'Compassion doesn’t have dogma. It reacts to each individual situation'

Tommy Tiernan, comedian

Tommy Tiernan.

Tommy Tiernan.

The autumn is well and truly upon us. Not only are the shadows getting longer as the evenings fall that bit earlier each day, but the cold is seeping into the air. Three-quarters through September, we are approaching the final three months of the year - 2017 is beginning to draw to a close.

The same cannot be said for Tommy Tiernan though, the autumn/winter is not a period where he will be easing into any rest. In fact this is an intense period as he tours his latest show, Under The Influence, across Ireland, including three dates at the Vodafone Comedy Carnival Galway; records a new season of his acclaimed chat show for RTÉ; and stars in a new Channel 4 comedy series, playing a long suffering father.

While Tommy is a long time resident of Galway, and one of the most famous people to come from Navan, County Meath, he was born in neither. It is a little known fact that he originally hails from the most northerly point in Ireland, the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal, and the small town of Carndonagh.

“The thing you first experience when you emerge into the world is the high wind," Tommy tells me of the mark Carndonagh has left on him. "You are burned into the wind and the mountains and the craggy trees, and the collision between the wild and the soft, which I think Donegal is. And I idly wonder is that why I also love Galway? As we also have an echo of that wildness as well, that same windy treelessness.

“I was filming in Wicklow, which is beautiful, and green, and lush, but there is just something about the physical west that I belong to. I went to Irish college in the 1980s in Indreabháin and Inis Óirr, and I felt very at home. I went to the All-Ireland hurling final as well, and as I was coming home, The Saw Doctors' song N17 was in my head, because once you get west, it really is ‘stone walls and the grasses green’.”

Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to interview Tommy a number of times, and it has never failed to strike me how deeply he thinks about comedy, about the form as a philosophy and manner of examining existence, about stand-up as an almost spiritual exploration. He has three shows coming up at the Vodafone Comedy Carnival Galway (October 27 adn 28 at the Black Box Theatre andn October 29 at the Town Hall Theatre ), and that chance to connect with people excites him.

“What stand ups do is old fashioned,” he says. “We just move around the country talking to people. It’s like an everlasting election campaign. As long as there’s been people there’s been people talking to people, and that’s the great soul in the human encounter - spending time in one another’s company. It’s one of the best things about living. I went to Mass recently and I loved it. It’s human encounter, I love going to GAA matches, these encounters with other human beings. Facebook and Twitter are things to be doing that I can’t do on stage, but the live encounter will always be the main thing for me.”

Under The Influence, which has already enjoyed rave reviews from its Edinburgh Fringe run (“a delight to once again spend an hour within his howling earshot” - The Scotsman; “Another impassioned yet contemplative hour from the Irish master” - edinburghfestival.list.co.uk ). As ever, Tommy is unafraid to confront taboo or difficult issues, and he will not shy away from voicing his opinion on abortion and the Eighth Amendment - but it is a view which can be summed up in one word - compassion.

“I think the Irish people are very caring,” he says. "I don’t think abortion is easy to talk about, but I do believe compassion is the place to start. A pregnant woman, who finds herself in that situation, has to have compassion for herself, and needs to ask, what is the most compassionate thing she can do for herself in that situation, then, what is the most compassionate thing she can do for the child growing inside her? As a society, we need to ask, what is the most compassionate thing we can do for women in that situation?

“I consider myself a Catholic, a Christian, and I can also see myself voting to repeal the Eighth. It starts from compassion and we need to use compassion as our compass. Compassion doesn’t have dogma. It reacts to each individual situation. There is a universal law of compassion, but it’s not something on the statute books.”

In previous interviews, Tommy has said that, when he steps on stage, it often feels as if something overtakes him, giving him a confidence and sense of fearlessness, to follow the material to wherever it leads.

“You fall back onto something bigger than yourself," he says, "so when I’m on stage, it’s about committing to that mischievous presence, and committing to it 100 per cent. It’s also about trusting the room. If you take being on stage seriously, the stage is a platform where everything is to be undermined. Out in the world, outside that room, you come into contact with forces that might say ‘That’s not appropriate to say’ or ‘That’s not appropriate to say outside of the gig’, but in the room, in that moment, it’s absolutely appropriate. That instinct in a comedian, he has to go for it. It has to be tested and trusted that the audience understands. That’s what happened with the Arlene Foster joke - I took it out of the room and that’s where I got into trouble.”

With Tommy, controversy is only ever a whisper away. In April, during an interview on BBC Radio Foyle, Tommy told a joke about the DUP leader: “If she wasn’t in politics I can see her working single-handedly on a tiny little farm in south Fermanagh, driving cattle up some country lane. ‘Go on you pups, you fenian bastards ye, go up you fenian…’ ‘Friesian Arlene, they are called Friesian, Arlene’. ‘I’ll call them what I want’”

Given Ms Foster’s ‘Crocodile’ comments in March, it was spot on satire, but a little to close too the bone for Unionist listeners, forcing the BBC to issue an apology (however, there was mirth in the sight of DUP MLA Gregory Campbell, a man who serially ridicules the Irish language and Irish language speakers, complaining that Tommy’s comment was “excessive” ).

“It was so odd,” says Tommy. “I was stunned at the reaction. I’ve told that joke in Tyrone, Ballycastle, Portrush, I’ve done it at every stand-up show I’ve played in the North, and people laughed, so I just presumed people are able to take it robustly. Good God somebody’s missing a humour gene, but that’s what happened, I took it out of the room.”

Staying in the Foyle region, Tommy is set to star in a new comedy series, Derry Girls, which begins on Channel 4 in October. "It’s about four lairy Derry teenagers," he says. "I play the main girls’s father who is a soft Southerner, married into the Derry militia. The Troubles are not the main focal point. It’s about four young people, and clashes with the family. The Troubles are in the background, but the British army presence is something they have to deal with on a day to day basis."

November will see Tommy film a new series of The Tommy Tiernan Show. The first series received great public and critical acclaim, in particular, Tommy’s interviews with Dr Brendan Kelly (consultant Psychiatrist at Tallaght Hospital, professor of psychiatry at Trinity ), model Vogue Williams, comedian Joanne McNally, and Traveller John Connors.

Its success was remarkable given that Tommy would have no idea ahead of the show, who he was going to interview. Its unscripted, unrehearsed, raw nature, made for some compelling, and deeply honest conversation.

“You can feel a connection happening and trusting what question comes into your mind as you ask it,” says Tommy of those encounters. “You go from one subject to the next, never knowing if a moment that is interesting to you is interesting to the public - and that’s a gamble. But I was genuinely moved during parts of the shows, like when John sang the song about the Traveller baby, that was so heartfelt and so symbolic of different things.

“With Brendan Kelly, I could feel the hairs standing on the back of my neck, and when Vogue Williams came on she started laughing, and said: ‘You don’t have a clue do ya?’ The fact I didn’t know anything about her, allowed her to emerge as how she felt she wanted to appear, not now people expected her to appear. It’s a difficult show in that you can’t prepare. It’s like that recurring dream we all have about the Leaving Cert, that we’re sitting there with no preparation done - well I’m living the reality of that. It’s an energy that’s beyond me and my control, so we’ll do as many of the shows as people want.”

For details on Tommy's Comedy Carnival shows see www.vodafonecomedycarnival.com and www.tommedian.com Tommy also plays the Salthill Hotel on Wednesday October 18 8.30pm. For tickets to this show go to www.ticketmaster.ie

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