Tommy Tiernan: 'Family life just happens - you can't control it'
Tommy Tiernan is probably our greatest stand-up but his road to middle-aged contentment has not always been smooth. He tells Donal Lynch about his therapy at an early age, faith and romantic relationships
I feel like I might have wandered on to the set of the November shooting for the Farmer's Weekly calender. Tommy Tiernan has his shirt off. We'd never get away with this with a female comedian. To be fair Tommy seems more bemused than anything by this bit of objectification. The photographer is calling out encouragement to him. The arms together, now the arms apart, Tommy. His torso is dazzlingly white and covered in tattoos.
The one on the back of the arm is a seemingly innocuous quote from Joyce - a line from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that takes up about four inches of skin and reads: "She was walking on before him, her hands holding her skirts up from the slush."
He calls it "a kind of secular version of the Hail Mary, in praise of women" and the tattoo seems much more a part of him than the dapper, slightly fey scarf he eventually covers up with. Joyce is a connection to the philosophy of the ages and how else would the voice of this generation carry literature in his heart? He tells me he tried Ulysses a few times but never made it to the end.
Still, he gleaned inspiration for his forthcoming tour: "What struck me from the book was the heroism of everyday life. We are all struggling with our own impulses and thoughts and anxieties and the people we come into contact with, it's a major achievement on our part. Joyce was great at presenting people's interior monologues. They're naked as people in front of us. So I wanted to base a stand-up act around this. But in stand-up you don't get what you want. You come with a notion to the show but the audience come with their expectations and they're there in a hall in Nenagh on a Sunday night and they maybe have some drink on them and you've a duty to give them some crack. Between those things a third thing is created and that is the show."
His concern for the audience's expectations is probably apposite at this juncture in his career. He is beloved like few other acts (his DVD sales rival those of U2), and is given a blank cheque of adoration by his huge fanbase. But his last big tour was all improvised and he bombed hard. It was difficult to watch and whilst he won praise in some quarters for his bravery, there were others who wondered if he was having a breakdown, a mid-life crisis or both. "It was 12 consecutive shows in 12 countries on 12 nights and it was just Lenten in its masochism," he recalls.
"I asked myself if another comedian was doing this would I watch it. If the answer is no, I won't do it. I thought if Des Bishop or Ardal (O'Hanlon) or Dara O Briain was doing it would I watch it and I said absolutely. I wouldn't judge it other than to know now myself that it was too difficult. The audience pay for what I call the unpredictable familiar. They buy the ticket because they've seen you before and they know you're funny but they come in the hope something unexpected will be said."
The unexpected has always been his stock and trade. Some of his stand-up has the quality of an antic philosophy lecture. He has the stage presence of a demented preacher. His self-belief seems total - after we meet he is going to RTE to tape his chat show where he interviews guests without knowing who they are beforehand - an idea that gives me a heart attack just thinking about it.
He tells me that a psychiatrist recently told him that "there are members of the community who are sanctioned to say the unsayable." Fittingly for someone who describes his stand-up process as "getting out of the way of my own consciousness" Tiernan was in therapy early and has "floated in and out of it" ever since. "The first time I went was when I was around 16 and I asked for it in boarding school (at Garbally College in Galway). I contacted a social worker in the town. I went up and told the school authorities. Back then I was starting to obsess - thinking about a girl, but constantly. I hit a pothole, there were doubts and sexual energy rising inside me. I started praying and listening to music to try to deal with it. But I made the appointment. It didn't do me any good. I didn't have the courage to tell him everything."
He came from a family of people who relish wit and for whom storytelling is important. When he was in secondary school his father would call him "a martyr without a cause." Tommy was sure he was going to be a priest. "I was all set to join the Redemptorists. They'd visited my parents. I was still a virgin - I was 19! Is that kind of late? It was the 1980s. Anyway, I was all set for it until they said that my Leaving results weren't good enough. I felt this was all a bit unfair. None of the disciples did the Leaving and none of them were celibate."
He was unemployed until he was 25, "but I was in Galway so it didn't seem to matter. There is a great moneyless scene in Galway."
It was only in 1998 that he began taking his burgeoning stand-up career seriously. "I realised that I can make a living out of it. I knew I could make money."
A year later his son was born and "the penny dropped" and he knew he had to provide. His career took off. He won the Perrier Award in Edinburgh and best stand-up at the British Comedy Awards. He gained a legion of fans. He seemed to all but take up residency in Vicar Street.
He had three children with Jayme Street, whom he reportedly met in a Christian community in the Aran Islands, but the relationship broke down and she lambasted him in the press afterward, a trial by fire for him in terms of media intrusion into his personal life. He tells me "I still worry" about the effect that the breakdown of the relationship had on his oldest three kids.
"It's an ongoing thing. I felt … we're all fallible. But at each moment in our lives we do what we think is the best thing and we deal with the consequences of that. I'm still processing my own childhood. For my children (the family situation) is an ongoing reality in their lives."
He tells me he has fears for his kids and he sees his own parenting style in the context of the family tapestry. "You're helpless when they're experiencing pain and you have to let them go. It's a constant process. When the two-year-old is seven you have to say goodbye to the two-year-old. I think of a pony in a field. You have to give them enough space to buck. And maybe after a while the field becomes the planet. And while you're negotiating the relationship with your own kids you're also looking at your parents. I look at my dad and ask myself what's he giving me? How does that inform what I give my children."
He married Yvonne McMahon - who recently hosted her own chat show series on the RTE Player - in 2009 and they have three children together. Until a year and a half ago she also managed him, but they ended that arrangement.
"We stopped working together because it was too difficult. She is brilliant and from a business and managerial point of view I felt in the safest hands, but we found that the nature of the relationship wasn't doing our marriage any favours. The manager has to do stuff for the act. And it's very hard to have a conversation on that level and then switch back to being lovers. We had the conversation one day and our marriage definitely benefited."
Is it difficult managing the dynamic between his two families?
"It's not familiar, put it that way. Most people in the country grew up in one family. Each of the families I'm connected to would regard themselves as self-contained families. I'm not at the head, the mothers are at the head, I'm more like the mischievous lieutenant, whom people don't really trust or listen to. Family life just happens in front of you and you can't control it."
He says he's a different kind of father now than when he was younger.
"The 24-year-old grew up in a house with a young Dad with energy and mischief. His Dad wasn't settled. Our house wasn't quite a centre for ne'er-do-wells but there was a lot of traffic. Now our house is a bit more settled. I remember with my oldest boy we had to move house and we took a mattress on a shopping trolley. I sense that he is moving toward his independence."
He's still religious but these days that could mean anything from a Buddhist retreat - he was on one recently - to mass. "Right now I am quite enamoured with Christ. I have been thinking about tribes and my tribe are the oul' lads who went to the back of mass with the caps in their hands or who knelt down to say decades of the rosary. We've replaced that tribe with the cult of individuality and that's a very isolating thing."
It all makes me wonder if there isn't some surprising social conservatism in there. He was only joking about being against gay marriage he assures me (that joke being let the gays marry because in a generation they'll have rode themselves to extinction). And as for abortion: "We have to have compassion for a woman who finds herself in that situation. The woman needs compassion toward herself and for the life that grows inside her. Whatever decision is reached, as long as the basis for the decision is compassion then we as a society can have no argument with it."
He's joked about having squandered all his money but, given his work ethic - there is a jaw-dropping schedule of hotel ballrooms stretching ahead of him - he must be doing ok? "All the money I get is from the public", he explains. "And if you gave your hard-earned money to a comedian, some part of you would die inside if you felt that comedian had prudently invested that money. I guarantee you I am the least prudent person. My wife has a very different attitude to money than I have. I grew up in a house where my parents never told me what they earned. I was never given that much money. I used to steal money out of my mother's purse to play pool."
It seems slightly odd to wonder of the most successful stand-up of the last 20 years if he didn't underachieve somewhat. But for a long time there was a sense that it was a matter of 'when' not 'if' Tiernan broke the UK and/or America.
As his career, developed, however there was also a creeping sense that his act was too local and that while he could connect strongly with the expat community he struggled to adapt his act for foreign audiences. "I went through a phrase of being very interested in cracking England or cracking America but I sort of grew out of that", he tells me.
"How much I attempted to connect with foreign punters varied from show to show. I did the Stray Sod show in England, there were reviewers from the English papers and I realised that this wasn't connecting with them. But when the material was more universal they would react more. It would be soulless to be doing arenas around America. Once you've stayed in a posh hotel eight or nine times you've done it. I'm on the showband road, the Joe Dolan road."
He says he liked being on his own to decompress - he nods vigorously when I mention the word introversion - and says that comedy brings with it a "pendulum of mood swings." He sounds like someone well able to manage himself, however. He didn't drink for eight years, which begs the questions, did he have a problem with it and how did he stop? "I think it was more this growing self-awareness. I didn't dry out or anything. I never drank in the morning unless I was still drinking and had just kept going." Did he ever go on stage high? "Back in the day there may have been a few excessive evenings. These days if I notice the jester isn't present in me I'll have a glass of Guinness."
He's in his 40s now - the old age of youth - but middle age becomes him. His eldest is 24 now and Tommy is already rubbing his hands together at the prospect - however distant - of grandchildren. The domesticated man-child is a trope of his comedy and he lives up to it.
"I'd be at home Monday to Thursday so it's not like there's these parties with naked models swilling absinthe. I don't miss my youth in the slightest. You want to stay wild and unpredictable onstage, but you can only find so much chaos in your actual life before you have to build something a bit quieter around yourself. Someone else can have a chaotic life on my behalf."
Tommy Tiernan will be at the Vodafone Comedy Carnival next week and touring nationwide, including Vicar Street in January with his new show Under The Influence. Tommytiernan.com for dates and details
Sunday Indo Living