Irish people don’t own the concept of gallows humor, but they’re certainly well known for it. After all, how else are you going to endure 800 years of oppression from the English? You have to laugh or else you’ll cry. Comedy as a coping mechanism is also baked into internet culture. Just take a scroll through Twitter on any given day. People are joking through the pain, and who can blame us, especially when we are being so collectively let down by our governments? (Other than New Zealand—lucky bastards.)
In Ireland, the story of political pandemic fuck-ups is a bit different than the States’, but nonetheless devastating. While lockdowns were implemented fairly quickly and consistently on the island when COVID-19 struck, the Irish government has been dragging its feet when it comes to implementing mandatory quarantine for people flying into the country—even in the wake of the U.K. and other new variants. Continually, the economy has been put above the needs of Irish residents. Partway through December 2020, restrictions were lifted so that people could shop at non-essential retailers and dine indoors, presumably because they didn’t want to be known as the government who cancelled Christmas. (Maybe you also don’t want to be the government who kills grannies for the sake of the economy? Just a thought.) As a result, the Republic of Ireland saw over 100,000 new cases of coronavirus in January—more than we’d had in all of 2020, chief medical officer Dr. Tony Holohan told the Irish Times—and over 1,000 deaths due to COVID-19.
Holohan may be the chief medical officer, but the Minister for Health is a beast of his own: Stephen Donnelly. Donnelly started off as an independent TD (Irish version of a Congressperson) in 2011 and founded the Social Democrats party in 2015. He left them a year later, though, eventually joining Fianna Fáil, one of the two center-right parties that essentially swap power in the government (the other being Fine Gael). It’s clear that Donnelly was done being a backbencher, even if it meant selling out.
Donnelly is currently serving as the Minister for Health, and he certainly leaves something to be desired. Ahead of kids going back to school, he sat down for an interview in which he compared the risks of sending children back into classrooms to the dangers of… trampolines.
“Playing sports is an inherently risky thing to do, you know. Our children playing on trampolines is an inherently risky thing for them to be doing,” Donnelly explained.
“But are we comparing that, Minister, to a global pandemic, to a virus that kills people? It’s not the same as playing sports really, is it?” Virgin Media News reporter Zara King responded.
Donnelly’s relationship with Holohan isn’t great either, highlighted by a collection of emails and texts that the Sunday Independent revealed in late January. The most memorable exchange was a text from Holohan in which he notes that the R number (a measurement of the disease’s ability to proliferate) in Dublin went up from 1.2 to 1.3. Donnelly replied simply with that most passive aggressive and hated emoji: a thumbs up.
This was what people needed. Twitter users began responding to his tweets in the thousands with the emoji. Irish rap duo Tebi Rex used a hyper realistic version of a thumbs up as the art for their forthcoming single “Oh It Hurts” in a nod to Donnelly’s gaffe. It was the sort of stupidity that makes excellent meme fodder.
Enter Killian Sundermann. The comic’s videos have taken off during lockdown, whether he’s skewering nonsensical COVID strategies or walking around rating the hedges in his area. Recently, though, he set his sights on Stephen Donnelly, putting white material around his head to mimic the Health Minister’s bald one and mocking his childish approach to politics (and adding in a well-placed trampoline reference). And honestly, this pettiness doesn’t feel that far removed from reality.
Sundermann also sent some barbs in the direction of Minister for Education Norma Foley. Foley's main sins include insisting that schools should stay open despite, well, everything, and hemming and hawing on what to do about the Leaving Certificate (the Irish version of the SATs, but worse because there's no alternative test; my Irish friends still have nightmares about it.) The enormous pressures put on educators to risk their health amidst rising cases is an issue on both sides of the pond, but Sundermann finds a way to poke fun at the powers-that-be's tunnel vision.
Sundermann's not the only Irish comedian who's found unexpected success while we're all shut up inside. Michael Fry has found an enthusiastic audience on social media thanks to his indie band interpretations of viral videos. He had his own take on Foley's waffling replies to any question set to her.
While we’re indebted to Fry, Sundermann and anyone else who’s made us laugh during this time, humor can only get you so far. It’s a coping mechanism, not a solution, and Irish people are well aware of that. Laughter is the best medicine, but we sure as hell need a cure right now for politicians’ short-sighted strategies, wherever we live.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.