PJ Gallagher on Adoption: 'I had spent almost 30 years imagining who these people were so to actually meet them was amazing'
Comedian PJ Gallagher turned 40 yesterday, and always knew that he was adopted. He talks about finding his birth family at 28, getting a surprise, and building a relationship with them
If there's one thing comedian PJ Gallagher is grateful for, it's that he didn't read midwife June Goulding's memoir, The Light in the Window, before he met his birth mother.
The book details the awful conditions endured by women who gave birth while at Bessborough House mother-and-baby home, including being denied pain relief and medication. It describes how girls from families who could afford to pay £100 were allowed to leave after 10 days, while impoverished girls paid for their stay by spending three years cleaning and working on the lands around the home. Their babies were taken and fostered, put up for adoption, or sent to an orphanage.
PJ was born in 1975, while his mother was at Bessborough, but he was relieved to discover that he was born in a hospital and her experience wasn't like the book. "Even so, reading it really had an effect on me because Bessborough is part of my story, although I have no memories of it," he says.
As a newborn, PJ was put into foster care for a few months, before being adopted by his parents, Helen and the late Sean Gallagher, who died in 1999. He always knew he was adopted, as was his younger sister Stacey, who works in RTE's wardrobe department. Even though his mother strongly encouraged it, PJ's desire to trace his family wasn't overwhelming. "My folks were crazy too and weren't very strict, so it was a great bit of craic growing up in our house," he says. "It was like a comedy university. I am so close to my mam, and am a typical Irish mammy's boy. I call to her every day to make sure she's okay."
The impetus for beginning the search was when PJ developed Reiter syndrome, a type of reactive arthritis, in his hands, and was unable to answer questions about his family's medical history. It got him thinking, so he wrote a letter to the adoption agency, Cunamh, and discovered that his parents were living in the west. They agreed to meet him at the adoption agency, and the Marino man describes that first encounter when he was 28 as "unreal." He had expected to find a single mother, but his two parents had gone on and got married to each other.
"I had spent almost 30 years imagining who these people were, and fantasising and building up stories in my head, so to actually meet them was amazing," he says. "They are just normal, nice people who had a kid when they were young, and the way Ireland was back then, they had to give the baby away. They got married later on, and I found out that I have two brothers and two sisters. One of my brothers is called Patrick, which is weird because PJ stands for Patrick Joseph. My birth parents had called me Dermot, which was something I didn't know."
PJ is sure his birth parents were relieved to learn that he was well and happy, and had grown up in a very loving home. The whole process of tracing your biological family is an emotional rollercoaster, he admits, as it can be difficult initially to work out where you belong in each other's lives.
"The first few years were hard, because I pushed a little bit too hard to be involved in the family, and then, when they gave it back, I probably wasn't able for it," he admits. "It takes a while to get the balance right. Our relationship has been pretty good over the years though, and we get on very well. I like to go to the west to stay with them, and I've been at weddings and have met the wider family, and they have all been lovely. My brother had a kid recently and invited me to the christening, which meant a lot to me."
The funny and irrepressible PJ hated school and left at 16 without doing his Leaving Cert. His mum was actually relieved about that, because it meant she wouldn't be called up to the school any more over his naughty antics. His birth family are from a legal environment, and he believes that if he had grown up with them, they might have made him concentrate on education, and he wouldn't be telling jokes for a living. He started working in a lighting company after school, which is where he met fellow comedian Jason Byrne.
"We were always messing around and sabotaging each other's work," he confesses. "I think we ended up in comedy because we knew we weren't cut out for real jobs. Jason started off doing a bit of stand-up, but was too nervous to do it on his own, so he booked me to do sketches as his 'boot-in-the-bum' guy. We did it for the craic, and never presumed it would be a career."
Jason really started making a name for himself, so PJ thought he might give comedy a go too, although it was ten years before he got a break. "Stand-up can be hard at the start, because there are four people in the place and they wish you weren't there," he says. He was poised to quit on numerous occasions, and suspects his birth family may have found this line of work unimpressive. It could have been worse for them, I joke. At least, you weren't in trouble or a criminal. "But if I was a criminal, they would have known that I was making money from somewhere," he laughs.
RTE's hidden camera show, Naked Camera, then came along for him, and PJ's hilarious characters Jake Stevens and The Dirty Auld Wan were smash hits. Sold-out stand-up tours both at home and abroad soon followed. This occurred shortly after he traced his family, and people recognising him when they were out together was an added complicating factor.
Following on with the nature versus nurture question, PJ says that strangers would remark on the street that he must be Sean Gallagher's son as he looked so like him. "I also look a bit like my birth parents, like I see my nose in one of them and we have similar mannerisms," he says. "I met one sister and two brothers first and I didn't look like them, but then I met the other sister and nearly died because it was like looking at myself. We found it hard to talk to each other initially because we were so mind-blown."
Two years ago, PJ took a break from comedy as stage fright was getting to him, but was cured when he underwent hypnosis for an RTE Reality Bites documentary. He admits to suffering with confidence problems throughout his life, which he thinks stems from being adopted.
"I suppose I never really felt like there was a place for me," he reflects. "You grow up thinking that you were born and no one wanted you, so you mustn't belong anywhere."
On the personal front, the keen motorcyclist turned 40 yesterday, and is married to his hairdresser wife Elaine, whom he met when they were at school. They are huge dog-lovers with two rescue dogs, Wendy the Weimaraner, and Lylo, a collie cross. "We knew each other for years and were on and off a good bit, but we finally nailed our colours to the mast two years ago," he says. "We snuck off to the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, and it was great with just the two of us there. Elaine didn't mind getting married in Vegas on our own, but she wanted it to be nice. She probably felt she gets enough of me acting the idiot without me turning up to our wedding dressed like Evel Knievel."
As a new career departure, PJ started as a breakfast show presenter on Classic Hits 4fm five months ago, co-presenting with Damien Farrelly. They make a great duo, and are winning over listeners in that highly competitive slot with their fun and good humour. "I think it's the most I've enjoyed anything I've done, because you build up a relationship with listeners," he says. "I love working with Damien. You couldn't find two people who are more different, but we make a good team."
Conscious that everyone has a different story, PJ has come together with rising star Joanne McNally for a brilliant stage show that takes a light-hearted look at growing up adopted in Ireland. Joanne has only recently embarked on the journey to find her family, and the funny and poignant show takes a moving look at how the opposing pair navigate the highs and lows of being adopted.
"A lot of it is about the fantasies and ideas you have growing up," says PJ. "Most adopted people live normal lives, as our stories aren't like Annie's, Oliver Twist's or Superman's. I know I'm lucky, as my story is as good as it's going to get, but I'm conscious that not everyone's adoption story works out like mine. My two mums have also met, and they get on well. It's weird though - I go around to my mam's on Mother's Day, and she says, 'Did you phone your mother yet?'"
Aiken Promotions presents 'PJ Gallagher & Joanne McNally - Separated at Birth: The Lighter Side of Adoption by Two Comedy Orphans', on May 8th at Vicar Street. More dates are on www.pjgallagher.com
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