• Friday, December 31st, 2010

My grandparents lived in a big house in the village of Louth, seven miles south of Dundalk and just a few more miles south of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. I remember it as being huge, almost a mansion, although it really wasn’t; it was bigger than the house I grew up in, though, and had a stately staircase, a drawing room, an enormous kitchen, and an actual scullery. My grandmother always had a cook (Mrs. Finnegan in my day) and a maid (who was never referred to as such—always by her first name).

There were seven children in my mother’s family, and they always had assorted other relatives living with them, especially during the war, when my grandmother’s siblings left London and stayed in Louth to avoid the bombing. So I could never figure out how they got by with just one bathroom. I guess it was a more Spartan time.

The bathroom was big and bright, painted white, with a claw-footed tub, a pedestal sink, and a most peculiar toilet—the seat was wooden, and the tank was overhead. You flushed by pulling a chain. There was only a limited supply of hot water, and when there was a drought, which happened several times during our summer visits, there was no water at all. During those times, we took turns cranking a big water wheel in the back yard to draw water up from an old well, and then brought it up in a bucket to flush the toilet.

It’s hard to imagine that with one bathroom for anywhere between four and twelve people, anyone would have much time to spend on the bare necessities, let alone read a book. But in fact, one of the enduring features of my grandmother’s bathroom was a stack of joke books. All the books were part of the same series, The Mini Ha-Ha Joke Books, published by Wolfe Publishing of London. The covers all had the same design, although the color scheme varied, and each was devoted to a single topic: Best Jewish Jokes, Best Motoring Jokes, Best Englishman, Irishman, and Scotsman Jokes. Our favorite was Best Kerrymen Jokes—Kerry is the most beautiful county in Ireland, but it’s also rural, so the natives were presumed to be dimwitted rubes. Sample joke: “How do you tell the bride at a Kerry wedding? She’s the one wearing white Wellingtons.”

Of course, one of the advantages of joke books is that you can read just a page or two, if someone is pounding on the door, or the whole thing, if no one else is in need of the facilities. Since we spent several summers in Ireland, my siblings and I got to be very familar with these books. Just looking at that cover brings back a flood of memories—the wooden toilet seat, the whitewashed paneling, even the smell of the Imperial Leather soap (By Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen—I was terribly impressed by that). And of course, decades later, we still remember some of the jokes.

I was still surprised, though, when we found a half-dozen of these books among my mother’s possessions after she died. That means my grandparents must have taken the books with them when they gave up the house in Louth (it was leased to them by the government, a perk of my grandfather’s position as village doctor) and moved to Dundalk, and my mother actually took the trouble to bring them to the U.S. at some point. Regardless of how or why it happened, we were thrilled to find them. Each of the four of us kids got at least one, so we can carry on the tradition of corny joke books to the next generation.

These books were very much of their time (early 1970s), and the humor relied on broad stereotypes of religions, nationalities, and, in the case of Best Motoring Jokes, women drivers. With that caveat, here’s a sample.

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