Monday 19 March 2018

Kenny live: the comic on love, laughter and loss

One of Ireland's most celebrated comic performers, Jon Kenny, tells our reporter about losing his father as a child, his recurring battle with cancer and his guilt over being away from his own kids

'I feel stuff in my gut. I have instincts about things,' says Jon Kenny, above. Photo: Andrew Downes
'I feel stuff in my gut. I have instincts about things,' says Jon Kenny, above. Photo: Andrew Downes
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

If you carry your childhood with you, they say, you never become older. Jon Kenny, who is now 58 and retains a child-like openness to life, is reflecting on his own childhood.

"What was my childhood like?" he asks, sitting outside the Bailey pub in Dublin, with American tourists gearing up for St Patrick's Day milling past us.

"I think I was happy. I don't know. Maybe if I went to Freud now or someone like that, they'd tell me I'm totally f***ed up!" Jon laughs.

And is he totally fucked up?

"You see, we don't think we are, but maybe we are. I often think that I was very lucky actually, because I realise now the amount of freedom that we had as kids," he says of his youth in county Limerick as the second youngest of five kids.

When he was a very young boy, Jon's sense of liberation was to take an almighty psychological wallop - a wallop which he still has the bruises from . . .

His father, John, died on April 15, 1962, aged just 42. Jon was only four.

"It was quite sudden. He died of a brain haemorrhage. He just collapsed."

"And," says Jon, "that was it."

Jon has only two "vague" memories of his father.

"One is St Patrick's Day, believe it or not. I don't know why that always sticks in my head. I just remember some friends and my older siblings, Anne and Joan and Tom, they were going out to get some shamrock for St Patrick's Day - a little adventure out the fields, you know?

"And I remember they wouldn't let me go," reflects the one-time D'Unbelievables comic deity, which also included Pat Shortt, who is in Dublin to talk up starring in John B Keane's The Matchmaker at The Gaiety Theatre with Mary McEvoy.

"I was too small. I'll always remember just coming back and he put me up on the stool of the bar - we had a bar as well, he bought a bar for some reason - and gave me a glass of lemonade."

The other memory Jon has of his late father was "him dressing up as Santa at Christmas. He used to work in a kind of co-op store; he ran the drapery department with Golden Vale in one of their stores. And he used to borrow the Santa Claus suit every Christmas - I didn't know this - and he would dress up as Santa just to leave the presents around at the bottom of the beds, just in case anyone woke up."

"And I remember I did wake up once," smiles Jon all those years later.

"And I saw this Santa at the bottom of the bed. But Santa had glasses on. And I kind of noticed that Santa kind of looked like my dad. They were my only two memories of him."

Jon shared a bedroom with his older brother, Tom. After John died, the Kenny family moved house and sold the pub.

"It was all borrowed. He didn't plan on dying at 42. So mum sold the pub after that and sold the house we were in. It was a case of having to."

The new house the Kenny family lived in - and what went on in it - probably gave Jon unconsciously some of the surreal comedy that would make him famous in D'Unbelievables three decades later.

In particular, perhaps, Jon recalls waking up one morning and himself and Tom, with whom he shared a bedroom, were at an elevated angle in the bed - "with our legs in the air, because it was an old iron bed, and I remember the floorboards were rotten. And the two back legs of the bed went down into the shop below and we never woke up!

"It was like The Marx Brothers!" he laughs. "Us ending up like that! And not waking up!"

(Lest we forget, D'Unbelievables, who did their first official gig in 1990, gave us surreal characters like Butty Brennan and Roundy Mooney and surreal expressions about surreal Irish situations like: "We'll have the dinner at half-eight in the morning so we'll have a clear run at the day." The latter, Jon explained to me in 2010 thus: "There's a level of insanity that's actually acceptable. When you think of the bizarreness: people would have the dinner at nine o'clock in the morning, because that's what you did on the day of a match.")

I ask Jon when was he told that his father was dead.

"I was always told that my dad was gone. It is very vague. Did I blank it out? I suppose when I got to seven or eight, or even more so than that," he says, "it began to dawn on me all right, because I was aware that other friends of mine had fathers and I didn't have a father.

"I suppose, I suddenly realised that it was hard for my mother. She was on her own. There was an awareness of it. An awareness from me of her trying to cope and do things."

His mother, Mary, was, he says, a young woman in her thirties. "So things were hard back then. I know I was saying that we had a lot of freedom back then, which we did because society was different, but there was a hardness.

"There wasn't that much money in circulation. Ireland for a lot of people wasn't a country that had money. It was a country that was struggling. I can see now that it would have been very hard for a single parent, a mother, with five children in rural Ireland not having a man."

"Irish society in the way it thought was very men-driven, very male orientated," Jon continues, adding "maybe it was a little bit of a disadvantage to me because I didn't have a dad.

"Even for me becoming a father," Jon says, referring to Arran (23 now) and Leah (20) with his wife Margy Murphy, "myself in my own life was probably a bit of a shock, because I didn't know any fathers. So it was like if I had served my time with my dad, I would have learned something about being a dad."

Jon and Margy gave their son the name Arran "because of the West connection to keep it alive, because my dad was from the West of Ireland as well."

Did Jon over-compensate with his own kids because he grew up without a father?

"If anything I thought: 'Am I doing enough for them? Did I do enough for them?'" he answers.

"I know definitely in the early years, when I was away a lot it did really dawn on me that I was away doing my own thing.

"I was doing shows constantly and I was enjoying life and I was successful," Jon muses. "But somewhere there was another part of me living and I wasn't around for them. That was the lads - Arran and Leah."

Jon felt guilty about his absence as a father for his children.

"Yeah. I wanted to stop. I felt I needed to stand back from this for a second, because it is like you get caught up in this rollercoaster of a thing. It wasn't as if we were changing the world," he says of D'Unbelievables.

"It's just that we were busy or away. It's time and that time is gone - and when that time is gone, it's gone. That was beginning to dawn on me really."

Jon ended up getting very sick. He believes that because he couldn't make up his mind to stop working - "you think that you can't survive without this thing financially" -his body did it for him.

"It's like my body was saying to me: 'You have no choice in this matter now. You're stopping this.' I had to stop, because I needed to be looked after. I needed treatment. I needed time."

Was it hard to let go?

"No," he says, "because I had this conflict inside me, this thing was in me all the time: 'Jesus you need to stop this.' Because time has passed and the lads [Arran and Leah] are moving on."

He might never see them again if he killed himself with work?

"That's the reality of it," Jon says, "I think my body made my mind up for me. I was just not feeling well. It was awful to me, like I was awfully unhappy."

And was he unhappy?

"Yeah. I didn't think I was but there was a feeling of unease in me - a sort of an emptiness. It wasn't as if I felt physically sick. It was more emotional. Sometimes it affects your energy levels. I suppose my energy seemed to be drained out of me. My enthusiasm was gone."

Did he feel unhappy creatively?

"I don't think there was a great flow of stuff."

Did he feel that D'Unbelievables had gone on for too long?

"No. I never thought that. But I did think that we needed a break from it," Jon says, "just to refresh ourselves and our minds and maybe take stock of what we had done - and maybe what we need to do next rather than just ploughing forward."

So how have the last 16 years been since he listened to his body?

"They have been great. My health recovered. I firmly believed that I would heal and recover. It was like even when my health started giving me trouble about three or four years ago and I had to have a bypass done."

Jon was diagnosed in 2000 with Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was in remission on and off for almost nine years. The cancer came back three times. The last time I met Jon was in the Shelbourne Hotel with the aforesaid Pat Shortt in 2010 - they had reformed D'Unbelievables for a run of sell-out shows - where he talked about trying to make sense of, let alone beat, cancer coming back, not twice, but three times.

"Oh God. You just put the head down. There was a blindness and an ignorance about the whole thing with me: a sort of a blind faith, an ignorance nearly, not to worry about the reality of where you were and just focus on going through this and that you are going to come out the other end. I think I did that. Whether that is fooling myself or not, I don't know. And I know I did that."

Today, in Dublin, Jon says of his struggle with cancer: "It was up and down. And then it wasn't. Then it was under control. And then it wasn't. It came back more aggressively. Then, thank God, I was out of the woods."

He is funny, good - if intense - company. Pat Shortt once described Jon to me thus: "There are sides to Jon that I like an awful lot," Pat said. "But there are sides that drive me f***ing mad. Like any relationship. You are always niggling into things, looking into things, digging deep into things. He's more analytical than me."

Jon, who undoubtedly has a sensitive side and is prone to self-analysis, says of himself now: "I know there is a sensitivity there that comes from me growing up without the dad, and the mam and three sisters in the house.

"If I see someone on the street who has a difficulty in life in some ways through circumstances or whatever, I kind of feel sad for them. It will often really touch me. I feel emotionally, feel an upset. It is like a hole or a vacuum inside myself."

Does he have a God-shaped hole inside him?

"I don't know what I have but I tend to get an awful lot of stuff here anyway," he says, pressing his hand on his chest.

"I feel stuff in my gut. I have instincts about things. You know, I never really knew what that meant. I am hugely aware now of the energies off people; if somebody isn't right, I can be aware of it and feel it physically myself. I think some of that was probably heightened by what I went through with the cancer, because I spent a lot of time trying to do different things, or working with different energies for healing, for meditation."

Jon probably needed that self-healing ability for his soul when his beloved mother, Mary, passed away two years ago. "She was 90. She worked up until she was 89."

Did she give him advice on life?

"She was constantly giving me advice. But was I f***ing listening!" he laughs.

When Jon asked his mother what his dad was like, she told him that he was "an interesting guy. He was a bit of a romantic, I think, really. Dad was working in House Of Fraser in London and mum was nursing over there. They would have spent their time going to theatres and going to concerts."

This love of the theatre and music translated in Jon's home-life where he jokes that he often thought they were the Von Trapp family "because it was musicals we survived on".

Every Sunday the record player went on and everything from West Side Story to The South Pacific were played. That was his mother's escape. It was in this environment of escapism through the entertainment arts that Jon grew up.

"It was pretty much a female dominated house to some extent. It definitely shaped the way I think now."

Another female shaped his life, too - one Margy Murphy. How would she describe him? "Scary! What's going to happen next?"

They met years ago (he isn't sure when exactly) when he was doing a solo gig in the Horseshoe Bar in county Limerick. Did he horse his way into his future wife's affections?

"We horsed away. I went up and said to her: 'There's a friend of mine having a birthday party, would you be interested in coming with me.' That was nearly a lifetime ago. Jesus."

How long after that were you married?

"We waited around for a while. We didn't get engaged. We didn't do anything like that. We kind of hung out together for a long time. This was in the 1980s. Margy went back to college to NCAD and I was doing gigs on my own."

They were sitting at home at Christmas, 1987, and when a conversation straight out of a Pat McCabe novel (or a D'Unbelievables' sketch) was struck up.

Margy: 'What are we going to do next?'

Jon: 'Will we get married?'

Margy: 'Grand. Sure, we're not doing anything else. When will we get married?'

Jon: 'We'll get married next month so.'

That Christmas, Jon and Margy went to the priest in county Limerick to organise the church, whereupon another conversation straight out of a Pat McCabe novel (or a D'Unbelievables sketch) was struck up.

Priest: 'When are you getting married?'

Jon: 'Next month.'

Priest: 'Next January year?'

Margy: 'No, no. Next month.'

Priest: 'Is everything all right? There's no one in trouble here, is there?'

"So he said," Jon says, "Would you give it a bit more time. So we said to the priest: 'Okay, we'll get married in February.' They were married on February 20, 1988.

"That probably," laughs Jon, "explains myself and Margy's relationship."

And Jon Kenny.

Jon Kenny and Mary McEvoy star in John B Keane's 'The Matchmaker' at The Gaiety Theatre, April 11-23. Tickets from

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