Should some topics be off-limits for satirists?

Lynda's Life
Lynda's Life

Wednesday’s massacre by Muslim extremists of 12 people at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was cruel and barbaric and has rightly been condemned by the civilized world.

The phrase “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) is echoing across the globe in solidarity with the French, endorsing the right to hold and express a viewpoint and united in condemnation of what was a brutal assault on democracy and freedom.

Hugh Travers.

Hugh Travers.

According to reports, the magazine Charlie Hebdo is irreverent and anti-religious, publishing cartoons, jokes and articles that poke fun at all forms of extremism, and not just Islamic fundamental beliefs. Like a lot of people this week, I went straight to the internet and checked out some of Charlie’s past cartoons which need little translation from the original French to appreciate what all the fuss is over.

The attack came just a few days after a brief discussion on local radio here about what is or is not suitable material for satire. You may be aware of the debate: a Dublin based writer by the name of Hugh Travers is developing a situation comedy idea for Channel 4 based on the Irish potato famine of the mid 1800s. It’s called Hungry although the TV station stresses that it’s only in the development stages at the moment and isn’t planned to go to air.

Well, naturally there are those who aren’t best pleased. One Dublin councillor said the show was intended to “embarrass and denigrate” one of the most painful periods in Irish history. David McGuinness made comparisons with how Jewish people would feel if a comedy was made about the Holocaust or Cambodians about the Khmer Rouge or African countries about famine on that continent.

Some people have gone even further and called for the Irish national broadcaster RTE to think about making a comedy series about the London Blitz during the Second World War. Hardly a mature response, but it does raise a question - are there some topics that should be off-limits for satirists and comedy writers?

And if so, who decides?

Didn’t we laugh at classics like ‘Allo ‘Allo and Blackadder Goes Forth? The latter was set in the trenches of the First World War and even managed to inject poignancy in the slow motion closing shots of its final episode where the men go ‘over the top’ into the slaughter of battle. What about the hilarious Hole in the Wall Gang’s Give My Head Peace whose original series parodied the ‘love across the barricades’ dramas set here in the troubles and poked fun at our sectarian attitudes? Incidentally, that team has a new sitcom going out on BBC 2 on Monday at 10.35pm called Number Twos all about the goings on up at the House on the Hill – Parliament Buildings, Stormont. If the radio series is any indicator, it’ll be worth watching.

Every community has its dark days and we in Northern Ireland know only too well how Paris feels this week for we have had many like it in our troubled past. And we are proud here, as I think the whole island of Ireland is too, of our capacity for laughter at our troubles and in our darkness. Worth remembering too, that it may even have been a French man who said “I don’t agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.