Brothers in Arms: Andrews plays the Joker
With the build up to the European Parliament elections under way, Donal Lynch meets Dublin Fianna Fail candidate Barry Andrews and his brother comedian David McSavage
There can be no doubting Barry Andrews's bravery. It's mere weeks until the European elections and this scion of one of Ireland's most prominent political dynasties is playing what might be the riskiest card in the deck: the Joker.
At the boardroom in his campaign headquarters, just off Fitzwilliam Square, Andrews is joined by his 'Irish twin' (they are a mere 18 months apart in age) and a man who seems to be his polar opposite in almost every way you could possibly imagine, comedian David McSavage.
While Andrews (51) is groomed, and suited, his slightly older brother (53) appears like a cross between Big Bird and Phileas Fogg, and removes his trilby to reveal a top knot in his hair. While Andrews is carefully on message - "I have a deep knowledge of international issues and Ireland's place in Europe" - McSavage's patter freewheels from love and sex to alcoholism and daddy issues.
It's a conversational dynamic that might turn other politicians' hair white, particularly with so much on the line, but Andrews seems to have calculated that all this is worth the risk: the quote machine on his left both humanises him and subtly conveys the message: 'If I can handle this, Europe will be a doddle'.
"People say you're very different to your brother but, then, most people are very different to my brother," Andrews tells me. "I'm just a normal person. I followed in my father's footsteps, which is kind of boring. David always did his own thing."
"I changed my name because I didn't want to be associated with (the family)," David pipes up. "It's not like I'm corrupt or anything."
If it's a big few weeks for Barry, it is no less so for David. On the day we all meet he has just come from the divorce court. "We'd been together 27 years," David tells me, adding "I do have a different girlfriend now. You can be sad about one thing and, at the same time, happy about something else."
Andrews listens in a slightly dazed way. There is no real unease, and McSavage dutifully makes the odd stab at a party political broadcast - "I see other politicians and how they behave and he's not like that. There isn't a scintilla of that kind of corruption in Barry".
He need hardly mention that Andrews and he are political royalty here. Their father, David Andrews, was TD for Dun Laoghaire between 1965 and 2002 and minister for foreign affairs for two stints, including when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. Their cousin, Chris Andrews, was also a Fianna Fail TD for Dublin South East from 2007-2011 but he has since left the party and is now a Sinn Fein member of Dublin City Council. Niall Andrews - their uncle - was a TD for Dublin South between 1977 and 1987, and also served as a Fianna Fail MEP for Dublin for 20 years.
The brothers also grew up with a wealth of connections outside politics. Todd Andrews, their grandfather, was a former chairman of RTE and CIE and was also the first managing director of Bord na Mona. Ryan Tubridy and his brother, the noted neurologist Niall Tubridy, are first cousins.
Growing up, Barry seemed very much more in the mould of these overachievers than his slightly older brother. Both went to Blackrock College, but whereas Barry excelled, David was regarded as what he calls "a tender pervert", who gave lip to teachers, subtly took the mick out of his father's election campaigns and played in a band called Peter Plectrum and the Pelvic Pushbuttons.
Did it all mean that Barry was more of a favourite of their father? "You are such a c**t, can you put that in?", David responds, grinning. "I assume he had favourites but he never told us. My father would give out to both of us for fighting but would administer punishment in a very token way," Barry adds.
"David was always to blame. Everyone knew what the game was."
At school they were opposites. "Teachers hated me. I was an awful douchebag. I was so desperate for attention, I wasn't sure if I existed without it," David recalls. "Then Barry came along and was totally different."
While Barry knew everything about the political history of his family and was "obsessed" by it, David baulked at the burden of the family name. "I couldn't wait to get out of Dublin because everyone thought I was a failure," he recalls. "Our father occupies this world of politics and outside of that world it's not that he doesn't understand, it's that he's not that interested. Growing up I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Jack Kerouac and hitchhike around Europe and America."
After school they took very different paths. Barry trained as a teacher - he taught in a series of progressively posher schools - and then trained as a barrister. David first came to public attention here by doing a sort of street stand-up in Temple Bar, taking the piss out of bypassers. Barry attended David's first proper stand-up gig, in Denmark. "It was English, so their second language, obviously, and it looked like the loneliest thing," Barry remembers.
"He kind of bombed for the first 40 minutes and then he got into it."
While obviously naturally quick and brilliant McSavage struggled to find a niche. His first RTE show, Oh No! It's McSavage, was not well received and it would be a number of years before he re-appeared in a consistent way on TV. Still, the family shadow seemed to loom large and McSavage, unlike his politically canny forebears seemed to relish biting the hand that feeds. In the early years of his career he says he was asked had he ever told their father to f**k off. "And I said no I'd be too scared to do that, and the person said 'well there's your problem. Instead of doing that you've spent your life telling everyone else to f**k off. But now it's too late'."
Barry's aptitudes spared him such familial psychodramas. He served on Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council between 1999 and 2003 and won a Dail seat in 2002, when his father retired. He served as minister of state for children in his second Dail term but lost the seat at the 2011 general election, which saw Fianna Fail reduced to 20 TDs in the wake of the economic crash and EU-IMF bailout.
Did being a junior minister in Brian Cowen's government feel like winning a ticket on the Titanic, I wonder? "I had a lot of stress in my life around that time," Barry begins. "The IMF were coming into town and my grandfather had fought for freedom and there was a sense then that we had lost some of that freedom. It was a very profound and difficult time. In the following election people let me know what they thought of it. As we went canvassing there wasn't physical confrontation but there was a lot of anger. I remember coming to one house and they were packing the car and it turned out to be an emigration scene. A daughter was going to Australia. They were very pissed off, understandably so."
After losing his Dail seat, Andrews worked as head of the international aid charity Goal, but resigned in the wake of a US investigation into its multimillion-euro Syria operation, something he describes as "a very difficult time". He subsequently took up the position of director general of the Institute of International and European Affairs. He is married to Sinead, a barrister, and they have three children, Hugh (13), Conn (11)and Kate (six).
David was in his forties before he got his big break. During its four-year run on RTE The Savage Eye viciously satirised Irish public figures, imagining Joe Duffy as a sadomasochistic ghoul and Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh as being semi-permanently in the midst of giving birth, for instance.
Unlike in the case of so many other Irish comics, none of McSavage's victims claimed to be in on the joke - Duffy, for one, hated it. McSavage contrasts the bits in the show with the "mimicry" of someone like Oliver Callan. "His stuff is more tribute. Satire is more vicious than that."
On one of The Savage Eye's more brilliant sketches a politician sits on the panel of a Frontline-type programme. "Many Irish are fascinated how failed politicians continue to get re-elected," the voiceover begins, before depicting an enraged member of the public berating a beleaguered politician, who soaks up the bile as the voiceover explains: "To be in power the Irish politician must constantly endure public outrage. After the tirade the Irish politician gives out facts and figures because he realises the Irish mind only understands stories.
"Under no circumstances must the politician say what he really thinks: 'c'mere to me, you f**kin' scumbag, you probably don't even vote, so why don't you just f**k off?"
So, much truth in that one? "For a real leader to emerge he would have to do and say things that are difficult," David begins. "People see politicians even getting, say, a salary and think, they're bastards, just for getting paid. The politician is us. It's who we are. We get the politicians we deserve."
Did Barry Andrews ever have a thought, during the depths of the recession, that the public bore more responsibility for the way the country had gone than we could bear to admit? "There was a therapeutic amnesia which helped us to get through it," he replies. "Why were there no strikes before 2011, for instance? Nobody voted against the 2006 budget."
Barry sees the venom that politicians absorb as evidence of the accessibility of the politicians: "People say it's all parish pump and parochial, but there is a sense of ownership. You don't have to pay for access in Ireland. There's a huge turnout for European elections. There is a connection between the electorate and politicians.
"We are a pro EU country and Dublin is more pro EU than the rest of the country, meaning it's even more important that we elect representatives who are genuinely pro-Europe. Brussels has become more relevant to our lives than ever."
He has criticised the confidence and supply arrangement between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Climate change has come up again and again on the doorsteps, he says. He flatly doesn't believe polling which says we still don't really care about it.
Could there be some kind of intra-family symbiosis here? We've seen comedians elected recently in the Ukraine and Italy. The likes of Boris Johnson seems to trade on a kind of witty insouciance. Are comedy and politics actually closer than we think as art forms? "With comedy likeability is a big thing," David begins. "You don't have to be that funny if you're likeable in comedy and you don't have to be that competent if you're likeable in politics. I do think we (Barry and he) have authenticity in common. You can't contrive a personality. You have to work with people in politics, for Christ's sake."
Do they see much of each other these days? "Eh, not much," Barry begins. "Maybe at family events about once every six months or so." "I can't drink at those things because I'm a former alcoholic," David explains. "I do still remember the great sense of well-being you'd feel drinking though. All the women around you look sooo much better. I haven't had a drink since 2003. I have explored every single f**king angle of drinking. I've been walking along the canal at two in the afternoon f**ked out of my head. What's that stuff called? Absinthe. Have you ever had that? It's a mind f**k."
The personal, as Germaine Greer once said, is always political. David says that he sees in current geopolitical chaos echoes of his own life. "I have a bit of a self-destructive streak.
"In comedy you don't have to be diplomatic with people. I'm like the Brits and Brexit - I create these terrible crises so that I have to rise up from the ashes of the mess I've made."
So, if Barry gets in, will there be jobs for the boys? "What does that mean?" David asks and when it's explained responds "oh no, my father sends money every month to my account anyway, so I don't need a job. Daddy looks after The Troubled One."
And is it enough money, I wonder. "No, it's like love," David responds. "There is never enough."
Barry Andrews is a candidate for the European elections. Visit www.barryandrews.ie
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