Bawdy Béaloideas

Jack Lynch writes:  

I thought that in lockdown I might attempt to cheer us all up by delving into the always popular subject of bawdy tales. I’ve been returning to the writings of Randolf Vance (1892–1980), a folklorist who collected widely and published 18 books of the oral folklore and folksongs he recorded from adults and children in the Ozark Mountains area of Missouri and Arkansas. Two of his books collate popular local bawdy tales — Stiff as a Poker and other Ozark Folktales and (the raunchier) Pissing in the Snow & other Ozark Folktales.

In reading Randolf, I’m reminded of Michael J. Murphy’s humorously indecent My Man Jack: Bawdy Tales From Irish Folklore (Brandon 1989) — like Randolf’s, a subset of his general collections. Murphy (1913-1996) published his first collection, At Slieve Gullion’s Foot, in 1941 and this led to an invitation from Professor James Delargy to join the then Irish Folklore Commission as a part time collector. In 1949 he became a full-time “cultural intelligence officer,” a post he went on to hold for 34 years. Murphy’s parents had been storytellers and our late-lamented Armagh storytelling genius, John Campbell, helped for a period as a local assistant and informant.

Murphy’s collection, My Man Jack, is graced with his own rich commentaries and takes its title from one of the rowdy traditional games mentioned in Seán Ó Suilleabháin’s Irish Wake Amusements (1967), where the author describes numerous traditional ‘catch games’ and other forms of organised horse-play and mischief-making which were played (in the presence of the corpse). Some of these sports may well have contained faint echoes of ancient fertility rituals and the shenanigans were constantly condemned from on high in Church decrees fuming and fulminating at the dangerous paganism of such scandalous carry-on. Michael J’s selection collates some of the racier popular stories and jokes given to him in six of the nine counties of Ulster. On the evidence of this publication, County Cavan seems to be a hub of ribaldry.

If we put together the recording dates of both collectors — Murphy, 1920-80 and Randolf, 1920-51, there is often a remarkable coincidence of tales. Indeed, Murphy was aware of Randolf’s gleanings and he identified more than 40 of Randolf’s 101 tales as holding similarities to his own hoard of ‘old rehearsals’, as they were called in parts of Ireland. This serves as a reminder of how these chestnuts travel through time and space by oral telling but also via joke books and other periodicals of their times — an example of how “journalistic copying and recopying distributed floating stories.” The late Bo Almqvist, when researching the appearance of some of the 14th century risqué tales of Boccaccio in Gaelic on the Blasket Islands, reminded us of what he called the complex interplay between booklore and folklore.

As for the title story of Randolf’s Pissing in the Snow volume, he gives us a telling that he collected in 1938. I was told a version of it when it bubbled up again on this side of the world in 1984 at the time of Ronald Reagan’s controversial (and very contested) visit to these benighted shores.

A gloss runs like this: Reagan wakes up on a winter’s morning, looks out the window and sees, written in yellow on the snow of the White House lawn, the statement: “Ronnie is an Asshole!” The head of Reagan’s Secret Service investigates and reports: “We’ve analysed the urine, Mr. President, and we’ve found that it matches that of your Chief of Staff, General Alexander Haigh.” Before Ronnie can properly take in this dismaying revelation, the security chief continues: “and we’ve ascertained, Sir, that the handwriting belongs to your wife, Nancy.”

We are drawn into the arena of bawdiness by a highly sophisticated story of Eamon Kelly’s, entitled Nell Casey. It featured in his storytelling stage show, The Rub of a Relic (1978), one of a series of solo stage productions that weave together oral tales, turns of phrase, humorous comments, and various folkloric elements — ‘the theatre of the hearthstone,’ as he called it. The book version was originally published under that title by Mercier Press. (Later editions were retitled The Holy Well: An Evening of Storytelling — perhaps because the original title was a cheeky inversion of the popular suggestive sexual term, ‘a rub of the relic.’ One story ends with the observation: I never saw a priest doing the rounds of the holy well. I don’t think they believed in it….) A dictum of Eamon’s was: Hilarity is the hallmark of high intelligence. The show is a sequence of highly crafted and entertaining stories on the theme of the traditions and popular votive customs of holy wells. By another co-incidence, Murphy, Randolph and Kelly are connected in the fact that in another story in The Rub of a Relic, (The Effigy), Kelly inserts a scurrilous joke which had been collected by both Randolf and Murphy. (Murphy’s version was collected in County Cavan in 1970 but he tells us that he heard it first from his father in the 1920’s. It appears in his collection as The Inja-Rubber Horse).


The central concern in the Nell Casey story is sexual jealousy (“the worst thing that ever took a seat in the human heart”). This affliction begins to corrode Nell’s older and hapless husband, Jeremiah, whose job as a cattle drover meant he was away from home for several days at a time. Local blackguards enjoy taunting him by saying things in his hearing such as:

“Did you hear about the man that used to be away from home. It would be three weeks before he’d get back to wind the clock. Well, himself and the wife went to confession. She was inside and he was outside waiting to go in, and in the middle of her story she opened the door of the box and said to the husband:

“Jim when you were away from home last month, can you remember how many days did I say the carpenter was in making the press?”

At the ‘climax’ of the Nell Casey story, the reader, a party now to the protagonist’s paranoia, is given an alarming visual suggestion of an adulterous sexual act. The tension is hilariously broken in the last line of the tale when, in a perfectly-judged ‘punchline’, a children’s rhyme reveals to Jeremiah and to the reader the total innocence of the proceedings.

And this, perhaps, is the accomplishment of a true comic bawdy tale — where artistic subtlety can, by a sleight-of-hand, deftly sidestep a degrading salaciousness.

I’ll conclude by offering the following Ozark tale, A Slim Yellow Catfish, as an exemplar of how a telling can display a sophistication, a finesse and a composure in its obvious savouring of the local laid-back verbal weave. It was collected by Randolf from a Dr. Leo McKellops in Missouri in 1933. The latter had heard it in the early 1890s and noted, “My neighbours recounted this as a recent happening but I think it’s an old Irish fairy-story.” And to us, of course, it recalls Selkie/mermaid/seal woman tales, long-told along the Western coasts of Ireland and Scotland. (Randolf mentions a few other versions and we’re told that these are rare in the oral Anglo American tradition but that there is a ‘fresh water’ Welsh variant involving a salmon.)

A Slim Yellow Catfish

 ONE TIME there was an old batchelor lived up on the Meramec, and he was the best noodler in the whole country. He caught more fish with his hands than most fellows could get with a big seine (net). This evening he was feeling around in a black hole under a bunch of horsetail rushes, and he drug out a slim yeller catfish that would weigh pretty near a hundred pounds. The funny thing was how that fish kept a-hollering. Like one of these little squealer-cats they catch out of White River, only louder. It was still squealing when he got it home in the wagon. The rain-barrel was about half full, so he just put the catfish in the barrel with its head down. He figured the water would keep it alive, and next morning he’d sell it to the fellow that run the new hotel.

   Along in the night he heard that fish a-flouncing round like a mule kicking in the barn, but he knowed in reason it couldn’t get away, so he just went to sleep. When he woke up there was a woman in bed with him. It wasn’t none of the neighbor gals neither, but a plum stranger. She was a right good-looking woman, and they stayed in bed pretty late. Finally he says maybe we better get up, but the woman didn’t seem to have no clothes, so he didn’t mention it no more. After while he went outside, and the big catfish was gone out of the rain-barrel. It looked like a lot of funny things was happening. The old batchelor thought maybe he was going crazy, but he never said nothing. He just went back to the house and crawled in bed again.

   So that’s how things went for three whole weeks, and the old batchelor was wore down to a nub. But whenever he got to thinking about some way to get rid of the woman, she would just look at him. She never said a word, only just looked at him, and went right ahead with what she was a-doing. Some women is terrible single-minded, and it looked like there was the Devil to pay and no pitch hot. The old batchelor felt pretty bad, and hungry besides. Everything was going plum to hell, and he knowed the whole place was a-growing up in weeds, but there wasn’t no help for it.

   One morning he woke up before daylight, and the woman was gone. He figured she must have went outdoors for a minute, so he just laid there and tried to think. It come in his mind that he could saddle old Maud and ride off through the woods. Maybe he’d leave the whole goddam country, and go to Oklahoma or somewheres away out West. Pretty soon he heard a noise outside, something a-flouncing round like a mule kicking in the barn. When he looked out the door, there was the slim yaller catfish in the rain-barrel, with its tail sticking up and flappin’ against the clapboards.

   Soon as he seen that fish, the old batchelor run for the barn. He hitched up faster than the boys at the fire station, and pulled out his endgate, and got the rain-barrel in the wagon. One big jump and he was on the seat. Down the lane they went, with the mules at a full gallop and water a-splashing every which way. You’d think he was making for town to sell the fish, but the team took the river road instead. Pretty soon they come to the deep water, and the old batchelor dumped that yaller catfish right back where he got it. The big fish turned round and looked at him just once. Then she flipped her tail, and that was the last he ever seen of her.

   The old batchelor never done no more noodling, and he never eat no more fish, neither. He says anything that smells like fish made him kind of sick. But he used to walk down by the river sometimes, particular in the Spring. They say he would set on the bank for hours, a-looking into a black hole under a bunch of horsetail rushes.

From Stiff as a Poker by Vance Randolf (1955)


[From Storyteller, the newsletter of Storytellers of Ireland. Issue 32, Spring 2021]




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