Michael J Murphy’s collection of bawdy tales: a talk for the Michel J Murphy Winter School 2021
Michael J. came back to live in Dromintee when I was 13 or 14. Before long I heard two things from the older people about Mickey Buck, as they called him. One was that he had notions about himself, which indeed he did. The other was that he went around writing down Oul Bad Talk.
Years later, when I read his collection of bawdy tales – My Man Jack – I thought a lot of the Oul Bad Talk was innocent enough, even charming. I had heard some of the stories before, in the school yard at Dromintee Primary School in the 1950s
A wee fella ran into the house one Sunday and said: “Da, da, the bull just jumped on the brown cow and he’s bulling away at her.” But the family had visitors and da didn’t want this sort of talk. He took the lad aside and said: “Just say – the bull surprised the cow.” Ten minutes later the wee fella ran in again: “Da, da, the bull surprised the black cow.” “Did he indeed?” says the da. “Yes”, says the lad. “He run right past her and he jumped on the brown one again.”
There are many stories like this which puncture false respectability. Michael J. recorded them because Oul Bad Talk is part and parcel of human storytelling everywhere. Dirty yarns are one of the mainsprings of fine literature, from the Greek playwrights to the medieval troubadours, from Shakespeare to Swift and Mark Twain. Geoffrey Chaucer, who collected similar stories in England in the late 1300s, spelt the C word with a Q (queynte) Michael J. very probably knew that.
Many stories describe human behaviour in farm animal terms. One of the signs of a cow in heat is that she starts sniffing at her own urine on the ground. In the Bawdy Tales a young lady who developed a sudden interest in young men was said to be “smelling her water”. A cow in heat will constantly break out of a field to search for a bull: young ladies too were said to be “looking away”.
Sometimes human emotions were attributed to the animals. An old woman had a goat in heat and she asked a neighbour to take it to his buck to be serviced. But when he came to pick it up she had another old goat, long past reproduction, tied to the young goat. “Ach there’s no use taking that oul’ goat to the buck”, says he. “You’ll get no kid out of her.” “I know”, says she, “but sure it’ll do her oul’ heart good.”
Mickey Buck would definitely have known the quote ascribed to Oscar Wilde that a dirty mind is a joy forever. It seems incredible now that until about the 1940s a long series of double-meaning riddles did the rounds in mixed company at wakes.
I put it in dry, I took it out dripping
And I’d waggle my arse till my face was sweating.
This is, of course, a reference to churning butter.
When you waken in the morning what will be sticking out of your nightshirt that you could hang a hat on? Your head
And pushing the boat out a bit:
My uncle John has a thing that’s long, My Auntie Mary has a thing that’s hairy
Uncle John put his thing that’s long, into Mary’s thing that’s hairy
And obviously, that’s about a man trying on a newly knitted woollen sock. The riddles were obviously meant to provoke female reactions: check out who blushed, who laughed, who ran out of the room, who stared in innocent bafflement?
Yarns told at wakes also had accidental double meanings. There was a woman in the Sperrins who let a neighbour use her flax dam, called a flaxhole, to rot his flax, but then he passed her on the road in his pony and trap and gave a lift to two other women. “When his thing was standing in the field I lent him my hole to put it in”, says she, “but look at him now riding two other women to Carrickmore and he wouldn’t ride me.”
Bawdy tales are subversive, they are a kind of counter-culture in repressed societies. In Puritan England or Catholic Ireland they bubbled away below the surface, the secret language of the peasant. They subvert the so-called good manners of the powerful; they subvert the silly pieties of organised religion; they subvert cultural norms about the presumed innocence – or ignorance – of women and girls in sexual matters.
Two women were waiting for confession and they heard the priest in the box exclaim to a penitent: “You committed adultery!” “What’s adultery?” says one. “Fartin’” says the other. The first woman goes into the box and confesses adultery. The priest says: “When did this happen? How many times?” “Well Father, after I get up and maybe me raking the fire, getting the breakfast, feeding the hens or throwing a bit to the pigs and maybe again when I go to the well for water.”
Bawdy tales subvert the established hierarchical order of traditional society. With their constant references to body parts, bodily functions, sexual intercourse and comparisons with farm animals they reduce everyone, even the rich and powerful, to the common humanity of the body.
When woollen cloth was woven around Slieve Gullion it was fulled or thickened by soaking in chamberlye, a mixture of lye soap and urine, the contents of the chamber pot or poe. In the time of the Famine there was a much hated landlord in Dromintee called Meredith Chambre: Michael J. noted that behind his back he was known as Master Chamberlye.
A story was collected in Sligo about a fine lady who went out with the hunt. Her horse baulked at a fence and threw her, but she did a great back somersault with her skirts flying over her head and landed on her feet. A man working in a nearby field caught her horse and led it back. “Did you see my agility?”, she asked. “I did ma’am”, said he, “but that’s not what we call it round Tubbercurry.”
She needed help to get back up on her horse and asked him: “Did you ever mount a lady?” “Ah no”, says he, “but I took an oul’ one up the back lanes at Sligo Fair.”
The bawdy stories reflect a highly patriarchal community: they don’t score well on gender equality. The matchmaker came to a house and when the deal was done and sealed with whiskey the mother went up to the room to wake the young girl. “Put your smart way about you and put on your best things.”
“Why Ma, what’s up?” says the girl.
“You’re going to be married, that’s what’s up.”
“To who, Ma?”
“Never you mind who, that’s none of your business.”
The doctor told a woman that if she got pregnant again she would be signing her own death warrant and she should sleep apart from her husband. That went all right for a while, then one night she appeared at the end of the husband’s bed and said: “I’ve come to sign my death warrant.” “Right”, says he, “I have the pen here in my hand.”
Now and again in the stories, women get a bit of their own back, verbally at least. The priest in Dromintee reprimanded a girl publicly for having an illegitimate child. “Leave me alone Father”, says she, “or I’ll have them running as thick as the rabbits on Slieve Gullion.” A particularly well-endowed girl from Crossmaglen was poked in the breasts by a local lad. “What’s them?” says he. “They’re wee bags of oats”, says she. “I keep them for coaxing asses like you.”
Michael J. collected stories like these because he knew that while the details were local, their themes were truly universal. Someone sent him a collection of ribald stories from the Ozarks in Arkansas called Pissing in the Snow and he found that out of 101 stories he recognised 40.
There are stories across Europe about supposedly simple peasants who bested priest or parson in an argument.
Paddy worked for the parson and one day when he lifted his hat passing the chapel the parson said: “Why do you show respect passing one building and not all the others?”
“There’s a difference”, says Paddy.
“I see no difference”, says the parson. “They are all made of the same materials.”
“Tell me Reverend”, says Paddy. “Do you ever kiss your wife?”
“Do you ever kiss her on the arse?”
“Why not?” says Paddy. “Sure they’re all made of the same materials.”
A girl in Tyrone working for the parson refused meat on a Friday and the parson asked her why: she said it would be a mortal sin. “”The Good Book sayeth that whatever entereth the mouth doth not defile the soul,” he told her. Says she: “Was it with her arse that Eve ate the apple so?”
Red Biddy, a famous character in Newry, was up in court for causing a disturbance. It was her first appearance for some time and the judge said: “Biddy, we missed you, where have you been?” “Ach I was in heaven, your honour.” “And how did you get back to earth again?” “I grazed my arse and slid down a rainbow.”
I remember hearing stories in Dromintee primary school about people of earlier generations who had given smart answers to the priest’s catechism questions.
Michael J has a great story which seems to date from before the First World War when clerical power was probably at its height. The priest in Dromintee asked a man:
“What is the Mass?”
“Ach I know what the Mass is, Father.”
“That’s not the answer in the Catechism.”
“I know what the Mass is and that’s good enough.”
“Is that the answer you’d give Robert Turner, the Orangeman from Adavoyle, if he asked you?”
“It’s not, Father.”
“Now just let on I’m Robert Turner and I stop you on the road. I’m Robert Turner and I ask you, what is the Mass? How would you answer me?”
“Go to hell you Orange hoor, what do you want to know for?”
They could laugh at themselves too. Bridget from Dromintee got a job with a Jewish family in New York. She took an infant in a pram to the park, but it kicked up its robe and she saw its little penis bleeding, so she ran home with the child. They sat her down and explained how circumcision worked. “God be good to oul’ Ireland”, she cried. “They wouldn’t even cut the black off your nail till it was the length of a shovel.”
Michael J Murphy clearly loved his work and loved the communities and the people he listened to so with such care. But he never romanticised them, never painted them better than they were. It wasn’t all good dirty fun. He recognised that there was a dark side to folk customs just as there is a dark side to life itself, and he wrote that down too. Collecting in the Sperrins, he found that the folk cure for venereal disease in men was to have intercourse with a virgin. So far so quaint, a cruel medieval myth surviving in the mountains of Tyrone. He dug a bit deeper and found that doctors in local hospitals were puzzled by the incidence of venereal disease among girls with physical and mental disabilities, and he decided to include this little rural horror story in his collection of bawdy tales.
Michael J Murphy wrote down Oul Bad Talk because he sought the truth and Oul Bad Talk is part of it. And like the oul nanny goat, sure doesn’t it do our oul’ hearts good.