Partick O’Sullivan champions the merits of having a laugh


After last Mass on Sunday morning, the old parish priest at the door of the church was quizzing parishioners as to what they made of the missioner’s sermon. “Twasn’t great, Father,” said the affable Kate Ann, a homely woman in her fifties, “but at least he cut it short the way we’ll be home in time for Maureen Potter.” The latter, one of the best-loved comedians of her day had a radio show of her own on Sunday afternoon.
The old priest was not in the least offended by Kate Ann’s riposte, however; if anything it struck a chord with him. She was a woman after his own heart, he said, for there was nothing like a good laugh to lift the spirit and make it strong.

There were many old sayings which advocated a similar point of view, among them: ‘A good laugh and a long sleep: the two best cures in the doctor’s book.’

The great thing about the likes of Maureen Potter and her contemporaries, most notably Jimmy O’Dea, was that while they could be quiet sharp and incisive at times, they never strayed into anything coarse or crude or immoderate. They seemed to think there was enough in the English language to make people laugh without having recourse to crudity of any kind.

Then there are the interminable soap operas that seem to present to many of their characters in the most negative way possible. I remember a letter-writer complaining in the newspapers one time that his favourite soap had turned into ‘a right old moanfest,’ as he put it.

There was so much misery and calamity in the storylines then that he wondered if anyone in the place ever had a laugh anymore.

One of the leading female characters was not only estranged from her husband, she had just dumped her boyfriend into the bargain. Someone else’s wedding plans had backfired at the last minute, while two more of the characters were so confrontational all the time they were like two dogs with the one bone.

Now most people will accept that good drama sometimes involves a bit of tension, a bit of conflict now and then. The trouble with the soaps, though, is that the conflict is so relentless, so unrelieved, it is hardly likely to generate anything but stress on the part of the viewer.

“God be with the days when Minnie Brennan raised a smile or two on ‘The Riordans’,” says the old neighbour, a wistful smile in his eyes. ‘The same again with Mrs Butler on ‘Tolka Row’, the way it wasn’t all fighting and screaming, it wasn’t all doom and gloom.’

There were times when The Riordans had a gentle, meandering feel to it, the creation of character just as important as the development of plot, so that in very many ways it was genuinely reflective of rural life at the time. Or at least a good deal more reflective of real-life than the combative soaps of today.

I remember meeting an Englishman one time, who told me of his dislike of an English soap for the very reason that it was not a faithful depiction of the people he knew and loved. “Don’t get me wrong. People do argue; they do get hot under the collar,” he said, with some conviction, “but there is a good deal of warmth and compassion and kindliness too, something that rarely if ever gets shown at all.”

Of course there was nothing that we children liked better than Maureen Potter’s adventures with her son, the hapless ‘Christy’, some of her finest sketches inspired by the self-same Christy’s inventive approach to mathematics.

The family’s attempt to empty a bath with a leaking bucket one of the best-loved sketches of all, the entire thing prompted by a desire to help Christy solve the riddle of the sum he had for homework.

There was sure to be a twist in the tale however. It was only when the landing, the stairs and the hall were half submerged in water, then only then did Christy realise there was something amiss. They were doing the wrong sun!

This was the era of course when sponsored programmes were very much to the fore in the radio schedule, the likes of Lyons Tea, Odearest and even Volkswagen with programmes of their own. Frankie Byrne, meanwhile, had advice on matters of the heart in the Jacob’s programme, while Paula Daly had plenty of hints and tips from the good food kitchen at McDonnells.

Maureen Potter was still a firm favourite though with young and old alike. It was no great wonder then that the affable Kate Ann was in such a hurry home from Mass to hear her on the radio, the missioner duly obliging by cutting his sermon short.
Someone once wrote that the earth laughs with flowers in summer. I think of it again when I see the old moss roses coming into bloom, their marvellous pinks beaded with dews in the early morning time, the old fashioned columbines stirring the memories too, the lazy grey Persian cat curled like a cushion there.

It makes me think again that if the earth laughs with flowers in summer, then we can surely do the same.

Read Patrick O’Sullivan every week in Ireland’s Own