In a Word . . .

I have a weakness for off-the-cuff political wit. A master, of course, was Winston Churchill. For instance, when an MP blurted angrily, “Mr Churchill, must you fall asleep while I am speaking?” Churchill responded, “No. It’s entirely voluntary.”

Or those caustic exchanges between him and MP Lady Nancy Astor. It was being discussed what disguise Churchill might wear to a masked ball. She suggested, “Why don’t you come as sober, Prime Minister?”

On another occasion, famously, she told Churchill, “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea.” He responded, “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it!”

One of the wittiest recent US presidents was Ronald Reagan who, in the 1970s, quipped “recession is when your neighbour loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”

Or Lyndon Johnson, on the media: “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac river, the headline would read ‘President can’t swim’.”

Closer to home, the late Fine Gael leader James Dillon and Éamon de Valera had a testy relationship. Dillon once advised Dev that “my ancestors fought for Ireland down the centuries on the continent of Europe while yours were banging banjos and bartering budgies in the backstreets of Barcelona.”

He also said de Valera’s Ireland reminded him of the Red Queen’s advice to Alice in Through the Looking Glass: “Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but we never have jam today.”

My late father wasn’t behind the door either in his years as a Roscommon county councillor. Campaigning for a swimming pool in Ballaghaderreen, he explained: “There are people in the town who haven’t had a bath since the midwife rubbed them down with a sponge.”

A response included the claim that “Mr McGarry must’ve been rubbed down with sandpaper”.

But my own all-time favourite political quip was that of late Labour Party leader Frank Cluskey, as he called yet another emergency meeting. He noticed that then TD Michael D Higgins was missing and, when told he was visiting a troubled Central America, Cluskey quipped: “Typical Michael D. When it comes to a choice between saving the world and saving the Labour Party, he takes the easy option.”

Wit, from Old English wit/witt. First used in 16th century to mean expression of ideas in an amusing way.

inaword@irishtimes.com

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