Creating Our Own Lives

Mark McCleary

Laughter Is a Cloak That Surrounds You

Last Updated

June 8, 2017

Original Air Date

June 8, 2017

“The best laugh in the world, is laughing at things that are unhappy. And there’s probably a certain level of that in Northern Ireland, a laughing-at-things-that-are-bad.”

Mark McCleary grew up in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles” — a 30-year conflict where humor became a coping mechanism for many to simply get through the day. These jokes live on, he points out, with nuances that hint at the complexity of identity as a Protestant living in Northern Ireland today.


Image of Mark McCleary

Mark McCleary is a writer, radio producer, and head of communications at the Corrymeela Community of Northern Ireland.


[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacuba]

MARK MCCLEARY: A novel I read years ago, Samuel Beckett novel, where one of the characters talks about three different kinds of laughter. One of them is sort of laughing at things that aren’t good. One of them is laughing at things that aren’t true. But the laugh of laughs, the best laugh in the world, is laughing at things that are unhappy. And there’s probably a certain level of that in Northern Ireland, a kind of a laughing-at-things-that-are-bad.

LILY PERCY: I’m Lily Percy. And this is Creating Our Own Lives, COOL for short, the podcast where I ask people to think through how they shape their lives. And hopefully, by listening, we learn how to create our own.

This season on COOL, we’re talking about humor as a tool for survival. And as a proud Colombian, humor is something that I’ve had to use every single time a Narcos, Pablo Escobar, cocaine, or drug mule reference is made to me about my country. Don’t get me wrong; some of those jokes are funny, and some are even true, but they still don’t get at the complexity of what being Colombian is.

If you’re from Northern Ireland, you can definitely relate. I am just as guilty of stereotyping. All of my knowledge of Northern Ireland, Belfast specifically, comes from tragic movies about the IRA. Until I visited there last summer and spoke with Mark McCleary, I had no idea how complex — and Colombian — their issues are.

MS. PERCY: So Mark, what’s your middle name? What’s your full name?

MR. MCCLEARY: It’s — well, see, that’s part of Belfast humor. If you ask people their middle name, you can tell if they’re Protestant or Catholic.

MS. PERCY: Really, from the middle name alone?

MR. MCCLEARY: Well, from the name alone. But yeah, it’s William.

MS. PERCY: William. What would that tell me?

MR. MCCLEARY: Protestant. William of Orange was the Protestant king who came over and won a victory in 1690, and they’ve been marching about it ever since.

MS. PERCY: Oh. [laughs]

MR. MCCLEARY: So there’s not too many Catholic Williams around.

MS. PERCY: So what’s a Catholic middle name?

MR. MCCLEARY: Pádraig.


MR. MCCLEARY: Or Seamus.

MS. PERCY: Seamus. Okay. That’s so interesting. So the whole idea of this series is humor as a tool for survival. When I say that to you, how does that play a part in your life?

MR. MCCLEARY: I think a lot of the story of Northern Ireland, particularly for people of my generation who grew up through the Troubles is, humor was a way to survive, and laughing at things that probably you shouldn’t be laughing at, but it was a way of actually getting through the next day. And that runs kind of right through a lot of writing and a lot of — there’s comedy routines; there’s people who’ve made a living out of telling the same joke about Protestants and Catholics for the last 30 years, and they’re still being paid by the BBC to do it.

MS. PERCY: [laughs] What are some of those jokes? Because I don’t know them.

MR. MCCLEARY: Do you know, I wouldn’t even go that low to…

MS. PERCY: To repeat them? People just need to look them up online.

MR. MCCLEARY: Well, it’s very basic. I’m sure there’s routines around the “How do you tell if someone is Protestant or Catholic?” And it’s two questions in Northern Ireland. The first one is the name. You can generally tell by someone’s name. And if that fails, then number two is, you say, “So where did you go to school?” Because our school system is segregated. So within two questions, you can pretty much work out.

But there’s other black humor around it, like: “Are your eyes too close together?”

MS. PERCY: What? What does that mean?

MR. MCCLEARY: Well, it’s one of those ridiculously, you know, slurs that have come up on one side or the other. So Protestants will say, “Oh, Catholics, their eyes are too close together.”

MS. PERCY: Because they are inbred? What is the idea?

MR. MCCLEARY: Who knows where it comes from. But there is that level of humor that is run — if it’s even humor; I don’t know. There’s a novel I read years ago, Samuel Beckett novel, where one of the characters talks about three different kinds of laughter. One of them is laughing at things that aren’t good. One of them is laughing at things that aren’t true. But the ultimate kind of — the laugh of laughs, the best laugh in the world, is laughing at things that are unhappy, and that’s how his character describes it. And there’s probably a certain level of that in Northern Ireland, a kind of a laughing-at-things-that-are-bad.

MS. PERCY: So how has that been significant in your life? Is there an example that you’d give that humor has really helped you?

MR. MCCLEARY: I mean I think a lot of people, probably, generally use humor as a way of surviving through school, through things like that. Like for me, I wasn’t one of the biggest people in school, and I’m a lover not a fighter.

MS. PERCY: [laughs] It’s very apparent from you, yeah.

MR. MCCLEARY: My way of surviving was basically by making people laugh in school. And normally the people that I made laugh were kind of the rugby players, the big, strong people; and then I thought, that’ll get me through.

MS. PERCY: That’ll keep you safe.

MR. MCCLEARY: Yeah. I don’t know if rugby is big enough in the States. It’s kind of like American football for men — there’s no helmets, no pads.

MS. PERCY: [laughing] American football for men. I love it.

MR. MCCLEARY: So those were the kind of people I wanted to make laugh, as I was coming through school.

MS. PERCY: Do you remember when you realized that you were doing that, you were making them laugh?

MR. MCCLEARY: I don’t even know if it was a conscious thing. I think it’s only looking back that you realize…

MS. PERCY: Yeah, that that’s why you were doing it.

MR. MCCLEARY: That’s what I was doing, playing the fool. And I guess there is a sort of deeper — I come from a Presbyterian tradition, which is pretty dour. It’s pretty boring; it doesn’t deal with emotions. And looking back, I’m sure my — if I ever went to therapy that the therapist would have a field day with all this. But it’s that kind of — almost using really bad humor as a way of talking about the emotions that you don’t talk about within Presbyterianism. It’s like the old joke in Presbyterianism used to be: “Why do Presbyterians never have sex standing up? In case somebody mistakes it for dancing” — because that would be worse!

MS. PERCY: [laughs]

MR. MCCLEARY: And that Presbyterian joke has been around for 100 years. It’s still not that funny, but it’s probably about the only one that they have. So, you know, you got to embrace it. And that’s my culture, that’s my upbringing, so you’ve got to go, “Yeah.”

MS. PERCY: So in your family, was laughter something that was often happening? Or it sounds like probably not.

MR. MCCLEARY: I think that, for me, my role was always kind of the joker at the table. And that was probably my way of surviving, because I’m probably the black sheep of the family who’s come away from that kind of Presbyterian Evangelical tradition, whereas most other people in the family have stayed within it. So I’m kind of looked at as the sort of slightly dodgy liberal into that kind of ecumenical stuff up at Corrymeela.

MS. PERCY: [laughs] Not to be trusted.

MR. MCCLEARY: Pretty much [laughs]. Without saying it, you know.

MS. PERCY: So humor is the way you diffuse that.

MR. MCCLEARY: It’s a way of getting through those long Sunday lunches.

MS. PERCY: So how does humor connect you with your spiritual life? Is that something that you find?

MR. MCCLEARY: I think part of my journey is coming away from a very rigid, rules-based kind of religion to the point of thinking, the God that I want to interact with is a God who has a sense of humor. And seeing the madness within the kind of traditions that I came from, being able to laugh at that has kind of helped release me from even the Irish saint tradition. Half the Irish saints were completely mad. The stories they combined — they set their fingers — one guy used to set his fingers on fire so he could read holy scriptures at night.

MS. PERCY: There was always so much fire. What’s up with the fire?

MR. MCCLEARY: One of my favorites is St. Kevin. So St. Kevin came to Glendalough, south of Dublin, in about the sixth century. And apparently one of the local ladies took a shine to St. Kevin and one day in the field asked him to come and lie down with them. And St. Kevin was so horrified that he jumped up as she was trying to pull his clothes off. So the naked St. Kevin ran and then rolled about in some nettles, which covering himself in nettles: holy ecstasy.

MS. PERCY: What?

MR. MCCLEARY: And the naked form of St. Kevin was still so attractive to the lady that he had to pick up some nettles and start beating her with the nettles, at which point she immediately repented and became a nun. And it’s just like, what is that about? But we tell it as a story of a wonderful saint.

MS. PERCY: [laughs] Oh, my god. Yes. I hope there are no illustrations of the story. This is insane.

MR. MCCLEARY: But it’s full of stories like that.

MS. PERCY: And so how can you not laugh at that when you hear it.

MR. MCCLEARY: You have to. It’s kind of — if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry. It’s the old one. Taking that and sort of throwing it into the Northern Ireland context, Seamus Heaney has a famous poem of talking about the Troubles, basically saying, “Whatever you say, say nothing.” And that’s a kind of defense mechanism that people had throughout the Troubles here: don’t raise your head up, don’t say anything. And the one way we could say anything was by using humor, by using very dark humor to get through it, and other people could relate to that kind of dark humor within that context.

MS. PERCY: So what does humor give you that you find nowhere else, that you are grateful for?

MR. MCCLEARY: I think just the — there’s nothing better than something that just gives you that real belly laugh of — it’s like a freeing thing. It’s such a — it’s a whole body experience.

Being a Protestant Presbyterian, I only learned a couple of words of Irish. Well, I did some Irish classes recently. But I love the way the language describes emotions and things like that, and if you really get into it, like when you’re angry, it talks about almost like “the cloak of anger was upon them.” And I imagine it’s the same with laughter, that it’s like a cloak that you put on that almost surrounds you. And I love that kind of imagery that you can get out of the Irish language even when you can’t speak it, when you have other people who can give you those insights. It’s a lovely way to describe it. And I think laughter just does that sometimes. It just wraps itself around you, and you can kind of snuggle into it and go, that’s what I needed; after a really horrible day, just embrace that and enjoy it.

MS. PERCY: That’s lovely. Thank you.

MR. MCCLEARY: You’re welcome.

MS. PERCY: Everybody applaud for Mark.

[laughter, applause]

MS. PERCY: Fantastic.

MR. MCCLEARY: Okay, and you’ll never use it; it’s fine.

[music: “Rough Gem” by Islands]

MS. PERCY: Mark McCleary is a writer, radio producer, occasional gardener, and my brother-from-an-Irish-Protestant-mother. He’s also the head of communications at the wonderful Corrymeela Community of Northern Ireland, where I recorded this interview.

Creating Our Own Lives is produced by Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, and Trent Gilliss and is an On Being studios production. You can listen and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download podcasts. And leave us a review on iTunes — it matters more than you think. I’m Lily Percy. Thanks for listening.

[music: “Rough Gem” by Islands]



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