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St. Patrick's Day -- The value of Irish humor

With the world in such a tizzy these days -- with so many people ready to shout and argue and poke each other in the eyes -- I can't think of a better time to embrace the Irish spirit.

It's my great good fortune to be a fellow of Irish descent. I share my good fortune with a quarter of all Americans, who also can trace their heritage to the rolling, green hills of Ireland.

As a lad, I remember my father sitting on the back porch on Sundays. Uncle Mike sometimes would visit for a couple of beers, and few things gave the two more pleasure than swapping Irish jokes.

Such as the one about the fellow who was touring the Irish countryside. Hungry, he stopped at a farm and asked for refreshment. The lady of the house served him a bowl of soup. There was a pig in the house that kept running up to the fellow.

"That is the friendliest pig I ever did meet," he said to the woman.

"He's not friendly at all," said the woman. "That's his bowl you're using."

I know that I'm not really "Irish," but an American through and through. I know, too, that I'm also of German descent, and, though my father refuses to accept it, my great-grandmother on his side turned out not to be Irish, but 100 percent French.

Still, in my family we celebrate what it means to be Irish. Being Irish means to laugh easily, never to take yourself too seriously, to be cautious of getting stuck in the narrowness of your own point of view.

Which reminds me of the one about the German spy who is sent to Ireland during World War II. The German is instructed to meet an Irish spy named Murphy and confirm Murphy's identity by saying, "The weather could change by Tuesday."

After the German parachutes into Ireland, he sets off for town. Along the way, he asks a farmer where he might find a man named Murphy.

"Well, sir, it all depends on which Murphy," says the farmer. "We have Murphy the doctor, Murphy the postal carrier, Murphy the stone mason and Murphy the teacher. As a matter of fact, I, too, am Murphy, Murphy the farmer." The German gets an idea.

"The weather could change by Tuesday," he says.

"Aye," says the farmer, "you'll be wanting Murphy the spy."

James Thurber, one of my favorite humorists, said the wheels of humor are set in motion by the damp hand of melancholy. Aristotle wrote comedy and tragedy are close cousins. The Irish long have known humor and laughter are our chief weapons for combating sadness and pain.

Which reminds me of the time a young Irishman tells his mother he's in love. Just for fun, he brings home three girls and asks his mother to guess which of the three he has chosen to be his bride.

After his mother interviews all three, she says, "Your fiancée is the one in the middle."

"That's amazing, ma. How did you know?"

"Because I don't like her."

British academic and joke theorist Christy Davies said a good joke can help clarify and express complex feelings. A good joke can cut to the heart of the matter better than any speech or law or government policy.

If only everyone held such a point of view. These days, with all the conflict and disagreement going on, we surely could profit from a better sense of humor.

Which reminds me of the time Pat explained to Mike why his valiant effort to scale Mount Everest fell short.

"I would have made it to the top," says Pat, "had I not run out of scaffolding."

Tom Purcell, author of "Comical Sense: A Lone Humorist Takes on a World Gone Nutty!" is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist. This column is an excerpt from the book.

purcell@caglecartoons.com.