'I get a kick out of Leo... and I reckon he does too' - Oliver Callan
Satirist and comic genius Oliver Callan talks to Barry Egan about his fiance John, driving a tractor to pick up his Leaving Cert results, his parents, bullies, God, the IRA and his on-off friendship with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
When Oliver Callan was a child growing up in Co Monaghan, someone might say to his six-foot tall father Tony: "Is this your son?"
"And he'd reply 'Well - I'm feeding him anyway'. My father also has an amazing array of phrases," says Oliver, "that sound like they come from a vintage bard..."
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These amazing array of phrases included: "I'm that hungry I'd eat the bobbins of a hearse"; if he was asked if there were many in the pub after a quiet night he'd say, "there's not as many about it as would ring a sow"; if he is having a bad day he'll go, "Jaysus, I'd be better off at the bottom of a lake!"; or, back to food, "I'm that hungry I'd drink the cross of an ass."
Raised on a 28-acre farm in the small village of Inniskeen, Oliver Callan was born on December 27, 1980, in Our Lady of Lourdes hospital in Drogheda. His mother Mary, the second oldest of a family of 10 from east Cork's Killeagh, was the "hardest worker I've ever known".
"As well as milking cows and doing every hard chore imaginable on the farm, she somehow fed four children, washed everyone's clothes, cleaned the house and garden and miraculously baked magical things every single week.
"She is an amazing cook and she was always the first up in the morning and last to bed at night, often staying in the kitchen under a sewing machine until the wee hours. I think her great regret is never learning how to drive. So after all her work she never eked out hobbies as she was trapped really in an unending cycle of work."
His mum's main holiday "was and still is" going home to east Cork, where she "'rests'.. by cooking and cleaning for her siblings who farm down there. No amount of advice from us will get her to slow down. I'm in awe of her really. She also had to leave school early to mind kids from a young age as the oldest girl of 10 children. She has incredible people skills and a mystical memory for people and their life stories."
In terms of her son's own story, Oliver drove a tractor to collect his Leaving Cert results - "and left it at the edge of town as I'd have no licence, tax or insurance".
He was the youngest of three siblings (Shane, the oldest, and Aoife) until he was 11 years of age when little sister Aine was born. He went from having experienced the joy of being the youngest to becoming the middle child.
"That was kind of traumatic," Oliver told me in 2014 in an interview. "So I had to do something to get attention - and that's when I turned to voices."
Oliver says now that he was in single digits "and started mimicking my Newry cousins and Cork uncles" that he began to realise he was good at doing voices.
There was also a moment when he was about six when Oliver, who went on to become one of the funniest people in the land, performed his impression of a neighbour who made a hissing sound when he laughed.
"I was in the kitchen and had my leg in the air like a dog peeing, doing the man's laugh, because that's what I thought his laugh sounded like, a dog peeing," says the Monaghan master-mimic and star of Callan's Kicks which returns on October 4 at 6.30pm on RTE Radio 1 until Christmas.
"My parents were laughing their heads off while trying to scold me."
With that, Oliver got the first buzz that this strange skill of "observation and vocal reconstruction" could entertain others. He was "hooked". When he went to school he did impressions of the teachers.
"That gave me a free pass from the bullies for the entirety of secondary school. I performed rudimentary sketches at Christmas school shows but I was sorely lacking a gang to do comedy with. When I went to college in 1999 I pretty much stopped doing impressions for a good decade.
He studied journalism at DCU, and worked in Today FM for five years.
"I jumped from journalism to comedy when I was 27 and joined The Gerry Ryan Show [on 2FM]," says Oliver, who performed a sketch dedicated to the broadcaster on his radio show the week of his funeral, May, 2010: Gerry opening the Ryanline in heaven.
"That lasted just three years and I had a period in the wilderness getting my life together. I always reckon my career didn't start properly until 2013 when I was 32. That was when Callan's Kicks began."
The story of how Oliver began, so to speak, is more complex: as a teen he was, he recalls, "a red-faced nerd who didn't really fit in with any group. I loved watching sport but I was also a book fanatic. I was extremely shy, too nervous to even answer the phone and I'd hide if someone came to visit.
"Still, there was an extrovert hidden inside and he burst out at debates and school match commentary videos. I was so fired up at GAA matches I once left the commentary box to shout 'c'mon ta f**k' at the school team and it was caught on the video to my shame."
Young Oliver was "definitely questioning of authority in my teens". He had a few run-ins with both the Inniskeen parish priest and the principal of his secondary school.
"A sub teacher had me write a letter of apology by way of punishment and I wrote a long evasive letter that used every big word I could, to say everything but sorry. Another teacher - a real firebrand, a mixture between Roy Keane and Paidi O Se - hauled me out of class and gave me the dressing down of a lifetime over that. He used every short word in the swearing dictionary in the process, and nipped a predilection for arrogance in the bud at an early age. I've thanked him for doing it too when I reached adulthood."
(The anti-authority side to Oliver was, arguably, passed on to him from his father who was expelled from school for writing "f**k" backwards on the bus so that one of the religious teachers outside the bus could read it - and when caught, refused to apologise.)
"I was very angry in the 1990s," he says, "when the church scandals broke. I was the youngest in the house at 11 when my sister Aine was born, turning me into a middle child. As siblings we were fiercely protective of her and these scare stories about abuse meant she had a very different life to ours, who were like Huckleberry Finns running wild.
"That and the Jamie Bulger outrage changed childhoods. Destroyed them really. Of course, decades later we realise that the danger came mostly from inside homes or in places where children should have been safe. In fact, running over fields and rivers and climbing trees until darkness fell was far less dangerous."
Asked, was he aware of the politics of where he grew up, Oliver says: "Of course, we were three miles from the Border and our back door used to rattle when the bombs went off in Crossmaglen or the slurry tanks full of petrol.
"I was aware of my father buying An Phoblacht, the Shinner paper but never reading it. I later learned that in the local pub you weren't allowed to not buy it if they came in selling. I think one farmer did once and he was scrubbing warnings off his milk shed for a few months afterwards. My parents were never political - classic floating voters - even today."
As a teenager in the middle of the peace process, Oliver "naturally flirted with republicanism but then I read Bandit Country," he says, referring to Toby Harnden's 1999 book. "And I realised - much like Orwell's epiphany over socialism - that good ideas and causes get hijacked by b*****ds who only want to enrich and empower themselves by sustaining the problem they're meant to be solving with their ideology."
Oliver thinks it's "no coincidence" he decided to become a journalist in 1998, the year the Good Friday Agreement was signed, amid tribunals and church scandals.
"I did the Leaving Cert a year later - traditional media was at the height of its powers at the time and the world was changing rapidly as big institutions were collapsing and I wanted to be involved in that, finding out what else was lurking in Official Ireland."
In satire, he says, you're always hardest on those in power. Hence people in Fine Gael think Callan is a sleeper Fianna Failer.
"I'm often labelled a Shinner online because I'm from Monaghan, but I'm happy to let idiots mislead themselves. Some would say I'm bitter and cynical, lashing tech firms, the IDA and our appalling approach to climate change."
Is he easily hurt? Sensitive?
"Not at all. I stared black days in the face and came through them. Nobody can drag me back down again. I love criticism, how could I not? I slag people for a living so I enjoy when someone slags me back.
"The Taoiseach used an official speech to give me a good roasting in the springtime. I deserved it - and it's quite the compliment to realise that Callan's Kicks gets on his wick a little.
"I hear a lot about abuse on Twitter - but I use it to train and steel my ego. So what if someone attacks me online? I don't care about what anyone says, unless I know and really, really respect them.
"I wish we taught kids in school or at home how to toughen up to tackle bullying. Just love yourself enough and you won't give two s**ts about bullies and their efforts to deconstruct you and kill your confidence.
"If the bully realises they're not hurting you, then they lose all their power over you. It takes work to reach that point and a lot of pain, but it's a worthy cause."
Oliver says he cries reading books. Most recently, Sebastian Barry's Days Without End "made me weep. John Boyne's The Heart's Invisible Furies also had me bawling. But it also made me laugh, it's such a miracle of a book. I read a few World War I novels last year for the centenary and I cried my eyes out at the sheer waste of life and the realisation that human nature can be extraordinary, cruel and without reason."
What makes him laugh?
"Stephen Colbert," Oliver says of the American comedian and political commentator. "My niece Clara's impression of her grandmother. And writing sessions with my main Callan's Kicks writing partner James Cotter. The funniest always being the things we can't put in."
In June, he made a documentary Divorcing God about Ireland's - and Callan's - changing relationship with religion. Does he have a philosophy in life?
"I can't remember who told me this but it's quite simple really. All you need in life is someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to. But if I was to write my own epitaph, it would be: 'Why are you in a f**king graveyard reading this? Go home, enjoy yourself and do no harm. Now get out, you'll be stuck here long enough!'"
Oliver describes 2012 was his "nadir". This was because he "surrounded myself with toxic people and my career had completely come to an end. I didn't work for a year and was broke.
"I don't go into the detail of the sob story because I want to move quickly to the happy conclusion. I firmly believe that you must endure hard times to truly appreciate and enjoy the good days. How could I dwell on so many black yesterdays when today is so bright?
"My job requires me to be cynical and questioning but I'm generally very optimistic and cheerful about the world. Mainly because I adore history and understand what and where humanity has come from. Nothing today is as bad as anything that happened before. This is the most peaceful moment in human history."
This is, also, the most loved-up moment in Oliver Callan's personal history. Last Christmas he got engaged to his boyfriend John Lannin.
"Our engagement was more an agreement than a proposal. We decided in the summer, went to London and ordered gold signet rings in Hatton Gardens," Oliver told me at the time of the engagement. "Gay men used to wear them in Oscar Wilde's time to signal to each other.
"It took months to have them made, so when they finally came we told both sets of parents and that made it official. Christmas made it handy to tell most others face to face. We're anxious to avoid all the unequal old traditions of girl-boy marriage where the boy gets down on one knee and the girl is handed over at the altar between two men like they're selling a van! We both believe same-sex marriage is a chance to set new, more equal customs."
Oliver knew he was gay "about the time other boys knew they were straight. The difference is they could act and celebrate and high five each other about it. I locked sexuality in a box in the attic of my mind.
"Perhaps because I came from such a reserved conservative farming family, it took me longer than my contemporaries to come out. Or maybe I was just especially shy, painfully shy really. That's why it took me so long.
"I was 31 when I came out," on Brendan O'Connor's Saturday Night Show on RTE on October 29, 2011. He goes on to tell me then, "I don't regret the delay now, that's just my story. My life is rather lovely now, so again I don't look back and if I occasionally do, I remember to scold myself for the self-indulgence and appreciate the present.
"My life and relationship is so completely normal to me I often forget that we're different. Though you don't hibernate your love in the closet for that length of time without any aftershocks. We hold hands in public occasionally and I always notice the stares we get and grimace inside and pull my hand away."
They met on George's Street a few nights before St Patrick's Day in 2012.
"It was a chance meeting in the queue of a late night Chinese restaurant. We were each other's first boyfriend. It's such a charming story most people don't believe it.
"We changed each other's lives, saved each other from moments of hardship and intend to live happily ever after, which clearly means we're fools. As the old joke says, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. But we are very grateful. Many people have it so hard to find a partner - and in the gay world, the pool is less than 10pc the size, so it's nigh impossible. I got so lucky. I was out of the closet five minutes and found a life partner."
I ask him when is the wedding.
"The big day is set for June," he says, adding as perhaps only Oliver Callan can, "to save money we're doing it in a petrol station with a Supermac's. It has everything we need - meat, veg, music, Spar wine and a defibrillator."
The new season of Callan's Kicks starts on October 4 and goes out every Friday on RTE 1 Radio at 6.30pm. It'll also be available as an RTE podcast
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