "Yes," he said. "I would like to meet God, and beat the crap out of him."
This took me aback. I couldn't imagine anyone feeling that strongly about God. But then, I am not a lapsed Catholic. I am a lapsed Protestant, or a born-again agnostic, and we don't get much guilt about anything and we don't get worked up about anything.
So, to sum up: just as the best jokes about blind people and stammerers come from blind people and stammerers, and all the good Jewish jokes come from Jews, so the best Catholic jokes tend, annoyingly, to come from Catholics.
I was first told that when I was 18, by an American boy in Florida, a Catholic. It was a new thought to me. Intrigued, I challenged him to tell me a Catholic joke. So he told me the story of the delinquent American boy who was so unruly that he was expelled from every school he was sent to. Public, private, military, every kind of school - they all failed.
"Finally," said the story-teller, "they sent him to a Catholic boarding school. And it really was very Catholic. On the day they arrived, and went into the main entrance hall, there were monks and nuns all over the place, and this huge crucifix, depicting Jesus in agony on the cross, was towering over everyone. And they left the boy, saying it was his final chance. And at the end of term he came back with his report, and his report said he had been a star pupil, and a model to all the others. And the parents said they were overjoyed, but couldn't understand why the Catholic school had succeeded where everyone else had failed.
"'Well,' said the boy, 'do you remember the first day you took me there, and we were waiting in the entrance hall? Well, when I saw what they had done to that guy there on the cross, boy, I knew they meant business!'"Reuse content