A Joke Explained

19:06 Sun 23 Dec 2012
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Sometimes, jokes need explanation; TV Tropes says you’re not supposed to explain the punchline, just the context, but in the case of this joke the two aren’t really separable. Furthermore, this one requires a great deal of broad knowledge in order to make sense; more breadth of knowledge than any other joke I’ve encountered so far. This became clear to me in my relating it to American friends; I didn’t notice the amount you need to know for it while I was living in Ireland[1].

It’s the “Ian Paisley coma joke”, and to get it you need to understand:

  • Northern Irish politics from about 1970–2000, including particularly who Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams are and the relationship between them.
  • GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) sports.
  • Scottish soccer.
  • English soccer.
  • The relationship between the Unionist/Nationalist divide in Northern Ireland and Protestant/Catholic relations in Scotland.

The Joke

Ian Paisley falls into a coma, and remains unconscious but stable for 25 years, after which time he wakes up. His faithful deputy Peter Robinson is by his bedside, looking anxiously at him as he wakes.

“Peter? How long have I been out?”

“25 years.”

“25 years? My god! What’s happened? What’s going on?”

“Well, do you want the bad news or the really bad news first?”

Paisley hesitates, disturbed, then says, “I suppose… give me the bad news first.”

“Gerry Adams is President of a united Ireland.”

“What? That’s terrible, how could that have… wait, if that’s the bad news, what’s the really bad news?”

“Celtic beat Rangers in the FA Cup final.”

“Oh no! But… how can that be worse… what was the score?”

“2–6 to 1–4.”


The joke is grounded in the Troubles, the decades-long strife between Nationalist/Catholic and Unionist/Protestant communities in Northern Ireland. Alongside the religious (and discrimination) issues, the divide is also over Nationalist desire to be part of a 32-county Republic of Ireland, versus Unionist desire to remain part of the United Kingdom. That conflict is generally regarded as having ended in 1998, which is why the joke now requires historical knowledge as well as the rest. The bitter divide between the two sides underpins the humor.

It should become clear, if it isn’t already, that this joke is on the Nationalist side of the divide.

Ian Paisley

Ian Paisley was the most prominent figure on the Unionist side, co-founder of the Democratic Unionist Party and leader of that party for almost 40 years. He was fervently anti-Catholic[2] as well as highly conservative, campaigning against the legalization of homosexual acts in Northern Ireland and referring generally to alcohol as “the devil’s buttermilk”[3].

Paisley mellowed in later years, and much of the change in the situation in Northern Ireland can be summed up by his agreeing to serve as First Minister of Northern Ireland with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister—and by the fact that the pair were unironically referred to by the media as “the chuckle brothers”.

Paisley has since retired from his religious and political posts.

Peter Robinson

Robinson was a founding member of the Democratic Unionist Party and Paisley’s deputy for many years. He succeeded Paisley as party leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland in 2008.

Gerry Adams

Gerry Adams is the president of Sinn Féin, the most significant Nationalist party in Northern Ireland. He has also long been alleged to be (or have been) a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. He and Paisley were regarded as the faces of the two sides of the conflict, and as such as nemeses.

President of a United Ireland

Paisley fought his entire life against the movement to make Ulster part of the Republic of Ireland, and would obviously have been horrified to discover that unification had occurred; Adams’ Presidency would simply have been an additional blow.

Celtic and Rangers

The Old Firm”: Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers football (soccer) clubs, one of the bitterest sports rivalries in the world. Glasgow has a history of sectarian conflict that mirrors that of Northern Ireland, between Catholics and Protestants. The sides in that conflict would have tended to support the similar side in Northern Ireland, and in turn the Northern Irish sides tended to support their counterparts in Scotland. Celtic are the Catholic club and Rangers the Protestant, with the result that if you wanted to show which side you were on in Belfast but didn’t want to simply wear the Tricolor or the Union Jack, you could wear Celtic or Rangers gear.

Paisley, even if he’d had no interest in sports, would have known of the affiliations of the clubs and would be a natural Rangers supporter; furthermore, he would have recognized that a Celtics victory over Rangers in the Cup final would be viewed as a bitter defeat by the Protestant community.

The FA Cup

The FA Cup is the most prestigious soccer knockout competition in England (and probably in the UK and Ireland). In modern times only English (and some Welsh) clubs play in it, although Scottish teams have in the past[4].

The Score

Of course, bitter as that defeat might be, it’s just football, and just one game; thus Paisley’s confusion as to how this could be the really bad news.

“2–6 to 1–4” is not a football (soccer) score. It’s a Gaelic football score, in the form goals–points. Goals (between the posts and under the crossbar) are worth three, and points (between the posts and over the crossbar) are worth one.

Gaelic football is not a Unionist pastime… the GAA was founded as part of a Celtic revival intertwined with Irish nationalism prior to independence, and has always been associated with the nationalist cause. If the FA Cup final, between those two storied soccer teams, is now a Gaelic football match, it means that Irish culture has flourished to an unprecedented degree and effectively taken over all of Britain as well as Ireland. This would be utterly crushing for Paisley, and that’s the meaning of the punchline.

[1] This post, therefore, is more for my non-Irish readers; Irish readers’ reactions will be different, but will likely be grounded in understanding the joke without requiring any explanation.

[2] As this excerpt from his Wikipedia entry demonstrates:

In 1988, when Pope John Paul II delivered a speech to the European Parliament, Paisley shouted “I denounce you as the Antichrist!” and held up a red poster reading “Pope John Paul II ANTICHRIST” in black letters.

[3] I often illustrate Nationalist attitudes to Paisley by telling another joke:

Ian Paisley dies, discovers the Catholics were right all along, and arrives at the Pearly Gates, where an incredulous Saint Peter meets him. Peter says, “You must be joking!” as Paisley tries to gain entry to heaven. Paisley asks what the problem is, pointing out that he’s led a righteous life; Peter, sputtering, says, “You hated and persecuted Catholics! You’ve never done a good thing for a Catholic in your life!” Paisley protests, “That’s not true! I have! I gave a Catholic beggar a pound once, and this was in the 60s, when a pound was real money!” Peter looks suspiciously at him, and Paisley insists that it’s true. “Fine,” says Peter, “Wait here, I’ll check the records.” He enters heaven, leaving Paisley at the gates. After quite some time, Peter returns. Paisley asks, “Well?” “Here’s your filthy quid,” says Peter, throwing a coin at him, “Now fuck off!”

[4] This makes this point in the telling of the joke slightly problematic; if a listener knows British football, they would know that Celtic and Rangers simply could not play in, much less reach the final in, the FA Cup, and an interruption to point this out would weaken the punchline.

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2 Responses to “A Joke Explained”

  1. Jeff Fry Says:

    Ahh, I’ve been waiting for this post for years. Thanks!

  2. Steve Casey Says:

    That has nothing on your average XKCD comic. Most of them need a specialized degree and 10 years industry experience to follow!

    Oh, and switch FA Cup with “SPL decider” – more factually likely and adds a requirement of understanding the acronym and the soccer league system.

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