March brings with it St. Patrick’s Day and an affinity for all things Irish. Before we bring March to a close, let us take a moment to reflect upon one of the great Irish cultural contributions: the grand oral tradition of story and song. Shakespeare (somewhat ironically) wrote that brevity is the soul of wit but the Irish never waste an opportunity to say in a few paragraphs what could be said in a few words. This verbosity has been responsible for a great many works of art. (Of course the Irish were equally gifted at preserving the written word, as is well documented in Thomas Cahill’s New York Times Best Seller How The Irish Saved Civilization, but I digress.)
What better way to illustrate this than with a clever little nursery rhyme many good Irish children learn (usually, as with this writer, by a parent or other mature, serious and adult relative) about a dog’s genitals, alcoholic beverages and a bucket full of excrement of undisclosed origin.
In a phenomenon increasingly rare in 2014, there is little to be found about this song online. It seems there is a place after all for the grand oral storytelling tradition even in the digital age. There are a handful of discussion threads and two or three YouTube clips offering remembrances or performances of the song. Most of the lyrics found online vary slightly from the version this writer first heard sung by his Irish father and Italian mother while in the back seat of the family car on some unremembered road in some unremembered state somewhere out there in the great big USA.
The exquisite structure of the lyric was immortalized instantaneously.
Two Irishmen, two Irishmen digging in a ditch
One called the other a dirty son of a –
Peter Murphy had a dog, a mighty fine dog was he
Along came a bumble bee and stung him in his –
Cocktail, ginger ale, ten cents a glass
If you don’t like it you can shove it up your –
Ask me no questions, I will tell no lies
If you get hit by a bucket of shit, be sure to close your eyes
It is a simple yet effective structure: setting up the rhyme to lead the listener’s ear toward an obvious obscenity only to duck and weave into an innocuous quasi-homophone. When the resolving line involving the imminent bucket of shit finally arrives, emphasized by a nifty internal rhyme, the use of the obscenity is heightened and therefore permissible as a literary device with a purpose and function. Any decent songwriter, poet or raconteur would be well served in studying the structure of these lines. And sing it to your kids, they will be grateful.