From the Creggan to Gernika – A Comic’s Tale

John Monaghan talks to MacCrae, Spain's only stand up comic

Boston, New York, Cricklewood. The traditional homes of the Irish diaspora are well known, but Gernika, a small town in the Basque country, is not normally included in that list. Until now. I guess I should have been prepared, given the old cliché about meeting an Irishman wherever you go.

The idea for an article on the Irish community came spontaneously. The other aspects of Basque life, the language, pelota, remembering the conflict had all been researched and interviews set up in advance. I knew that I was due to meet one, David Henderson, a Coleraine native who has lived in the Basque country since the 1980’s and who is a teacher in a Basque-language school.

But some opportunities for an interview are too good to turn down. Like the only stand-up comedian in the whole of Spain – who’s originally from the Creggan in Co Derry.  Or Michael Collins. So that’s where he’s been hiding all this while…

It’s hard not to notice someone like MacCrae. His long hair is normally distinctive enough, but on this sunny July day it’s the strong Northern accent which stands out above the crowd waiting for the arrival of a Basque and Irish group by boat. Of course, the interview later on that day doesn’t start off as to why he only has only one name (it’s the only name he’s ever been called) but rather about, em, whether he is ever mistaken for the Rev Willie McCrea.

'Aye, all the time. A lot of people thought I was the son of the Reverend William but I sing a lot better than he does, so… It’s just one of those names. It’s from the Irish language and it actually means ‘'son of grace'’. It’s a proper Irish name.'

MacCrae has been living in the Basque country for seven years and has been working on the stand-up circuit since his days in London ten years ago.

'I started doing stand-up comedy in London in 1995 out of boredom. I worked in Paddington in an international youth hostel. One day in Liverpool Street I saw a poster advertising an open night for any potential stand-up comedians. It was terrible, awful. The worst five minutes stand-up spot anyone has ever done anywhere. The presenter was a Scotsman and the first thing I did was to insult Scotsmen. But I was hooked there and then.'

'I stormed a gig in Chisick in October 1997. I went out on the stage with my Derry accent and said "Hello, good evening. My name’s MacCrae and I’m from Argentina", and the place just fell on the floor because of my Irish accent. To follow it up I said, ‘I’ve been living in Northern Ireland for five months and I’ve picked up this accent and I can’t get rid of it.’ The people continued laughing and it was one of the best gigs I’ve ever done in my life.'

'I left London in 1998 when I was just starting to get some work out of it. It was really going well and then I had to take a two year break to learn Spanish before I started doing it again. Since that, it’s just gone from strength to strength. Here in the Basque country, I am a known personality thanks to my television work. I work on a live programme every Monday night here. We did twenty-eight programmes and it was live on TV.  I had a five minute section which was just about a Derry man discovering the Basque country in his way and with his sense of humour,' he continued.

According to MacCrae, the adaptation to the demands of the Basque crowds has been a smooth one.
'The Basque crowds love me. They’ve a very similar sense of humour here because of the comparable situations that exist both in Northern Ireland and the Basque country. Therefore that means that the sense of humour is the exact same. I do four shows a week. I’m now working on a professional basis. It took me two years to control the language enough to go on the stage and present a show. From that initial night right up to yesterday, when I did my last show I learn something new every day. That’s the beauty of my comedy. The people see that I’m actually learning their language while I’m on the stage. And like any good stand-up comedian I make it up as I go.'

MacCrae is currently on a forty-gig tour of the Basque country, a far cry from when he initially arrived. As always though, he can’t even explain this without making the both of us laugh.

'In the Basque country, my lowest point was the second or third gig that I did where I had forty people looking at me as if I was completely mental and needed psychiatric attention right away because I spoke in Spanish that they didn’t understand. With hindsight and with learning, it’s got a lot better but that was the worst moment. Everybody was completely lost. But these things are to be overcome, barriers, obstacles to get over. I decided to do it in the only way that I felt comfortable and that was doing it on the stage live ‘in your face’ with the bad Spanish that I spoke.’’

So what is the typical response when he returns to the Creggan to tell his old school friends that he’s the only stand-up comedian in Spain?

'I’m not surprised! You were always mad.  The thing about stand-up comedy is that it is very popular because it’s a form of madness. It’s a form of madness that any man has the ability and the craving to stand up in front of a crowd of people whom he doesn’t know and make them laugh. That’s a madness in itself. I’d never have discovered my madness if I hadn’t started doing open spots in London. I love making people laugh.

'The ultimate point of everything is that everyone of us have our jobs and work at what we do and we always try to do the best that we can do. It’s going a lot better than I had ever dreamed of. I thought that I would have to fight more with the language to translate humour. You can’t tell a joke in English and turn round and tell the same joke in Spanish. You have to change things and that was the main crux of my work, in that I had to adapt a stance to suit the audience.

By John Monaghan

This article first appeared in 'Daily Ireland'.