Shortt story... Pat Shortt on dealing with his mother's death when he was aged seven
Pat Shortt, the comedy king, tells Barry Egan how he dealt with the death of his mother when he was seven years of age, about life after the D'Unbelievables, and the demands of playing Josie in 'Garage'. He reveals how 'Jumbo Breakfast Roll' is still in demand worldwide; his abiding love of early ska and The Specials - and how his wife is embarrassed that, at home in Co Limerick, he has now become a parka-wearing Vespa driver. Portrait by Kip Carroll
Charlie Chaplin said that life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot. Pat Shortt - comedian, actor, musician, national treasure and all-round dispenser of good crack - knows the tragedy of life well. He was seven years of age when his mother Mary died of cervical cancer. He has a hazy recollection of her coming home for the last time. Pat, who grew up with 11 siblings, in Thurles, Co Tipperary, always wonders what he would have been like had he had a mother all his life.
Christy, his father, is now, he says, "84 or 85, in good form and is fit." Pat says he doesn't believe his mother's death had a long-lasting negative effect on him. "But what I do think is, when you're in a big family, you have to kind of emerge out of it. That was my way."
Bono described the rage he had inside at the world, and at God, when his mother died when the singer was 14. I ask Pat if he had the same rage at the world.
"I don't think I did have it," he says. "I definitely had confusion and all the rest."
Was it confusion in the sense of, 'Why was my mother taken?' "I did feel that for a couple of years when I was very young, and I think, also, it is a mix of that and a mix of the generation that we grew up in, in the 1970s, when my mother died. Children were pushed off to one side, and nothing really explained to them. So it left it more . . ." Pat pauses. "There wouldn't have been the supports that kids have nowadays. So you tended to fend for yourself, and work things out for yourself."
Pat adds that it was especially difficult for his father. "Sure, I don't know how he coped. I honestly don't." He was a primary-school headmaster who "wouldn't have been on big money", with a lot of mouths to feed at home. "And I don't know how he managed, because I have three kids, and Jaysus, that's a handful - don't mind having 12!" he laughs.
Did you ever talk to him about your mother? "I think I did, on occasion. He married again, years later. I was 15."
Were you OK with that?
"Oh, yeah, yeah. I was delighted for him. I was doing my Leaving Cert a few years later and was gone. So I was always of the opinion of, 'Good for him'," Pat says of his father. "But I know what you mean about the whole rage thing and everything else," he continues. "I don't know if I ever got that. I think my demeanour was to look at comedy and daftness and silliness and not to look inward."
Because it is totally daft that your mother was taken from you at the age of seven? "Absolutely. And you are growing up in this daft fucking environment. I had three sisters who were older, but they were all gone off to college when I was growing up. So it always felt like it was a whole bunch of lads in the house. Which was a bit daft!" he laughs.
"But I have nothing but great memories of it. I don't have bad memories. You cope. You get on with things. That was the route I took. And it's probably why I ended up laughing at things all the time," he adds. "But I do always look for the funny in it - as opposed to the fucking sad. That is the route. That is the way I would look at something - how ridiculous it is."
Existential absurdities aside, Pat lives in Castleconnell, Co Limerick, with wife Caroline and their three teenage kids - Fay, Lily Rose and Ludaigh. "I think I'm a good dad," he says. "I spend as much time with them as possible," he says. (The day I meet Pat, he is just back from a tour of Australia with his show, Selfie, and is due to go to America the following weekend for more work.) "I think, also, when you grow up having lost a parent, you want to make sure that your own children don't suffer any loss in their lives, and maybe you overcompensate sometimes to make sure that there's a happiness there. And sure, that backfires!" he laughs. He imagines his kids saying to him, "Would you ever piss off - you morbid old bastard!"
How would your wife describe you?
"You wouldn't have enough tape to hear her, I can assure you!" he laughs. "Ah, no, I suppose she is well used to me. We get on well. I'd say she'd probably describe me as 'brooding'. I don't see that! We all have our moments behind the door."
Spending an hour with Mr Shortt is an exercise in having your ribcage rattle with laughter. Along with Tommy Tiernan, Dylan Moran, Ardal O'Hanlon, Oliver Callan and many others, Pat Shortt has helped define what is probably indefinable: Irish humour. Pat's comic observations on Irish life have echoes of stuff you'd find on the pages of the novels by Pat McCabe or John McGahern. (Pat's father went to college with McGahern.)
With their slapstick stories of Butty Brennan, Roundy Mooney et al, Pat and Jon Kenny, as the D'Unbelievables (formed in the late 1980s in Limerick), were a rural-Ireland Laurel and Hardy. "We'll have the dinner at half eight in the morning so we'll have a clear run at the day" is a phrase from a D'Unbelievables sketch that still resonates, as does Pat's 2006 song, Jumbo Breakfast Roll, both in Ireland and internationally.
"I was in the American Embassy this morning getting my visa because I am going touring there next week," he says of his Selfie show. "The American guy behind the counter says to me, 'Are you the guy with the big-breakfast-bap thing?' So, you know, I can't avoid Jumbo Breakfast Roll. I tried - twice - to drop it out of shows. I got nothing but a barrage from the audience, so I had to bring it back in," he recalls.
"I played Australia last week, and when I played it, 1,700 people went nuts! They went nuts in a mad way I haven't heard in years. I find that surreal and daft and funny. If you come to see one of my shows, you have to enter into that world I create. If you don't, you won't like it; go home. It's not for you. I will not appeal to everybody. I am not naive enough to think that I will eventually dominate the world of comedy. But I do know that what I do is funny, and it is the world that I like."
For many of us, Garage in 2007 was a game-changer. After that movie, Pat Shortt wasn't your man from the D'Unbelievables or Killinaskully any more, your man who sang Jumbo Breakfast Roll. He won the award for Actor in a Lead Role: Film at the 2008 IFTAs - as well as awards internationally in Cannes - for his portrayal of the tragic village misfit, Josie, who eventually takes his own life.
Pat explains that Killinaskully required a big performance because the characters are almost cartoon, whereas in Garage, the acting is very small and he had to scale the character right down to play Josie.
Has he met characters around Ireland like Josie?
"I think we all have," he says.
"Funnily enough, we used to do gigs in halls around Co Limerick and Co Cork, places often in the back of beyond, you know? And people look after them, and give them odd jobs around the halls, sweeping up afterwards. You see a lot of them around those types of environments, country hotels.
"I'm not saying every country hotel has a fella in the back!" he corrects himself.
"It was a tough one to do," he says of the Josie role. "It demanded a lot. I treated him a bit like a goldfish. If someone said something bad to you, you'd get sad. Whereas he did not compute sad. So you had to fight the natural instinct as an actor to play it that way. So you had to be constantly fighting against what was expected, and go with what he would do.
"And I say 'goldfish' - you know what they say about a goldfish, every 30 seconds they forget? That's the way Josie was. In the bar [in the film], your man got him around the neck. Then, 30 seconds later, Josie was all fine again. That was my job as an actor, and I found myself very focussed with Garage. Jesus, you had to be switched on the whole time."
Was it difficult to not bring that internal intensity home to the wife and kids at night after filming?
"I'm cool enough letting go of things. But I think it wears you down, after a couple of weeks of working in a character like that," he says. "You can feel a bit moody, because you are focussing all day, and you're down. And if you do that to yourself naturally, you find yourself wondering, 'Why am I so fucking down?'"
Asked what kind of person Pat Shortt is, he answers that he is "fairly positive as an individual. I would be upbeat and have the crack and not take things too seriously". Be it on stage on Broadway in The Cripple of Inishmaan last year, or on the big screen recently in John Boorman's Queen and Country, Shortt is a born performer. As Donald Clarke of The Irish Times wrote in a 2013 profile, "It's hard to shake the notion that growing up in a family of 11 [siblings] must have driven his compulsion to perform".
Shortt is here to talk up the performances of others on his new eight-part series on RTE, Pat Shortt's Music From D'Telly, which sees Pat trawling through the archives to showcase "rarely seen performances and much-loved songs from six decades of music"; everything from Christy Moore in 1980 at the Abbey Tavern in Howth, to Neil Sedaka in 1979 at the National Stadium, to Tom Waits in 1982, among many, many others (Philomena Begley, Blondie, Rory Gallagher, The Jam).
"There is some very rare footage, like an amazing interview with Tom Waits. It is the only ever TV interview he did in Ireland. Gay Byrne interviewed him. It went a bit awry. It is an odd interview. We had to do a bit of research to find out what was going on and we contacted someone who was on the floor that night at the Late Late."
"Basically, Tom Waits's missus was in the wings, and he didn't want her to be on her own. After being late getting on to the studio floor, with Gay on the phone to upstairs [to find out where Tom was], Tom played his piece, and, as he finishes, he gets up to walk away and Gay has to drag him back. Tom is constantly looking at her while the interview is going on. If you didn't know his wife was in the wings, you'd go, 'He's off his fucking nut'."
Pat is a bit of a nut himself - a music nut. He tells me was at a jazz gig in JJ Smyth's on Aungier Street in Dublin the night before.
Describing himself as a Rude Boy (a fan of two-tone ska), Pat, as a kid, growing up in Thurles, loved The Specials and Madness. His teenage attire was, he recalls, "a black Crombie coat, the black shoes, the drainpipe trousers and the white socks. I imagine my father was going, 'What is this all about?' I was into Blue Beat and early ska, and Jamaican stuff. It was all very much brass, which is why I love the saxophone. If there is a party, I will definitely play one or two tunes." (Pat, of course, played the saxophone for some of Jon Kenny's comedy gigs back in the day in Limerick.)
"I have a Vespa scooter and everything," he adds. "I am the real deal!" he laughs. "I bought myself a parka recently to go with the scooter. My wife is embarrassed."
He isn't joking.
'Pat Shortt's Music From D'Telly' begins on RTE One, on Friday, October 30, at 8.30pm
Photography by Kip Carroll
Make-up by Gemma Leigh at Brown Sugar, 50 South William St, D2, tel: (01) 616-9967, or see brownsugar.ie
Photographed at the Gaiety Theatre, South King St, D2, tel: (0818) 719-388, or see gaietytheatre.ie
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