‘Religion and Comedy’s Symbiotic Relationship’: Processing Trauma Through Comedy in Ireland

DUBLIN – James Cadden, who runs a comedy show at Ha'penny Bridge Inn in Dublin, was an altar boy in his childhood Catholic church in County Monaghan. Now, he spends a good chunk of his time on stage telling jokes about religion.

“What do you call someone who doesn’t believe in God?” he asked at one recent set.

 An audience member replied, “Atheist.”

Cadden corrected them with this retort, “Adult, correct, because I don’t believe in imaginary things.”

Cadden’s comeback is somewhat characteristic of Irish comedy. This is a divided island that has seen more than its fair share of scandal and conflict. The sex abuse scandals of the Catholic Church have played a role in many people abandoning their faith. And the Troubles, even 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement, continue to haunt everything from education to commerce to comedy.

“A lot of us comedians and Irish people overall have similar backgrounds when it comes to religion,” Cadden said in an interview, reflecting on his set. “Moving away from religion and finding an identity outside of it.”

Danny O’Brien, the host of another Dublin club, the Comedy Crunch show, said that religion and comedy have a “symbiotic relationship” in Ireland. 

Like Cadden, O’Brien is a former Catholic altar boy. But he remembers his mom pulling him out of the program after noticing a priest acting “creepy,” putting his hands on his shoulders. He later found out that the priest was molesting his friends.

“She saved me,” O’Brien said in an interview, “and not many of my friends have been that lucky.” He thinks making light of the trauma while still talking about it is important because it calls out “what the Catholic Church has done and is still doing.”

Another topic that continues to surface during some Irish comedy shows is the conflict between Israel and Palestine. O’Brien tends to keep away from the topic in comedy sets, however, he has strong personal feelings about the conflict.

“It’s boiling over in Ireland at the moment,” O’Brien said. “because Ireland has always seen itself as an invaded nation. If you went up to Derry, up in the north, there are Palestinian flags everywhere — they feel sympathy because they were oppressed.”

This is especially true for Northern Ireland, ground zero for the Troubles. In Derry, flags plaster the streets and often correspond to each religious communities’ majority areas.

In Derry on March 14, comedian Clayton J. Morrow took to the microphone at the Chicken Box Comedy show. Morrow He minced no words.

“Loyalists are pathetic retards,” Morrow said during one of Chicken Box comedy’s pandemic broadcasts. “And you know they’re pathetic retards when it’s 2020 and they’re still parading over 1690.” That date comes up often in Loyalist history. It was the year of the Battle of the Boyne — a win for the Republic of Ireland.

Sectarian and religious jokes make some uncomfortable, but they almost always get a laugh.

“There’s an urge to say that we’ve moved on,” said Luke McGibbon, who runs Belfast’s Best of Three comedy club, a show that gives comics three minutes to elicit laughter from the crowd, “but the fact of the matter is that people still give [religious jokes] big laughs and they're laughing because they're relating and they're relating because it's still part of people's lives.”

The stage is set for comedians to perform at the Best of 3 show on March 16 at the Green Room in Belfast’s Black Box Theater. (Photo by Dina Katgara)

He said that comedy, even if uncomfortable, is a way to work through difficult conversations, whether it’s sectarianism, Catholic Church sex abuse or Israel/Palestine.

One recent night at the Chicken Box, Morrow took on the Israel-Gaza war. He passionately ranted about the media’s biased coverage of Israel’s attack on Gaza. “Why [is] Hamas the only nefarious party in this shit?” Morrow asked to an eerily still room punctuated only by uncomfortable chuckles. 

Comedian and Chicken Shop comedy show host Rory McSwiggins banters with the audience on March 14 in Derry. (Photo by Dina Katgara)

In Derry, Rory McSwiggins started Chicken Box Comedy show in 2018, and its weekly Thursday night shows at Bennigan’s Bar has been Derry’s hub for humor ever since. McSwiggins grabbed the microphone: “I don’t know if youse know much about sectarianism?” The audience laughed knowingly.

Bennigan’s Bar sits close to the River Foyle, the water that once divided Derry into distinct Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. The bar is just a 12-minute walk south from the Peace Bridge, built in 2011, more than 10 years after the 1998 Good Friday Agreements, to connect the two communities. Just as the bridge physically closes the distance, the Chicken Box Comedy show allows people from various backgrounds to surface tensions through comedy — working through discomfort on an uneven road to healing.

“The whole Catholic-Protestant thing, the whole Catholic-Protestant thing,” McSwiggins repeated drolly. Sectarianism has been top of mind for the past half a century since the violence of the Troubles started in the 1960s. Even as physical violence between Catholics and Protestants simmered since 1998, there still lay embedded stereotypes and hostilities.

And the humor is not limited to comedy clubs. The British sitcom “Derry Girls” has turned international attention to understanding the Troubles through a humorous lens ever since it first aired in 2018. One scene particularly exemplifies the tensions: the main characters attend an educational integration program that attempted to point out similarities between Protestants and Catholics — but only found differences.

Although coping with trauma through humor often takes more cognitive effort than other serious methods, humor can be more effective in regulating negative emotions, according to a 2013 Stanford Psychological study.

McSwiggins continued to tell a story: one of his friends started school at 9 a.m. and another started an hour earlier at 8:30 a.m. He asked the audience which student was Protestant and which was Catholic. Almost immediately, audience members guessed that the Protestant student had started school earlier.

“Woo! You win a prize,” McSwiggins lauded. “Big cheer for sectarianism!”

Another comic, Justin Cass, also performed that night in Derry. Cass grew up in County Monaghan, just six miles outside the Northern Ireland border. Monaghan is a part of Ulster County and was supposed to be a part of the United Kingdom, but because of its high Catholic population, it was relegated to the Republic. In his set, Cass described his hometown as somewhere between “Disneyland and the Troubles.”

While Cass’ shtick relies on his long pauses – which he pokes fun at, asking the crowd if he looks like an off-duty priest, to which an audience member from the Belfast “Best of Three” show on March 16 yelled out, “No, but you talk like one!” – he appreciates the lack of “woke culture” in the north.

Although he is not a religious person himself, Cass admitted that there is no getting around the fact that Ireland is a religious country. He said he tries to avoid religion, it always finds a way into the comedy, admitting that his best jokes make fun of Protestants.

“I’m conscious that there might be some Protestants in the room,” he said, reflecting on his performances. Cass’ observation leans into one of the three philosophical theories of humor, the theory of superiority, or eliciting amusement based on pointing out someone else’s inferiority.

“Everybody thinks that their religion is the better one,” Cass said. “The most common thing is to make fun of people from the minority religion in the room.” He said he’s working on trying to learn humor that everybody understands. “The aim is to make everybody laugh and not feel excluded.”

He said that Northern Ireland is his favorite place to gig because they’re more appreciative of “dark and edgy” entertainment. He caters his shows differently in the North than when he performs in the South. With fewer tourists in the North, the comedy gets more specific, and less catered toward an international audience — allowing an opening for uncomfortable conversations about sectarianism.

Graeme Watson is another comedian from Northern Ireland and has performed and hosted in the comedy scene since 2008. Watson grew up during the Troubles in Larne, a small seaside village about 25 miles north of Belfast.

“I remember growing up in that area and the atmosphere was thick with tension with the Troubles, the violence, the bombs going on,” Watson said. “So, comedians like Patrick Kielty [current host of Ireland’s Late Late Show] pierced through that, kind of making fun of that and opened the door for the possibility of what would happen later on: peace, the Good Friday Agreement.”

Watson, spurred by his Protestant upbringing and deep-rooted interest in comedy, initially pursued a Ph.D. at Belfast’s Queen's University focused on a custom topic: the politics of happiness. While he did not meet a Catholic person before attending university, Watson was surrounded by people focused on Catholic stereotypes. He later left the program to pursue comedy full-time.

Watson said that comedy allows people to laugh and break down the Protestant-Catholic barriers and become friends. “Humor is what bonds people.”

“I think people from that era naturally have a sense of humor, because it’s quite hard,” Watson said. “You’d probably be very depressed otherwise.”

Watson also helped run a comedy workshop for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Festival every December, helping train human rights leaders to perform comedy. He spent four weeks helping human rights workers turn about their difficult experiences involving causes like homelessness into comedy.

Another comedian, Adam Laughlin, who was born two years after the Good Friday Agreement and performed at both the Chicken Box comedy and the Best of Three set in Belfast, said that all comics, even if they’re younger, still talk about the Troubles because it still impacts where they’re from.

If you don’t want to deal with the troubles, he suggested, just don’t do comedy in Northern Ireland.

Teaching the Zoroastrian Youth: The Navjote Ceremony

Teaching the Zoroastrian Youth: The Navjote Ceremony

SUFFERN, N.Y. — Just before noon on a recent Sunday, about 50 Zoroastrian men and women stood in a circle clasping hands inside of the Dar-E-Mehr fire temple in this village about a 40-minute drive north of Manhattan. It is here, at 106 Pomona Rd., where Zoroastrians in the tri-state area meet monthly to pray and educate their youth.

Each person in the circle covered their head with either a shawl or a short cylindrical cap, called a topee. Some worshippers, including Khursheed Navdar, the prayer leader and the president of the Zoroastrian Association of Greater New York, shut their eyes, meditating while reciting the prayers. Others, including the many children, curiously peered at their fellow circle mates.

After Navdar finished the prayers, she opened the circle up for announcements. A mother introduced her kindergartener who was starting the religion education course, and a high school senior announced his cancer research fundraiser. Navdar instructed the adults to stay in the main auditorium for emergency response training while the children happily clambered up the stairs to their respective classrooms.

Inside one of the classrooms, Avan Patel, the daughter of a Zoroastrian priest, was preparing selections from children’s books on the faith. Patel’s lesson plan for the day was to introduce the Navjote — the religious induction ceremony for girls and boys between the ages of 7 and 15. It is also when a child receives a white cotton shirt (Sudreh) and woolen cord (Kusti), the ceremonial clothing that Zoroastrians wear every day as a kind of armor against evil. Patel settled on a book that describes the Navjote from the perspective of a young boy named Dinyar, which she said makes the ceremony more relatable for the children who may not have had their Navjote yet.

Patel, 47, fell in love with her religion courses as a child, leading her to start teaching her own Zoroastrian prayer and culture courses in 1998.

“As an adult, you realize the value of these Zoroastrian traditions, stories and prayers, and how they help you understand your identity in an overwhelming world,” Patel said. “Teaching the Zoroastrian children the ways of our religion makes me feel proud and happy as if I was a representative of our ancestors.”

Patel stood at the front of the room alongside her former student, Aaria Nadar, 17, who was now her teaching assistant. The four wide-eyed 7-year-olds in their class looked up intently as Nadar wrote “Navjote = new birth” on the whiteboard. To provide a mental image of the ceremony for the young ones, Nadar took out an iPad and began swiping through photos of her and her sister’s shared Navjote ceremony a few years ago in India.

“There’ll be older children who’ll guide and explain concepts to younger kids,” Patel said after the class, “and that always makes me smile, knowing that they’re learning and wanting to spread their knowledge with others.”

Patel explained how the ceremony lasts about 45 minutes and ends with the priest, or Dasturji, performing a blessing by showering the child with rose petals and rice. Afterwards, the child is dressed in new clothing and jewelry for a celebration. Oftentimes, the celebration includes a special dinner, called a Parsi Bonu, in which friends and family eat off banana leaves.

Patel then called for a volunteer. There were two girls and two boys in the class and both the girls raised their hands. Patel chose one, telling her, “Let’s pretend it’s your Navjote.” Nadar helped the girl put on the Sudreh. Patel pointed out the small pocket on the shirt’s front — “the pocket of good deeds,” representing the third and final aspect of the religion’s three-pronged motto: “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.” Patel and Nadar guided the girl to hold the Kusti, the sacred wool string, correctly: folded once and held taut horizontally across the body with one thumb holding the loop. The little girl helpfully reminded them to not let the Kusti touch the ground.

“Let the Sudreh and Kusti be the badge of service to Ahura Mazda [God],” Patel said. “These things that we wear on our body protect us, and it’s something to feel honorable about.”

Patel pointed to a photo of a bearded man and asked the children who it was: Ahura Mazda (the God) or Zarathustra (the prophet). Silence. “Ahura Mazda?” a young girl questioned. It was Zarathustra.

“Is God a human being?” Patel asked the children. “No,” Patel continued. “He’s a special force. We can’t see him, but he’s everywhere. And his name, just like we all have names, is Ahura Mazda. Zarathustra is a man on earth, just like us, and the son of God.”

To end the class, Patel pointed again to the photo of the bearded man and asked, “If you think it’s Zarathustra, raise your hand.” This time, the hands of all four children shot up in unison. Patel smiled.

“We all learn by either repetition or experience,” Patel said. “When I present a lesson to the kids by telling a story, writing notes on the whiteboard or doing arts and crafts relating to the lesson — it brings it to life.”

The Tealight Candle: A Zoroastrian Priest Prays at Home

The Tealight Candle: A Zoroastrian Priest Prays at Home

NORTH BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Every day, Arshis Pavri lights a small tealight candle in his home in this New Jersey town an hour’s drive from Manhattan. The flame is magnified in the reflection on its container, a small glass etched with the profile of a bearded man — the Zoroastrian prophet Zarathustra. The prophet, head covered with a topi, or hat, and hands joined in prayer, is balanced atop phoenix-like wings. There are three layers of wings, one layer for each of Zoroastrianism’s three values: Humata Hukhta Hvarshta, or “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.”

Pavri wears a thin white cotton shirt, called a Sudreh, with a quarter-sized square pocket sewn in at the dip of the V-neck. The pocket holds good deeds, he says. He wraps a long wool shoelace-like wool cord, called a Kusti, three times around himself, just below his navel — one knot in the front and one in the back. Before beginning his favorite prayer, the Tandarosti prayer for wellness, Pavri faces the tealight candle’s flame — an ode to the divine element of fire, a tangible representation of the immaterial Ahura Mazda, or God.

“I feel wonderful,” Pavri says. “I think prayer is a great outlet for me, and I feel very connected, but that is because maybe that's just how I am as a person.”

Pavri, 64, immigrated from India about 35 years ago in 1988. Today, he is one of an estimated 14,405 Zoroastrians in the United States, according to World Population Review. At around age 12, Pavri was ordained to the priesthood in Mumbai, India. There, he learned to lead prayers from ancient texts like the Avesta, written in the dead language Avestan, and perform blessings called Jashans. Pavri is a part of a smaller community of Zoroastrians called Parsees who left Iran for India sometime around the 9th century CE.

“I became very religious after my Navjote [religious initiation ceremony],” Pavri says. “I used to go to the Agiary [house of worship, called the fire temple] every day. I was very religious right from the beginning.”

Pavri comes from a blessed family — a lineage of Zoroastrian priests, or Mobed. Hereditary priesthood has been the tradition since the religion’s beginning around the 6th century BCE in Persia. Some priests are called Dasturgi, priests qualified to perform the boi ceremony that tend the sacred flames in the inner-sanctum of an Agiary.

The closest house of worship to Pavri is located in Suffren, New York, about an hour away from him. The building is not an Agiary because it lacks a sustained fire. The Dar-E-Mehr opens roughly one day a month, as well as for the twice-annual Persian New Year, or Navroz, celebrations.

Usually, each month, priests perform the boi ceremony while lighting the fire each month, but the Dar-E-Mehr’s current venting system has a mechanical issue pending fixture, says Arzan Sam Wadia, president of the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America.

Wadia, 50, immigrated from India to the United States in 1998 and started a Zoroastrian news website called Parsi Khabar in 2003. After improving ZAGNY’s website around 2010, he became part of the board and has been a key leader in New York’s Zoroastrian community ever since.

“We are not like a church where every Sunday morning 500 of us get together and praise the Lord,” Wadia says. “We are not like the Muslims who on a Friday afternoon will pray together. We all pray on an individual basis. It’s a very inward-looking faith.”

At his home in New York, Wadia lights an oil divo, similar to Pavri’s tealight. He sets it down on his prayer table that features a photo of Zarathustra alongside images of passed loved ones. Fire is the purest element, he adds, as it cannot be polluted like air, water or earth can be.

“There’s always this talk that we’re ‘fire-worshippers,’” Wadia says. “So, are we fire-worshippers, or do we worship the fire? There’s a subtle difference to it. When I think of the Prophet Zarathustra, I kind of have a picture in mind, but there is no picture of Ahura Mazda, so to me, this live fire is the representation of that.”

Wadia said although the prayer rituals may be personal, it makes the cultural and social aspects of the faith even more important. This includes celebrating Navroz with the community, studying Avestan prayers, wearing the Sudreh and Kusti and eating Parsi food, like Akuri and Dhansak Masala.

Pavri will not attend the Dar-E-Mehr on Sunday. Pavri is not well and can’t drive himself to the temple like he used to, so instead, he is content with his tealight candle.

“When I pray, I pray for a lot of people,” Pavri says. “I don't pray for myself, but I pray for a lot of people who I know need help or they are in bad shape health-wise.”

After Pavri finishes his prayers, he allows the flame to burn out naturally, so as not to pollute the sacred fire with saliva. As the flame sputters out, his makeshift fire temple returns once more to a bedroom in North Brunswick, New Jersey.