Ardal O’Hanlon - seeing the world through a comedy lens

THE RECESSION is biting hard. Many have lost their jobs or have been forced to take pay cuts. The Government, for so long in denial about the economic downturn, is threatening savage cutbacks in the upcoming Budget, and industrial unrest looks certain.

It is a winter of discontent but many of us have been through it before. The 1980s was one long period of recession and economic stagnation, yet by the end of the decade there was a new vibrancy in the comedy circuit in Dublin, a vibrancy that would unleash an inspired new generation of Irish comics who have since gone on to become household names - among them was Ardal O’Hanlon.

The venue for this new generation of talent was The Comedy Cellar in The International Bar in Dublin - Ireland’s first alternative comedy club, founded by Ardal, along with his college friends Barry Murphy and Kevin Gildea.

“The important thing to say is that it happened during the end of the last recession,” Ardal tells me during our Monday morning interview. “It was a dreadful period of Irish economic life and there was literally nothing else to do, there were no career opportunities. The club was a sort of reaction to the conditions we found ourselves in. There was no career path ahead of us, no way of making money, but that wasn’t the point. It was about having fun and doing something useful and creative. What else was there? Despair...or poetry...”

Ardal may take a dig at poetry but writing and literature have always been close to his heart and were his pathway to his becoming a comedian.

“I was never the schoolboy funnyman. Quite the opposite. I was a quiet fella,” he says. “I lived in my own head and read a lot. There was a slight subversive streak in me but no one knew about it because I was so quiet.

“It wasn’t until I was about 14/15 that I was certain I wanted to do something like comedy. I didn’t want a conventional job, I couldn’t see the point of it. I wanted to write and express myself. Maybe it was to overcome shyness and over-compensating in some way, but it felt normal to be funny, to deal with the world that way, and find the funny angle to everything.”

Wrestling with politics

Now that Ireland finds itself plunged into recession again, comedy and that ability to “find the funny angle to everything” is necessary. However as the last recession paved the way for the emergence of Ardal, Jon Kenny, Dylan Moran, Tommy Tiernan, Sean Hughes, Ed Byrne, Colin Murphy, and Dara Ó Briain, does Ardal think the current situation will inspire a new generation towards stand-up comedy?

“A recession does get the creative juices going,” he says. “You get worked up and angry and comedy is a positive way of dealing with it. Part of my new show is a ‘state of the nation’ rant at how disorganised we are as a nation, compared to the Germans and the Swiss.

“I was in Switzerland recently and they have the Large Halon Collider, but if we had it we’d be sticking our hands in it and messing about with it. We were never tremendous merchants. When we tried to sound like that it came out as wrong, foolish, and pretentious. We’re too disorganised to pull it off. We’re different and we have to accept that.”

Ardal comes from a family with a long record of political service. His father is Rory O’Hanlon who served as Fianna Fáil TD for Cavan-Monaghan, as leas-ceann comhairle, and in a number of ministerial posts. Ardal’s grandfather Michael O’Hanlon was a member of Michael Collins’ squad which assassinated 20 British secret service agents in 1920 during the War of Independence, something Ardal only discovered the full details of when he took part in RTÉ’s ancestry programme Who Do You Think You Are? last year.

“I heard about it growing up from my father but he never spoke about the details,” he said. “He spoke about my grandfather in glowing terms as a patriot and a gentleman but never about the nitty gritty. Reading a first hand account of that mission was fascinating, spine tingling, and exciting.”

Ardal will be taking on the role as a member of Dáil Éireann himself in his new comedy series Val Falvey, TD, written by Arthur Mathews and Paul Woodfull, which is being shown on RTÉ on Sunday nights.

“It’s a subversive programme in that it ridicules the pomp and self importance of politicians,” says Ardal. “Val is an incompetent TD, self centred and cynical,” says Ardal. “He has a minder who is always trying to keep him out of trouble. Val keeps putting his foot in it and is a bit of a buffoon.”

So is he the political equivalent of Ardal’s most iconic role to date, Fr Dougal Maguire in Father Ted?

“He’s not as dim witted, more up his own arse,” says Ardal. “He’s not aware of what’s going on around him. He’s not interested in constituents. You have to like the character of Val though, which is ironic given that none of us like politicians at the moment.”

The Irish comedy scene largely avoids politics, but Ardal acknowledges the recession will force comedians to address the issue. However he feels political comedy is too restrictive and ultimately a dead end.

“I have always felt that doing overtly political stuff, while it hits the nail on the head, you can’t travel with it,” he says. “I wanted to go to Britain and pit my wits against the best of the British comedians and had the idea of travelling to Australia and the States.

“Political comedy can be very parochial and also flatters the targets in a way. Politicians will be upset by it but also upset by not being caricatured. A lot of the time political comedy is just stating the obvious.

“Who wants to hear about NAMA in a comedy show? Does Brian Lenihan even know what he is doing? Half the economists are for him, the other half is against him, and it’s a massive gamble with our money.

“However I don’t blame the politicians and the bankers solely. After all we get the politicians we deserve. I mean Brian Cowen sums up what it is to be Irish with his unruly hair and sloppy demeanour. We get the people we vote for.

“While I do discuss politics a bit now, you are always trying to get to the root of things. Politics can be a springboard for a comedian to ask deeper questions about society. Who are we? Where are we going? That’s more interesting and that’s what I love wrestling with.”

Cat people

Away from politics, Ardal’s return to the TV as Val Falvey is another in a line of memorable characters he has portrayed on the screen over the years. He admits to fearing that Fr Dougal may become the only one people remember him for, but is “delighted Father Ted has this enduring quality” and that people have “taken the series to heart” and are still enjoying the repeats a decade after it ended.

However one of his most unusual roles was as Thomas Kinkade Brannigan in the Doctor Who episode Gridlock in 2007. There Ardal played a cat man alien, resplendent in a WWI pilot’s costume. It was astonishing to see the Ulsterman transformed into a cat and looking every inch a real feline. How many hours did it take to put that make-up on?

“It was dreadful,” Ardal says, shuddering at recalling the experience. “It was great to be part of the show as I’ve always been a fan and my children are fans too. The costume took about three hours to put on and take off, I was in it for about a week in total. It was very difficult to breathe in, I had to eat through a straw for a whole week. Physically it was a nightmare but it’s the role my kids like me best in.”

Ardal O’Hanlon plays The Laughter Lounge in the Róisín Dubh on Wednesday November 25 at 8.30pm. Support is from Gearoid Farrelly. Monty will be DJing afterwards. Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and Zhivago.

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