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'There's a sense of humour down the country that is sort of anarchic' - Colm O'Regan

As he gives quintessential Irish mammy Ann Devine another outing, Colm O'Regan tells Tanya Sweeney about his fears when writing female characters, taking the plunge into stand-up and what men must do to combat sexism on the comedy circuit

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Worries: Colm O Regan photographed at his home in Kilmainham. Photo: Frank McGrath

Worries: Colm O Regan photographed at his home in Kilmainham. Photo: Frank McGrath

'Ann Devine: Handle With Care' by Colm O'Regan is out now via Transworld Ireland

'Ann Devine: Handle With Care' by Colm O'Regan is out now via Transworld Ireland

Worries: Colm O Regan photographed at his home in Kilmainham. Photo: Frank McGrath

Wily observation has long been the hallmark of good comedy, and few do it better than Cork native Colm O'Regan.

For a young man, his grasp on the finer details of the Irish Mammy has always been impressive. On Twitter, his brilliantly astute @IrishMammies account boasts 207,000 followers (sample tweets include: 'Well?! How was your 'party'? I suppose there was drink taken' and 'Out in Dubai he is. On Big Money').

Last year in his novel Ann Devine: Ready for her Close-up, O'Regan unleashed the quintessential Irish Mammy, described as "a riddle, wrapped up in a fleece, inside a Škoda Octavia". Now, she returns in a second fictional instalment, Handle With Care.

In a scenario that several members of the "sandwich generation" will immediately relate to, Ann now finds herself looking after her octogenarian mother, who has had a fall, as well as her own brood of four grown-up children. Among them is Jennifer, facing her own issues with her mother-in-law, and Rory, planning a future as a TD. Her teenage niece Freya has also recently moved in, and is teaching Ann a thing or two about what makes Gen-Z tick.

It's a world of Tidy Town meetings, hipster blow-ins and post office closures, making O'Regan's second novel every bit as charming and perceptive as its predecessor. There's an element of biting satire about Handle With Care, but O'Regan is sure to treat his characters, and small-town Ireland, with plenty of affection. And while he appears to do it effortlessly, he admits to worrying about writing female characters and avoiding both stereotyping and condescension.

"I am haunted by the prospect of one day appearing on the Twitter account Men Writing Women, which takes the piss out of male authors writing female characters," he admits. To research his female characters, "some of it is eavesdropping to get the speech patterns right, maybe a bit of social media watching, especially commenting under local newspaper stories. Some of it's pure guesswork."

Freya, Ann's 14-year-old niece, offered O'Regan the opportunity to make some observations about an entirely new generation.

"She herself guides Ann through the more complicated online world," O'Regan explains. "I'm interested in children raised on internet culture and how they get on when it clashes with real-life stuff. She's hyper-aware of the world, on the lookout for fascists in Kilsudgeon. But she's also a child. She needs the same reassurances and support any child would need even though she's at an age when she thinks she could run the world.

"I wanted a character like her because I wanted to understand how young people deal with having to have an opinion on everything now and for the first time having a place to express it. She's definitely not a dig at the woke generation, because they are far more complex than just hashtags."

Like Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen - the authors of the Aisling series of books - O'Regan is clearly aware that rural Ireland is a rich seam to mine for a certain type of relatable, warm fiction.

"Maybe writers are trying to make sense of the place they came from as a way of making sense of their own lives," he says. "Maybe readers who've moved away want to read about people whose speech patterns and habits resemble that of people they knew as children. Also there's a sense of humour down the country that is sort of anarchic, surreal in places. It's different to city humour. I think that going to school in Cork city taught me how to tell a joke, but growing up in the country taught me how to tell a story."

Growing up in the Cork village of Dripsey, O'Regan initially started a career in web design and code writing before switching to comedy.

"I made [the move to comedy] because I had to," he reflects. "I was miserable in work. I was working long days then going to gigs and coming home exhausted and sad because I didn't seem to know how to do my job any more. My brain hurt. I was a manager and working for an unhappy manager is an awful thing to do. I decided to get out of the way.

"It was a good, interesting job that deserved someone to do it right. It was the middle of the recession, but I saved enough money for a year's mortgage, gas and electricity. And as soon as I left, I felt taller. Poorer for a while, but taller."

O'Regan has since flourished as a stand-up comedian and MC in Ireland's comedy scene; one that has been rocked recently by online allegations of sexual misconduct, sexism and abuse of power.

"It's really bad that women are not safe or don't feel safe at work," O'Regan says. "Like, it's a workplace after all, like any workplace. It's also really sad that women left the industry because they were scared or exhausted about trying to tell jokes in a hostile set-up. Comedy is hard enough without that shit."

As to what male comedians can do about sexism in comedy, O'Regan adds: "Listen to what's being said. Work to make the comedy workplace safer. As well as hearing what's being said about people's experiences of our industry, comedians like Jen Kirkman and Tara Flynn have written very impactful suggestions on our next steps. I'm currently digesting those. This is a chance [for men] to really do a bit of listening and learning."

With most of his live engagements on hold for 2020, O'Regan is busying himself with his two daughters, aged 3 and 4. In a creative change of scene, he has also 'tentatively' written some short stories in recent months. Yet all the while, Ann and her colourful brood refuse to leave his head.

"I love writing about Ireland through the eyes of Ann," he enthuses. "There are a load of storylines I'd love to see her explore. She's my guide. But I want to write others, too.

"I'm interested in getting inside the heads of more characters. One of the challenges with Ann is that she has four children so she has to 'keep track' of them all. Maybe the next person [I write about] will be a bit more of a loner."

'Ann Devine: Handle With Care' by Colm O'Regan, Transworld Ireland, €12.99

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