Sunday 21 July 2019

'We were all brought in to give her a hug' - Pat Shortt on losing his mother at 7, his own family, and breaking new ground in his career

He is a something of a national - if private - treasure. Pat Shortt talks to our reporter about how his wife rearing their three kids allowed him to be creative, the death of his mother when he was seven, the influence of his father, playing Josie in 'Garage', starring in Martin McDonagh's A Skull in Connemara, and drinking with gravediggers in his local pub

Pat Shortt. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Pat Shortt. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Pat and his wife Caroline on the one occasion she turned up at the IFTAs
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

There is a pleasing absence of contemporary celebrity psychological maladjustment - of neurosis masquerading as winking self-promotion anyway - with Pat Shortt. That said, Pat Shortt is also a bit of an oddity, a bit of a freak (in a good way), in the modern world of entertainment. "For someone who is living in the public eye," he says, "I'm actually very private."

When was the last time he cried?

"I don't really cry. I'm not a person that gets emotional about things and certainly not someone who will share if I do."

What adjectives would he use to describe his personality?

Pat and his wife Caroline on the one occasion she turned up at the IFTAs
Pat and his wife Caroline on the one occasion she turned up at the IFTAs

"What's an adjective?" Pat laughs, slipping into a comic character to avoid revealing anything about himself.

You imagine Pat Shortt would happily gouge his eye out with a rusty spoon rather than do a selfie or conduct a celebrity interview at home in Castleconnell, Co Limerick, with wife Caroline and their three grown-up kids, Fay, Lily Rose and Ludaigh. He is just not that kind of man.

An indicator of what kind of man Pat Shortt is, is perhaps best revealed when he talks about when he is at his happiest. He doesn't say winning awards in Cannes or the IFTAs for his portrayal of poor lonely Josie who eventually takes his own life in Lenny Abrahamson's 2007 classic Garage - though I'm sure such moments please him in a different way.

Pat says, instead: "I love to go camping with my son and brothers and a few friends.

"It normally involves cooking, fishing and a bunch of lads sitting around a fire all night talking shite and slagging each other - in torrential rain," he adds, "The worse the better.

"Each year we reminisce about how much worse it was last year. I know it must sound like hell on earth to some people but after each trip my jaws are sore from laughing and I can't wait for the next trip."

Many of us in Ireland and further afield have had the same experience of jaws sore from laughing courtesy of Pat Shortt down through the years, be it in D'Unbelievables with Jon Kenny ("We'll have the dinner at half eight in the morning so we'll have a clear run at the day"), or on his own with Killinaskully, Mattie and Inside the Crystal Ball, to name but a few of his comic pieces de resistance.

He isn't afflicted with the comedian's neurosis of wanting to be taken seriously because his acting - in everything from Garage to Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan to John Boorman's Queen and Country - shows he is some kind of genius at near-alchemical transformation.

It is difficult to believe that he is your man who sang Jumbo Breakfast Roll. Though it is not that difficult to see why Charles Isherwood wrote in The New York Times that Pat should have been nominated for a Tony award for his performance as Johnnypateenmike in The Cripple of Inishmaan on Broadway in 2015 (he also played the part in London's West End in 2014.)

Pat, who also worked with McDonagh in The Lonesome West in 1998 in a Druid Theatre Company tour in Ireland, is set to take the part of gravedigger Mick Dowd in the second play in McDonagh's Leenane Trilogy, 1997's A Skull In Connemara, which opens at the Olympia in Dublin on August 14.

"He is not a grave digger," Pat says of Mick. "One of his jobs is making space in the graveyard. So he has to dig up the bones in the graves every couple of years and he has to dig up the bones of his own wife which the locals have accused him of murdering."

Has Pat met gravediggers?

"Jesus, I have, yeah. I go drinking with one regularly, actually. Well, I don't drink with him, but a local in my pub is a gravedigger..."

But Pat has drunk with him?

"I have, yeah - but not over a grave," he says and roars with laughter.

Pat Shortt has the world's most infectious laugh. It could possibly make a dead man smile.

"Some people would say - I probably shouldn't be saying this - that A Skull In Connemara was squashed between two massive plays. The Lonesome West was an amazing play and The Beauty Queen of Leenane was, as we all know, a legend that went on to win Tonys.

"And in the middle is A Skull In Connemara, which is the lesser known of the three but yet, one could argue, the funniest of the whole lot of them, in a comedy sense," Pat claims.

Inarguably, one of his greatest roles was that of tragic misfit in a small Midlands town, Josie in Garage.

"Myself and Jon Kenny toured all over the country [with D'Unbelievables] into all sorts of places, and nearly every ballroom would have individuals like Josie," Pat says. "Nearly every hotel would have someone like that cleaning pots out the back or sweeping up the ballroom. When we'd be setting up the gear, some fella would be in there.

"It is a great thing in lots of ways because people who are slightly challenged or majorly challenged, they still live in the community. They had menial jobs but to them it was an amazing job; and it gave them purpose. I know places down in County Limerick that employ people like that because it makes them part of the community. It helps them normalise their life."

What helped Pat normalise his life when his mother Mary died of cervical cancer when he was seven years of age?

"I think it is very different when you are that age because you have nothing to compare it with," he says. "Children have a great resilience and a great sense of 'We've got to get on with life'. And you pick yourself up and get on with it."

Yet Pat wasn't that young that he wouldn't have known his mother?

"Yeah," he says, "but not terribly well. She would have been quite sick the last year or so. So you wouldn't have the normal contact that a seven-year-old would have with their mother."

Was Pat's father Christy trying to protect him from that reality?

"I'm sure he was. I would imagine so. But, also, she would have been in hospital, undergoing treatment and what-not. I do remember the day she came back from hospital. She came back home to die, effectively."

Did Pat know that at the time?

"No - not at all. We had no idea. Those things wouldn't have been explained to you as a kid. It is only in hindsight, you look back on it and you say, 'That's what was going on'."

Pat can also remember his mother "being very upset" and "we were all brought in to give her a hug and everything else. I don't remember more. We probably ran out the back to play and said, 'What was that all about?' Off out in the summer on a lovely afternoon and think no more about it.

"The older kids would have known exactly what was going on but I was part of the younger crew that didn't," says Pat who grew up in a house in Thurles, Co Tipperary, with 11 siblings, a number which became 12 when his dad remarried and Pat gained a step-sister.

"And you can understand that; it would have been a huge lot for us to take in; and a huge lot of explaining when it was really not the time for it."

Pat's father, who "must be 86 or 87 now", is "a very smart guy, a very interesting man. I got a lot of my humour and my outlook on things, relaxed attitude on life, from him. And I'm sure she was very much the same", Pat says referring to his late mother.

"My dad was a primary school headmaster; and he reared a big family."

He had attended college with another fella who turned out to be a teacher: John McGahern (you could argue that Pat's sometimes rural comic sensibility owes something of a dark debt to McGahern and maybe the likes of Pat McCabe.)

"There was quite a mixed bag of characters that went to teacher training college that went on to do daft things. I was lucky enough to meet McGahern once before he died - it was at the IFTAs. My dad is a great character."

Pat's father was also something of an accomplished musician.

"He was a fiddle player, and my mother was a piano player," he says. "There was a piano in the house. God, yeah, there were loads of instruments in the house. My grand uncle was a musician and he died and left instruments to us. So there was a saxophone, flutes and fiddles in the house. My sisters were in the local orchestra and all that."

It sounds like The Corrs meets Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, I say.

"You know what the funny thing about it was?" he laughs. "None of us played together. We all played music but we never had a band. I often think that that was unusual that we never actually played together.

"I see a lot of families and traditional music is their thing and they all play together since they were 13 in sessions. We never did any of that. We never sat around at Christmastime playing. I don't know why. Maybe it was because we all played different strands and there was no common ground. My brothers played banjos; my sisters played violins; I played jazz."

It was jumping up to play saxophone with Jon Kenny at Costelloe's pub at Christmas 1986 - the latter had a residency - that was the start of it all. (Pat ran around the pub in his "jocks" playing the sax, all the while thinking, he recalls, "Ah, Jesus, what am I doing?" - but perhaps also fully aware that he was at the start of something bizarrely magical in Irish culture: the phenomenal D'Unbelievables had their first official gig in late 1989.)

Did his father say to Pat - "Did I hear a report of you running around in your jocks playing a saxophone in Costelloe's?"

"That's the thing about my dad," says Pat. "He was cool as f**k. He didn't give a shite once you were happy doing whatever you were doing."

Pat has inherited that philosophy from his father. He stopped analysing years ago what people might or might not think of him.

"I turned 50 this year and I think when you get older you don't give a shit as much about things. You really go, 'F**k it, I couldn't give a f**k if people don't like me'. A lot of people do like what I do and I really enjoy what I do and I have the craic,"

What wisdoms came with age?

"You don't give a shit as much. You don't care as much what people think about you."

Apart from his wife and kids? "I don't even care what they say about me!" he says, roaring with laughter. "We get on a lot better when I don't care what they think about me.

"I know I'm funny. I know what I'm good at. I know I'm a good actor. I wouldn't be where I am today if I wasn't."

The writer Cyril Connolly said that the enemy of creativity was a pram in the hall. And Pat had three prams in the hall in Limerick...

"I completely understand what Connolly was saying," Pat says. "But I am very lucky. I have a great wife, Caroline, and she reared the kids and allowed me to get out the door and do what I do, and be creative. I genuinely didn't think about having to feed people and pay college fees. I just got out and worked. She allowed me to do that. It worked for us."

"My wife is great," he says of Caroline who he describes as "very shy and has no interest [in turning up at openings to be photographed]. She came to the IFTAs once..."

How did he feel about the result of the abortion referendum?

"I'm very proud to be Irish," he says, "and the last two referendums have made me even more proud. I have grown up in what I would call the two Irelands - and I much prefer the one we are in now.

"It's not perfect but getting better. And yes, I have two daughters and a son. I am glad that they have choice now. And that we can help young women and families in this country that have difficult decisions to make and not send them away.

"It's about time we started to acknowledge that we are not perfect and start to deal with our problems at home," says Pat who played dad in Tom Ryan's 2016 film Twice Shy, about a couple who travel to England for an abortion.

Unlike his character Mick in A Skull In Connemara. Pat doesn't like to dig up the past. Asked about the lows of his life, he doesn't say much.

"There were quite a lot and I don't dwell on them because it's hard to decide which one was worse than the other," he says, perhaps referring to the death of a sister from cancer at the time of filming Garage or to the death of his mother all those years ago now.

"I also prefer to concentrate on happy memories so I have already forgotten the low ones and refuse to go back there."

Pat Shortt will be in A Skull in Connemara, by Martin McDonagh at Town Hall Theatre Galway from 21 – 30 June and then from August 15 (preview August 14) to September 1 at the Olympia Theatre (Monday-Saturday 7.30pm; matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays). Tickets from €21. Bookings via or at Ticketmaster outlets


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