‘The Young Offenders’: Ireland’s Big-Hearted, Beautiful, Pain-Filled, Tragic, Working Class, Breakout Comedy

A few years back, some dickhead dropped a hammer off a roof—which is how Conor MacSweeney’s dad died.

Not long after that, Jock O’Keefe’s mom drowned: they found her car parked by a slipway near Cork City Harbor, but never recovered her body.

Jock was 13; Conor even younger.

Widowed by her early-30’s, Mairead MacSweeney still wears her wedding ring, smokes in the kitchen, and provides on a fishmonger’s salary, first for one teenager, then for a second; according to Conor, Jock’s mom had to be “two parents rolled into one,” and since her passing, her husband has only sunken further, mixing the odd beating of his ostensibly orphaned son to the whiskey.

Outside of their homes, Conor and Jock’s neighborhood is full of “mad fuckers, so you can pretty much get away with anything,” which means troubles—the MacSweeney’s, the O’Keefe’s, or anyone else’s—are not unique. There are issues with truancy and teen pregnancy, as well as a healthy distrust of police; there are casual muggings, a professional relationship with petty crime, and for the boy’s part, a string of stolen bikes, perpetually passed from one owner to the next; smoke forever hovers over young heads, alcoholism and drug use are never far off, physical violence follows, and on good days, money is tight.

It’s the reality of the working poor. The ills of the inner city.

And the backdrop for Ireland’s best comedy in years.

Premiering to rave reviews in February, The Young Offenders is a joint production between BBC and RTE, born from a 2016 film of the same name, which not only proved “an instant classic,” but the highest grossing Irish film that year. Like its cinematic predecessor, the television version of The Young Offenders once again follows Conor MacSweeney and Jock O’Keefe’s misadventures through Cork City, but rather than picking up where the film left off, the blackboard is wiped clean for this version of the boys’ lives, re-starting their story, and forging deeper ground with an expanding cast of well-loved characters. While differences exist, the film’s formula is not thrown out, as The Young Offenders continues to capitalize on the chemistry of its codependent protagonists within a narrative that teems with wit, winding plots, charming tit-for-tat, and scenes of physical comedy that seem too numerous to have fit into only six episodes.

Extracting laughs from even the subtlest moments, Conor and Jock operate as a single organism, dressed in a uniform of track jackets, hoodies, rope chains,  Adidas sweatpants, dodgy haircuts, and eventually, matching tattoos. A truly symbiotic relationship, the two share a closeness that leads to certain accusations, among them, that Conor is “forever mimicking Jock,” that Conor would “snort Jock if he were a powder,” and a question from Conor’s mom regarding her son’s sexuality.

“It’s okay if [you’re gay], it would actually explain a lot,” Mairead says plainly at their kitchen counter.

But steadfast in his brotherhood with Jock, Conor has a response for everyone, saying, “That’s a load of bollocks. We’re just best friends and we like the same shit. Anyone who has a best friend would understand that.” Or, more defiantly, “So what if I’m snorting him? Better snorting him than one of the other boring pricks in my year.”

However, those explanations lack the tenderness at the heart of he and Jock’s relationship, which is best expressed by Conor when he assures his mother that he is, in fact, straight.

“If I were, hypophorically,” he tells Mairead, “[Jock’s] the fella I’d want to be gay with,” proving once again that, on screens large or small, Conor MacSweeney and Jock O’Keefe are birds of a feather, peas in a pod, necessary halves whose relationship is the conductor of all charm in their off-kilter universe.

But charm is not enough to explain the full breadth of the show’s magnetism, nor are its laughs: plenty of comedies are charming and plenty of comedies are funny, yet they fail to resonate in the way that The Young Offenders has, taking on a life of its own both domestically and abroad since its release.

With a beating heart that pumps blood to its extremities, The Young Offenders is an extension of the very best of Ireland’s humor, passing its contemporaries because it manages to build upon one of the country’s great cultural exports.

Laughing to keep away pain.

(“All Irish comedy is dark comedy,” a friend once told me.)

While likely dating back much farther, the current roots of this phenomenon lie just before the turn of the century, when William Butler Yeats, Edward Martyn, and Lady Gregory published “The Manifesto for Irish Literary Theatre,” which spelled out their intention to establish the country’s first national theatre. Taking several forms, this eventually grew into Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, but as an idea, extended beyond name or location, as the country’s literati viewed theatre as a tool for nation-building, using the stage to help inform a patriotic identity in an era that sought an independent homeland. At the time, drama often served to intellectualize the country’s politics, while comedy manifested itself in a manner that was more cathartic, serving as a response to tragedy and frustration, most notably with foreign rule, sectarian violence, and the Great Hunger. Counter to Ireland’s modern, pre-packaged, tourist reputation, the country’s history is fraught with pain, which did not end with independence, as the Troubles raged from the late 1960’s until an official peace agreement in 1998. And as Ireland walked this harrowing, often bloody road, its comedies—ranging from “Spreading the News” to Father Ted—served an important societal function.

They still do.

But The Young Offenders is different than its forefathers, as it’s arrived at a distinctly more rosy historical moment, coming along when the country has not just been stable, but prospered. Post-Celtic Tiger, in the midst of the country’s technological boom, and following Brexit (when Ireland is poised to become the English-speaking, economic gateway to the rest of Europe), the show’s principal characters aren’t even old enough to remember September 11th, never mind decades of civil unrest. Still, it manages to harness the same energy as earlier comedies that juxtaposed “darkness” with tone, letting sorrow subtlety simmer below the surface, rather than becoming the focal point. Like any country, Ireland is not without its often-satirized problems, but thanks to its lasting peace, the island has become a fertile setting for investigating the modern condition. As a result, its best-loved, breakout comedy wades through issues of the present—classism, discrimination, and socioeconomics—while echoing personal tragedy, and applying its lessons on a sliding, micro-to-macro scale.

Quite literally, The Young Offenders takes a street-level view, which seems necessary, as the wide-lens, unifying politics of Ireland’s past are in the rearview, with more nuanced social issues becoming increasingly visible.

On a sunny afternoon, Mairead takes Conor and Jock on a road trip for a €20 refrigerator, and what begins as a pleasant outing takes its natural comedic turns, before a more troubling one: after dropping Jock off at his house, Mairead hears a racket, storms into the kitchen, and finds the fifteen-year-old in a physical altercation with his drunken father. Reflexively, she inserts herself between the two, daring Mr. O’Keefe to hit her, but he shrinks, collapsing into a heap of tears. With his father wordless, Mairead tells Jock to go get his things, that he won’t be back there anymore, then brings him to her home, where upon arrival, Conor does not ask for an explanation.

The reasons seem clear enough already.

But as the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished, and despite her heroics, once Jock is under Mairead’s roof, everything is stretched thinner. At dinner a few nights later, Conor wants ketchup with his chicken and chips, as is his routine. But with everything now split three ways instead of two, the bottle of ketchup is all but empty, and he borders on a whine, before Mairead cuts him off. Already having asked for an advance on next week’s pay, she tells him—in a stomach-churning illustration of what it means to be working poor—to “add some water and give it a shake,” which is not only a visual example of what money being tight really looks like, but a lesson that morality rarely aligns with financial comfort: albeit an easy one to make on Jock’s behalf, the watering down of condiments is yet another sacrifice in a long line of sacrifices, and despite doing what had to be done for her son’s best friend, the universe is no rush to pay Mairead back. In fact, it seems content on making her day-to-day challenges harder, for reasons that extend beyond Jock calling her “mam.”

Rarely as playful as the boys (according to Conor, enjoying herself ”isn’t something that comes natural” to Mairead), her bite reflects the difficulty of her reality, of a life well-versed in the hardships that follow loss, as her own family’s social mobility died with her husband, just as it drowned with Jock’s mother. But while it was circumstance and not choice that boxed the new MacSweeney’s into the lower rungs of the social ladder, the world treats them as if they had a say, never hesitating to provide a reminder of who they are and where they stand.

Jock and Conor arrive at Principal Barry Walsh’s home, where even though they were invited by his daughter, Linda, it’s clear they’re unwelcome. Unlike her, Principal Walsh has never warmed to the boys—he’s even less warm now that they’re in romantic pursuit of his daughters—and after blocking the doorway during their entrance, he calls them “little fucking pricks” out of earshot, telling tells his wife that he “hates them,” that “they’re the worst two boys in school,” and that they’re only there to “sexually involve themselves with Siobhan and Linda,” which proves a miscalculation since the only kiss of the afternoon is between Conor and Jock.

Mrs. Walsh, however, is hospitable and even keel, instructing Barry to put some sausages and burgers on the grill, smile, and “have a lovely fucking evening”—an instruction that he does not follow for long: unable to hide his disdain for their company, Principal Wlash soon inserts himself in a wrestling match between their young guests.

“It’ll be a bit of fun,” he tells Conor, but what begins as one of the show’s more laugh out loud moments ends in ugliness, the scene’s physical comedy giving way to “some nasty shit” from the mouth of the Principal.

With Conor pinned, Walsh leans over the young man’s back and says, “Do you seriously think I’d let someone like you go out with my Linda?”

“Whatcha mean like me?” Conor grunts, his voice stifled by the weight of the older man.

A laugh subsiding, Principal Walsh growls directly into Conor’s left ear: “You’re nothing but a little scumbag knacker. I know it, Linda knows it, everybody knows it, and I’d never let you near her.”

But Walsh is not simply playing the trope of the overprotective father. Rather, he’s dipping a toe into murkier waters, showing a middle-class bias and invoking a deeper rooted prejudice: often known as “gypsies” despite being ethnically distinct from the Roma people, the Irish Travellers are the island’s most widely discriminated group, with “knacker” serving as its most frequently used pejorative. While not Travellers, Conor and Jock have likely been called “knackers” in the past, the term having transformed from a slur for the Travelling community to a catch-all for the lower classes, akin to “white trash” in the United States. Tying an inherent flaw to the blue and black collared, the term draws an uncrossable line between “us” and “them,” the mainstream and the “knacker,” on the basis of socioeconomics, becoming part of the lexicon of classism. Like its synonyms, the term has been a long-used refrain for people like Conor and Jock, serving to level the object of the speaker’s ire, in this case, signalling a lack of belonging at an age when belonging is the singular goal.

Not having to dig deep into the well of insults, Principal Walsh is simply swept along by society’s linguistic shorthand for the proverbial sides of the tracks, doing his part to help marginalize a fifteen-year-old who’s afraid to ask a girl out.

(Rightfully, he ends up on the receiving end of a MacSweeney right hook.)

But beyond simply being ignorant, there’s a blind spot—maybe a hypocrisy— in Principal Walsh’s comments, as his his daughter Linda is adopted: playing the unenviable role of one of the only black girls in school and one of the few splashes of diversity in an overwhelmingly homogenous country, it’s doubtful that Linda’s path to adulthood will be free of mistreatment, judgement, or cruelty, which steeps her father’s disapproval of the boy in irony: while loose with his own prejudices, Linda’s journey will likely have more in common with Conor and Jock’s than her father’s, something that he can’t protect her from, try as he might.

Like Conor, the world will demand that Linda learn these lessons when a father isn’t there to wrestle them to the ground. But the extent of that commonality hasn’t added up for Conor and Linda yet, and as a result, their attraction is free from the colors of the world, stemming from something deeper than a mutual understanding of discrimination.

Their attraction is simpler: it’s because Conor is the type of fella to let you use his track jacket as a tissue, should snot escape your nose during a fit of laughter, and Linda has a heart so big that she manages empathy for an accidental bus hijacker; it’s also because Jock shifted Siobhan, Linda’s sister, they agreed that “the washing machine” is not an appropriate strategy for making out, and however unwittingly, the pair of sisters unmasked Fake Billy and his girlfriend, finding that they liked what was underneath.

Despite how unkind the world has been to Conor and Jock, they operate free of self-pity, either because they’ve never known anything other than their lot in life or because youth prevents bitterness from seeping into their worldview. Whatever the reason, it’s enviable. But it doesn’t mean that the boys are blissfully ignorant; in fact, they’ve earned an acute awareness of the world around them because of the cards they’ve been dealt. But Somehow, though—I would argue because of each other—they remain untethered by grief, which does not mean that their grief is non-existent, just that it’s not a focal point: while often unspoken, they communicate their sorrow, expelling it as necessary, in some moments, with a quiet drag on a cigarette, in others, with a graveside U2 cover.

Which enough to keep them from dwelling on the world’s cruelty, and sharing in the sincere belief that their fortunes are about to turn around.

Looking over Cork City’s skyline together, Conor and Jock see the same things—plans to be hatched, girls to be shifted, money to be made, laughs to be had—and even if it’s only of a new pair of trainers or a blow-up doll named Ruben (they’re only 15, after all), they continue to dream, which only seems possible because of a mutual loyalty that deflects the world’s doubts and criticisms.

In action, this often turns the boys into a pair of Robin Hoods that steal from the rich and give to the poor, which is, of course, themselves. But it’s also those around them, and in that way, there’s a quality of selflessness to their crimes, most notably with the mistaken bluefin tuna caper, a plan to help Conor’s mom with the bills and “pay her back for all the nice shit she’s been doing for [them] lately.” Regardless of how it might appear, Conor and Jock’s actions are born from altruism, not malice, the two going so far as to use an honor code when navigating the gray areas of their unlawful dealings, limiting themselves (mostly) to “daytime crime” and employing a belief that “stealing isn’t really stealing if it’s something that nobody gives a shit about.” Of course, this shouldn’t be entirely surprising: Conor and Jock grew up in a place that required rules to be bent to survive, and if necessity is, in fact, the mother of invention, then in their neighborhood, petty crime is its cousin. However, while theft helps meet a day-to-day need, it’s only a part of a wider puzzle that the boys are gathering the pieces to, building out the edges and forcing the corners to fit, if necessary.

Because, conciuosly or not, what Conor and Jock are really doing is reconstructing the family units that failed them.

After the people promised to the boys left prematurely and the stability of “home” became some far away idea embroidered on welcome mats, there was a hole in the middle of childhood, which can’t help but leave one wanting. But childhood happens before we meet Conor and Jock, and we only come along further down the line, dropping in on their lives after they’ve wrangled some bit of agency from the world, and have started to exercise it from a park bench high on a hill looking out over the city—the few inches of space they’ve carved out entirely for themselves.

And from that perch, the rebuild begins.

To call Conor and Jock broken—or to call anyone broken—is unfair, because it implies they’re defective, unable to be repaired, reused, or re-started. Which is not our boys. Thus, it’s more accurate to say they were broken down for a time, like old cars sitting on a scrapheap with the potential to run, but in need of the proper parts. Individually incomplete, together, they make a functioning whole.

And because it worked for Conor and Jock, it extends a promise to those around them, the boys’ effervescence having some magnetic force that draws the poor, the tired, and the huddled masses towards them, like they’re some sort of Ellis Island on the banks of the River Lee: weary and overworked, Mairead looks like she hasn’t enjoyed herself in years; she’s been too busy keeping her household above water. But as her son’s wounds start to scab over, so do her’s, and from Conor, she learns how to move on, that it’s okay to move on, even if she still wears her wedding ring. And when begins to do so, it’s with Sergeant Tony Healy—the cat to Jock’s mouse—who the boys learn may not be as bad as they first thought; at the very least, he tells them that he’s “not trying to be [their dad, he’s] just trying to stop their mother from getting hurt,” which may be enough for him to pass Conor’s test. But Tony needs Mairead in the same way she needs him: kind, dutiful, handsome, and well-employed, Healy is somehow single in his thirties, which is a forgivable offense, but he also doesn’t know how to drive a car, suggesting that he spent ignoring a personal life to climb the professional ranks. Once he realizes that, though, he seems softened, humbled, glad to have somewhere to go and someone to rest with.

Beyond the stigma of having her father be the principal, Linda faces the Herculean task of being different, but handles it gracefully, thanks in part to Conor, Jock, and Siobhan, around whom she’s entirely herself; the same is true of her sister, but while it’s not clear if Siobhan also adopted, her life is about to become all equally atypical: on the accidentally-hijacked bus, Siobhan informs Jock she’s pregnant, proving her father right when he told his wife, “You’re gonna be a granny in nine months time because you want to sausages and smiles today.”

Initially shocked, Jock quickly comes around, saying, “This is good thing, I think.” But while we know it will be impossibly hard, for some reason, we believe Jock, have faith in Jock,, because he’s learned the hard way that “sometimes, the family you’re born into isn’t the right family at all; sometimes the right family is the one that works.”

The family Jock was born into didn’t work, but the one he’s taken into, the one he helps constructs, does, and for having learned that, he will be different than his own father.

However, all families—biological or chosen—have a crazy uncle. In this case, it’s Billy Murphy, the local nut job, who’s more enthused than anyone about Jock’s impending fatherhood.

Managing to be both vicious and childlike, Billy is a cautionary tale of what happens when home falls apart: he’s a bully and a criminal, who spends his time beating old furniture with a stick and throwing a knife at his friend. But Billy also doesn’t know how to tie his shoes: he’s so obviously unequipped to navigate the world that even teenagers recognize it. But they also recognize that he’s undeniably sweet at his core, not only managing one of the most Irish scenes of comedy since Father Ted, but leading the bus in a pre-jail singalong, after which he tells the crowd, “You know what? I’ve really enjoyed today…I’ll see ye all in about 15 to 20 years time.”

But before he can give himself up, Conor interferes, taking sympathy on a man that has not always taken sympathy on him.

“I think even nut jobs like Billy Murphy have reasons for being the way they are,” Conor tells us. “I’m not saying all the nasty shit he does is okay, but you have to wonder, if someone loved him just a little bit when he was a kid, would he have turned out different?”

It’s a hell of a question to ask at 15—but after all they’ve been through, loving someone just a little bit is what’s kept them afloat.

After all, they really need each other, and after all, they really love each other.

And because of that, it‘ll end alright.

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