For the last decade or two, there has been a persistent idea that John Derricke’s Image of Ireland depicts two medieval-style professional farters or braigetóiri. This had its most popular expression in a 2002 article in Archaeology Ireland by Greer Ramsey. Ramsey played up the uncouth “Wild Irish” angle, and he speculated that the “arts of the wind-breakers shocked some English visitors who regarded the Irish courts as barbaric.” Let’s consider this.
The idea of Elizabethan Irish farters first appears in Drama, Performance, and Polity in Pre-Cromwellian Ireland (2000), where Alan J. Fletcher discusses the performing arts in Gaelic Ireland. He makes a tentative re-identification of two marginal characters in John Derricke’s abusive woodcut of an Irish feast (Image of Ireland, 1581). While previously viewed as simply defecating, Fletcher suggests it is “not utterly beyond possibility” that they are meant to be entertainers; braigetóiri, or professional farters. Derricke’s text makes no mention of the two figures at all. The Latin dialogue running vertically and meant to issue from the two men's mouths says roughly “Spectator, this is how my parents taught me to behave,” and “Older people lacking in goodness taught me the same.” The lower of the two figures does seem to show evidence of defecation.
Fletcher cites passages in Old Irish from the the 11th century ‘Fair of Carman’ in the Book of Leinster, and from the 7th century Uraicecht Becc [Little Primer], describing braigetóiri. These sources also describe genital contortionists like those seen by Captain Cook in the South Pacific, but there is no later reference for these rude entertainers. Our recent article on the members of a 16th century Irish chief’s household thus includes no braigetóiri, as they do not appear in contemporary records. Which is not say that there weren’t rough aspects to 16th century Irish life, or that such entertainers did not continue to hold forth in the world. I recall a film depicting life at Versailles circa 1660 which includes such a professional farter, and the notorious Le Pétomane lingered on into the 20th century—(check Wikipedia for him—if you must!)
But we have an extensive literature of New English officials and settlers describing the 16th century Irish (usually negatively), and they would hardly have failed to mention such an inviting target. Instead, their testimony suggests 16th century Gaelic Irish society was particularly hostile to such tricks.
In fact, we find that English commentators of the 16th and 17th century make many references to an especially violent objection to farting on the part of the Gaelic Irish. Lord Mountjoy’s secretary Fynes Moryson writes in his Itinerary: Manners and Customs of Ireland, 1617: “They hold it a filthy thinge to breake wynde backward, so as hauing any such occasion, they will bare themselues only for that purpose, and because the English doe not so, they call them vpon all such accidents Cacatrouses (in playne English shite breches) yea they seeme to abhorr it in nature, for wy haue knowne great men putt away their wyues only for once making this small fault.” Moryson says again, in his Itinerary: Commonwealth of Ireland: “I could name a great lord among them, who was credibly reported to have put away his wife of a good family and beautiful, only for a fault as light as wind (which the Irish in general abhor), but I dare not name it, least I offend the perfumed senses of some whose censure I have incurred in that kind.”
The Elizabethan and Jacobean stage is replete with such references, collected together in J. O. Bartley’s valuable Teague, Shenkin and Sawney in 1954. Bartley tells us that in Webster’s White Devil (1608), Flamineo recalls a poisoner who “was once minded for his masterpiece, because Ireland breeds no poison, to have prepared a deadly vapour from a Spaniard’s fart, that should have poisoned all Dublin.”
Indeed, in Thomas Dekker’s Welsh Ambassador (1623), the Clown mentions a fart to the Irish character Edmund, who exclaims: “in dy nose in dy teet, all de farts lett in Ireland are put in bottles for englishmen to drinck off; a pox upon dy nyes by dis hawnd I shall trust my skeene into dy rotten guts when again tow anger me.” And Thomas Nash in Pierce Penilesse (1592) writes “the Irishman will draw his dagger and bee ready to kill and slay, if one breake winde in his company.” While in Dekker’s Honest Whore (1604) Bryan says, “Dow knowest an Irishman cannot abide a fart.” And in Marston’s Malcontent (1604), “the Duke hates thee . . . as Irishmen hate bum-cracks.”
In Loves Cure by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher (1612-15?) Bobadilla says of Lucio: “He looks as if he were murdering [supressing] a fart Among wild Irish swaggerers.” In Bulwer’s Artificial Changeling (1650) he notes the Irish “opinion in this point of unnatural restraint, whereas the Romans by an edict of Claudius the Emperour, most consonant to the Law of Nature, at all times and in all places, upon a just necessity freely challenged the benefit of nature.”
Thomas Dineley in his Journal (1681), recalls bedding down for the night in a humble Irish cabin, where the family slept “in stradogue” [sráideog], all under one cover, ranked by sex and age with any visitors accommodated on the outer edge, next to the sons. He remarks that he never “heard a crack out of any of them from either end” all night long.
Finally, James Farewell’s burlesque Irish Hudibras (1689) continues the trope when the piper MacShane is “Kill’d basely by a sneezing harper, Because his Pipes were shrill and sharper, Tho some were present at his parting, Affirm it rather was for Farting.”
His Lordship’s Fool
While braigetóiri are not discoverable in 16th century Gaelic Ireland, there is evidence for jesters. Around 1570, Turlough Luineach O’Neill was said to have been accidentally shot by his jester while sitting at supper with his wife, necessitating a lengthy recovery in safe isolation from his enemies. And Lord Deputy Mountjoy is reported by his secretary Fynes Moryson to have kept an Irish jester—“For the wits of the Irish, they themselves brag that Ireland yields not a natural fool, which brag I have heard divers men confirm, never any to contradict. My honoured Lord the late Earl of Devonshire [i.e., Mountjoy] till his dying day kept an Irishman in fool‘s apparel, and commonly called his lordship‘s fool; but we found him to have craft of humouring every man to attain his own ends, and to have nothing of a natural fool.” It is just possible that Mountjoy had adopted the use of a fool as a local Irish custom, like the “lord’s galloglass” maintained by the English Lord Deputies. But these two instances are the only ones I have come across, so the evidence for jesters in 16th century Gaelic Ireland remains slender.
The above is only a sampling. Is it really likely that people with such an aversion to farting would have enjoyed it as entertainment? If so, why is the rather extensive literature left by 16th colonialists lacking any mention of such a thing? I think the conclusion must be that professional braigetóiri had been long extinct in Gaelic Ireland by the 16th-17th centuries. More conventional jesters seem to have been known, however.