One of Ireland’s most recognizable comedy faces, Ardal O’Hanlon talks to Jon Hozier-Byrne for the University Observer about life after Dougal, national identity, and how he saved Irish stand up
It’s very early for Ardal O’Hanlon, his voice harsh, almost caustic; “It’s very early for me, on a Saturday.” Having stirred him from his well-earned sleep to talk to us, we begin with the easy questions; as the founder of the International Comedy Cellar, what does he feel is his legacy to Irish comedy? O’Hanlon seems surprised, but immediately shakes the dust off his voice, and responds with profound excitement; “Myself and three other fellas – Barry Murphy, Kevin Gildea, Dermot Carmody – we were a sketch troupe at the time called Mr. Trellis. Yeah, we just stumbled upon that room really, we used to go and see bands in there and we just though that was a suitable sized room to try and kick-start some kind of comedy scene.”
Although quick to downplay the impact he may have had, the impact of O’Hanlon and the Inter is self evident – the small, dank space on Wicklow Street has proven itself an incubator of legendary comics, effectively igniting the alternative comedy scene of the 90’s, and changing the nature of Irish stand up completely. “I don’t know what compelled us to do it. It just seemed to me to be a bit of a gap there. There was the old school type of comedy, and there wasn’t even very much of that even. It was so rare – you’d see Jury’s Irish Cabaret, and that was one strand of Irish comedy, there was the Niall Toibin style of storytelling, but again, that was a very lonely road for him, I imagine. You had the Hal Roach type stuff and you had Dermot Morgan, but again, that was very maverick, and he was kind of a one-off in his own way.
“We were very drawn to what was going on in England at the time, the whole alternative comedy wave, which was very exciting. It was ordinary blokes doing stuff, and people without any discernable talent were able to just stand up there, shuffle on stage, and just start talking.”
Soon after the introduction of the Comedy Cellar and the oft-forgotten but considerable influence of Mr. Trellis was felt, the Irish comedy scene changed unrecognizably, as the Irish alternative comedy movement of the likes of Jason Byrne, Dylan Moran and Tommy Tiernan made their names known; “We didn’t really see a great future in it for a start – we were novices at this. We had no experience, we had no expectations, unlike contemporary Ireland; we didn’t grow up, people generally didn’t grow up with any great expectations about themselves or their future … To some degree, a certain type of ethos emerged from that, and definitely an idiosyncratic style emerged from that. We were into a ‘purism’. I don’t mean that in a po-faced way; it was all about the jokes and being original. We never really had a manifesto, but it was unspoken – you had to be original, you had to try and be very, very different. It was always a slightly surreal style, slightly absurdist, maybe inspired by our literary heritage, the Flann O’Briens, the Samuel Beckett stuff.”
After being instrumental in the revolution of Irish comedy, O’Hanlon was quickly noticed by Graham Linehan as a remarkable talent, and was cast in the career-defining role of Father Dougal Maguire. The excitement in O’Hanlon’s voice dullens somewhat when the Graham Linehan masterwork is brought up – O’Hanlon character became so iconic that he has found it a difficult identity to escape from; “Certainly in the past, people maybe only associated me with Father Dougal. It took time to get over that hump. It probably took more time for me to get over it than the audience in some ways – I was conscious that people were there because they knew Father Ted and they liked Father Ted. It was always incumbant on me to do my best in terms of performance and in terms of content to just crash through that, to assert myself as a stand up … It’s not that I’m not proud of it, it’s just the day that Father Ted finished was the day I left it behind.”
Since Father Ted, O’Hanlon has had a diverse career including making documentaries, acting roles in the likes of Skins and Doctor Who, acclaimed work in the theatre, and even writing the excellent novel The Talk of the Town. His most recent domestic television role, Val Falvey, TD, saw him playing the role of a cack-handed local representative inhereting the political legacy of his father – a role with more than a few similiarities to his own life, and his father, Rory O’Hanlon, TD. “It felt a bit weird, and a bit wrong. It just felt like a misguided thing to do in some ways. It was great fun to do in lots of other ways, but it was probably a bit close to home for my family. I had never any interest in politics myself, apart from being a normal person interested in the issues of the day, but never interested in the whole politic machinations or party politics.”
For now, O’Hanlon is excited to be returning his first love; “Every time you stand on stage you have to give it everything for the hour you’re up there, and just throw everything you’ve got into it – you get a lot out of it that way. The enduring attraction of stand up is that it’s so immediate. It is a great way of making sense of the world. While I enjoy going off to act and I love the sociability of that, whether it’s a TV show or a theatrical show, you keep coming back to stand up because it’s got that immediacy. If you think of something that day, you can do it that evening. It’s great, it’s exciting … It’s important.”