Wednesday 18 September 2019

Sean Hughes 1965-2017: Hughes was true trailblazer who paved the way for Irish comedians

Comedian Sean Hughes, who has died aged 51. Photo: PA
Comedian Sean Hughes, who has died aged 51. Photo: PA
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

While the country may have been understandably preoccupied with Hurricane Ophelia yesterday, the news that Sean Hughes has died at the age of 51 came as a shocking blow to Irish comedy fans.

The only previous indication of his ill health was a tweet sent last week to his 50,000 followers which simply stated: "In hospital."

His fans were concerned at even that news, but yesterday's announcement by his management that he had suffered a cardiac arrest while being treated for cirrhosis of the liver in Whittington Hospital in London still seems difficult to process. It was particularly bewildering as he had, in later years, become a teetotal vegetarian.

To a generation of people who now see being a comedian as a legitimate career option, Hughes was a true trailblazer.

Growing up an outsider in Firhouse, following his family's return to Dublin when he was 6, Hughes initially worked as a shelf stacker in the local supermarket in Knocklyon before moving back to London, where he would go on to rewrite the rules of stand-up comedy.

At a time when the Edinburgh Festival was the biggest showcase in the comedy firmament, the Perrier Award was the most coveted recognition for any performer and when the 24-year-old Hughes blew the judges away during his first appearance at the festival, his career went into overdrive.

He won that Perrier in 1990, the decade when Irish comedians and, of course, the likes of 'Father Ted', began to make it look as if there had always been a thriving comedy scene in Ireland.

That simply wasn't the case, and while Hughes was never part of Mr Trellis, or the comedy crowd at the legendary International Bar, the sight of a young Irish bloke taking on all comers and winning the most prestigious comedy award of the time was enough to inspire countless young Irish performers.

Hughes helped to persuade them there was a living to be made out of telling jokes.

Like many comedians, Hughes could be pleasant but distant, verging on the difficult if he became bored or the questions veered into territory he didn't want to discuss.

But on topics he was engaged by, such as Bill Hicks - he was proud to have been asked to write the foreword to a book about the late American comedian - his eyes would light up and the enthusiasm which occasionally crept into his act would shine through.

A critical and commercial success in the 1990s, his sit-com 'Sean's Show', with its mixture of arch surrealism and whimsy, was ahead of its time.

He also had some success as an actor, becoming one of the first comedians to land a role on 'Coronation Street'.

The role that made him a household name though was 'Never Mind The Buzzcocks', on which he was a team captain until he became bored and left the line up in 2002. As he said at the time: "I don't want Buzzcocks to be my legacy."

Hughes may have faded slightly from public view in recent years, but he was always busy, publishing several well-received novels, collections of poetry and appearing on stage, while his 2012 Edinburgh show, 'Life Becomes Noises', was a searingly personal piece which dealt with the death of his alcoholic father.

As he said in his foreword to the Hicks book: "Being a genius is a heavy burden and he's the only one I'm ever likely to meet. I miss you, Bill." Sadly, bafflingly, now it's Sean's turn to be the one who is missed.

Irish Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top