Hibernian humor


Almost as soon as he took the podium in the Swift Common Room, Rory Childers—a Chicago cardiology professor, electrocardiogram expert, and native Irishman—had a packed house of students, faculty, and friends laughing out loud. “Irish hilarity involves a mix of graveyard humor, mockery, the celebration of calamity, the farcical, the knockabout, curses and spells, satanic laughter, the profane and the sacred, mendaciousness, roguish ineptitude, gaudy, exuberant invective, and wit honed to a fine art,” Childers said at the Divinity School’s Wednesday Lunch series. In the face of such a litany, he admonished his audience not to be squeamish. “A strong anticlerical vein permeates much of the comic in Irish writing,” he warned. “Language is often outrageous, even ludicrous—the verbal equivalent of the gargoyle.”

Apart from his life as the man Chicago medical students know as “the EKG guy,” Childers is the grandson of Robert Erskine Childers, an Irish writer and patriot executed in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, and the son of Erskine Hamilton Childers, the Republic of Ireland’s fourth president. (On Monday Ireland celebrated his birth centennial by releasing a postage stamp bearing his portrait).

At last Wednesday’s lunchtime talk, Rory Childers delivered an hour’s worth of bawdy anecdotes, rhymes, and one-liners from the likes of Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, poet James Stephens, and playwright Brendan Behan, who was once Childers’s patient. “Towards the end of his life, Brendan Behan had clearly become a type of stage Irishman, simply because the requisite shocking speech was expected of him,” Childers said. “On his deathbed he took the hand of the nun who was nursing him. ‘Bless you sister! May all your sons be bishops.’”

Lest any Swift Hall listeners think Ireland’s wit was purely the province of its literati, Childers offered plenty of boisterous waggery handed down through generations of ordinary citizens. Most every statue in central Dublin now has its own ribald—and rhyming—nickname. Monuments to Anna Liffy (the city’s main river), Molly Malone, Dublin’s waterways, a millennial clock, and two women shoppers have been rechristened, respectively: the floozy in the Jacuzzi, the tart with the cart, the box in the docks, the chime in the slime, and the hags with the bags. Meanwhile, locals are calling a new statue of Joyce seated on a bench “the prick with the shtick.”


Photo: Rory Childers

October 12, 2005