Wednesday 17 October 2018

Ardal O'Hanlon: Stand up for a life well lived

As the child of a politician, Ardal O'Hanlon played football, read books and carried a pocket atlas. There were few clues to him becoming a successful comedian and actor. But as Ciara Dwyer finds out, he's found balance in his life on and off the stage

TENSION: O'Hanlon's stage fright led to sessions of backstage vomiting in his early career, but the 46-year-old Monaghan man has learned to
cope with the 'gun-to-the-head' pressure of making people laugh and now enjoys his work. Photos: Tony Gavin
TENSION: O'Hanlon's stage fright led to sessions of backstage vomiting in his early career, but the 46-year-old Monaghan man has learned to cope with the 'gun-to-the-head' pressure of making people laugh and now enjoys his work. Photos: Tony Gavin

Ciara Dwyer

WHEN Ardal O'Hanlon was a young boy growing up in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, he was an introspective soul. There were certainly no signs that he would become the stand-up comedian he is today.

"I played football in the garden all day and then I read books all night. I was a very happy child," he says. By the time he was seven he was already settling down to read the newspaper, "like an auld fella", as he says. "I was always interested in the world. I always carried a pocket atlas with me. I don't know much, but I know the capitals of countries."

The third of six children, he looks back on his childhood with fondness and fails to see any obvious clues for his comedy career. It was a big family but he felt far from neglected.

"I got plenty of attention, so it can't be that," he says.

As he shrugs, his blue eyes widen, looking utterly bewildered. Of course that clueless facial expression is familiar to so many of us. It is Dougal, his Father Ted character, for which he was much loved. Although he is not impersonating the screen role, there's that same brilliance. With a mere look, he has reduced me to laughter. Of course it's hard to get the idea of Dougal out of your head, no matter how you try. It's extra baggage, but good for a comedian; as long as he makes us laugh.

It all started when I asked him why he had become a comedian. I can't think of anything worse than that gun-to-the-head pressure to make people laugh. And indeed, he used to feel that tension very badly. When Ardal started out doing comedy, he used to endure hellish sessions, vomiting backstage before he would go out and then, once out there, he would make them howl. His wife Melanie, watching him suffer, would often tell him that he could pack it in because the torture was too much. All those sick nerves have long since stopped. Now he loves what he does, and enjoys it.

"If I haven't done a gig for a week, I'm dying to get up there. I'm a low-energy guy off stage. I slob around the house and have naps, but I love the adrenaline on stage. You have to invest a huge amount of energy in a performance. If it's going well and there's laughter, it's like the golfer hearing that little ping, hitting the sweet spot of his golf club. You feel vindicated. All that graft up in the office writing jokes has paid off."

Ardal tells me he looks at why he does comedy in his new stand-up show.

"When you come from a small background maybe you feel a little bit stifled, but I can't say that. There were lots of books in my house and you just felt that there was a big wide world out there and you wanted to see some of it. I was quiet and introverted at school, so maybe that's why I'm overcompensating now."

For his secondary school years, he was sent to Blackrock College as a boarder. He tells me that the comedians David McSavage and Des Bishop also went there. Who would have thought the school would produce comedians as well as rugby players? But his home life played a part in it, too. His father Rory O'Hanlon was a politician. "It was an unusual background and a political background, so it wasn't conventional for a start," he says. "It wasn't a big leap for me to do something public, where you take a big risk and put your head above the parapet. I'd seen all that growing up. There were always people coming and going in the house. He worked very odd hours."

What was it like to have a father a politician?

"Growing up in a political background I realised that politicians generally work very hard. It's the easiest thing in the world to stand up and say that they're a shower of tossers and in it for themselves. My experience tells me different. They all work incredibly hard. They're all idealistic and they all put themselves in front of the electorate, fully expecting to be shot down. Why would you do it? They do it because they believe in it. I'm sure a lot of them are shattered now and they realise that it was all a house of cards, utter nonsense.

"What's still quite amazing to me and quite encouraging is that society seems to function somehow. How the hell it goes on, I don't know."

When Ardal first started doing comedy in the International Bar in Dublin, his material was a bit surreal. He found his material simply by looking around him.

"Growing up in Ireland is odd at the best of times -- people say, you can't say that and you can't do that. It's like you have to be well turned out and respectable all the time. People put on great shows outwardly, but inwardly there was all sorts of madness going on behind closed doors. Some of it was positive and fun but I just became aware of it."

He went to DCU to study communications and while there he participated in debates and started to get laughs.

"I was making fun of the issues of the day and getting a big laugh. I was hooked after that. I loved the attention. I met some guys in college -- Barry Murphy and Kevin Gildea -- and we were a giddy group. We had no interest in a career. We made each other laugh and we wanted to keep that going. It just seemed like a great way to live your life, and a valid way, too. It was during the Eighties, the last recession, and most of my friends had emigrated instantly. There was no work here and no prospect of work. Maybe that made us a little bit cynical and self-reliant. No one was going to help us. Even though I came from a comfortable background -- and I'd never deny that in any way -- your self-respect dictated that you had to stand on your own two feet and make your way in the world.

"We were doing little sketches in the International Bar. It was exhilarating. There was nothing like it in Ireland at the time. We felt like pioneers and bohemians and we were getting laughs. The money was a long way off. I couldn't wait to get away."

Five years after Ardal started doing comedy, he went to London to work in a bigger pond. His parents were worried about his choice of career, but he knew that going away was the only way. Trying to get a comedy career off the ground was going to be hard enough without being labelled as Rory O'Hanlon's son all the time.

"London forces you to grow up. I was doing four gigs a night and I gained great confidence. You have to earn your wings. I wasn't getting paid but within a few months I won some awards. I could tell my parents that I was on the way."

It was while he was hungrily carving out a comedy career for himself in London that he was offered the part in Father Ted. It was a very welcome role, but a surprise one. He hadn't been chasing any acting jobs. These days he does acting and his comedy and relishes the combination of the two.

"Father Ted was the best fun in the world. People still want to talk about it and that's fine. It doesn't bother me anymore. In the beginning, the attention was overwhelming and a few years afterwards I was wobbly with the stand-up and I didn't know if I wanted to keep doing it."

Now he has found his balance. He began this year acting in a straight role in Conor McPherson's Port Authority in London, which he adored, and he's doing his stand up.

"People think of stand-up as a career," he says. "It's not. It's a lifestyle. It's a way of living. It's all encompassing. It involves enquiry and it's how I live my life. I'd be a bit angsty if I couldn't vent on stage."

Luckily the comedian has just started touring. "The object is to make people laugh," says the 46-year-old. I try never to lose sight of the fact that you're there to entertain people. I'm really lucky. I took a gamble on my choice of career and it worked out."

These days, Ardal lives in Rathmines with his wife Melanie and their three children -- Emily, 14, Rebecca, 12, and Red, 10. He credits Melanie for her support and great honesty, telling him when he is going wrong as well as going right. He enjoys his home life hugely.

"We have great fun at home. It took me a long time to really switch off and not agonise about my own pathetic worries. Trying to make each other laugh is a huge part of our life at home. I know it sounds cliched but your kids are all the motivation you need. They keep you going. From my point of view, I don't want to let them down. I want them to be proud of me. They're beginning to come to some of my gigs. They don't get everything, but they tell you what's funny and what's not."

It's clear that they give him joy. "With kids, you're not so self obsessed. It's not so all about you anymore. You find out what's really terribly important and you see the world fresh."

He tells me of how one day he had killed an ant with a book. The scene afterwards made him sit up. He might never have noticed it were it not for the kids. "We saw a bunch of ants taking the ant away, presumably for a good Christian burial."

Ardal is thankful for the way in which his kids have made him lighten up. Football is a big thing in his life. He coaches the kids and is just back from a football trip with his son and his friends along with several other dads who volunteered. Then there's tennis, another sport he plays a lot with his children.

"If I could live my life playing tennis with my children and then making people laugh in the evening, that would be a life well lived."

Ardal O'Hanlon's Tour: May 10, An Grianan, Letterkenny; May 17, Cork Opera House; May 18, Model Arts Centre, Sligo; May 19, An Draoicht, Blanchardstown; May 23, Roscommon Arts Centre, Roscommon; May 24, Solstice Theatre, Navan; May 25, The Thatch, Rahan; May 26, Iontas, Castleblaney; May 30, Mermaid Theatre, Bray; June 1, TF Royal, Castlebar; June 6, Civic Theatre, Tallaght.

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