Occupational Hazards: Jack Wise, sword swallower
"I've heard of people puncturing their stomach or their oesophagus"
When I was seven or eight I wanted to be a spy like James Bond. Funnily enough, I did eventually work for a private investigation firm. I was terrible in school, mainly because I didn't turn up. I didn't do the Leaving Cert, so I got into electronic engineering instead. I was always fascinated by magic though, and when I was younger a neighbour taught me the three-card trick, which was the start of it all.
I was working in a computers company and started doing magic tricks in the POD nightclub on Fridays and Saturdays. Anyone that rolled into town for a concert had after-shows in the POD at the time, so I did tricks for people like Robbie Williams, the Spice Girls and Kylie.
I did that for five years, and then got loads of bookings for weddings and corporate events. I finally decided to do magic/performing full-time; it was hard seeing a lot of my friends make more money, but I remembered a saying that an old Irish magician, Billy McComb had: "You'll never be a millionaire, but if you do magic you'll feel like a millionaire."
As for the sword-swallowing. I read 'Memoirs of a Sword Swallower', by Daniel Mannix – he literally ran away with the circus – when I was 20. So I taught myself sword swallowing, very slowly and carefully.
There's no real trick to swallowing swords, though it's a psychological thing. If you swallow tea, you'll feel the muscles in your throat opening and closing. You also have muscles in your chest cavity that digest food. Basically, you have to hold open both of these valves and then the sword goes down. The first time I did it with the sword, it was terrifying. It took me about six months in all to fully learn.
People ask all the time what the sensation of swallowing a sword is like. You know when you watch the film 'Alien', and you see the alien moving inside her stomach? Well, it's a bit like that. On a hot day – like when I performed in 30 degree heat at a festival in Toronto – the sword is cold so that feels pretty good.
I'm sure my parents were like 'why can't you do normal things?' Some parents worry about their kids smoking weed, but I'm sure it was no fun for my parents watching their son stand outside in the back garden trying to swallow a sword. My poor parents. Heather and Seamus, I'm so sorry for everything I put you through.
Though there are only about 60 sword swallowers worldwide, there's an online forum where people share stories of woe and mishaps. I've been largely fortunate, though I did have a small child run right into me once when I had swallowed the sword. I remember feeling that I'd grazed something, and when I removed the sword, I saw the blood on it.
When I went into hospital for the scope, I could swallow the camera without a sedative. There was no actual puncturing of anything, thank God. But I've heard of people puncturing their oesophagus or their stomach.
Teaching myself as a young man I was, as the saying goes, too stupid to never know to give up. I was very lucky, but teaching yourself isn't something I'd recommend.
When I'm out of performing mode and I meet people in a social situation and tell them what I do, they're like, 'sure you do'. But then I say, 'there's a sword in my car ... let me show you'. I'm legally allowed to keep it there, as it's a tool of my trade.
Student gigs are a free-for-all where you can get away with what you like. I'm conscious at corporate gigs that you have to prove yourself a bit more. They see so much entertainment at these events. Because most of the shows have audience participation, I'm conscious some people have spent 30 years moving up the corporate ladder. I don't want to make a fool of them.
When I performed for President McAleese, I pushed the edge a little bit, and fair play to her, she never once gave me a disapproving look. She's the nicest woman: loves a bit of craic. She sent me a signed photo when she left office saying 'thanks for all the magic down the years'.
I saw a lot of entertainers hurting through the recession. They'd slog away on the golf clubs or cruise ships. But the thing is: laughter is the real secret to success. People like to laugh more than anything. It's impossible to laugh and worry about paying your mortgage at the same time. If you laugh all the way through my show, but then it ends on a collective gasp, I'll have done my job right.
Jack performs at Laya Healthcare's City Spectacular at Dublin's Merrion Square today and tomorrow and Cork's Fitzgerald Park (July 19-20). Entry to the festival is free. See cityspectacular.com. Jack's website is jack.ie