Owen O'Neill is Cookstown's Comedy King

Emma O'Neill meets the Tyrone writer who has found international acclaim

Headphone Icon LISTEN to Francis Jones in conversation with Owen O'Neill:
On growing up in NI, on being immune to embarrassment, and find out if he's ever gone too far.

This interview is part of the CultureNorthernIreland podcast.

Owen O’Neill is one of Ireland's top stand-up comedians. His performances are witty, observant and he has a clear talent for creating instant characters, with finely tuned accuracy. Mix this with genuine acting ability and you have a real recipe for success.

In addition to stand-up, O’Neill is a writer, actor and poet. Born in Cookstown, Co Tyrone, he has spent the past 25 years entertaining thousands across the world with his animated, thought provoking, observational and energetic performances.

As a stand-up comedian, he has travelled extensively, taking in places including Bahrain, Hong Kong, Bali, Melbourne, New Zealand, Toronto and the United States.

O'Neill is an accomplished actor and performed in London's West End at the end of March for a 10-week stint as Dale Harding in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, alongside Hollywood actor Christian Slater.

Rubbing shoulders with Hollywood’s finest is nothing new for O'Neill, whose film credits include The General, Michael Collins, Mickybo and Me and Much Ado about Nothing.

O'Neill's first taste of the arts was in 1981 when he entered a poetry competition for BBC Radio 4 and won first prize. His award involved reciting his poems for award-winning poet, playwright and broadcaster Roger McGough in Chiswick Town Hall, London.

Even his earliest work set him aside as unique, laced with his wry sense of humour and eccentric accounts of Rastafarian ‘Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men’. Comedy came effortlessly.

'My poems got a few laughs, it was easy really, so I kind of got the bug from there’.

From 1983 he started to blend poetry with comedy on a more frequent basis and began to make a steady income from stand up, becoming a regular on the comedy circuit from then on.

O'Neill is a regular visitor to the Edinburgh Festival where his one-man plays have won critical acclaim with the Perrier nomination in 1995, the Edinburgh Critic's Award for best comedy in 1996 and the LWT Writer's Award for best comedy in 1998.

His play Off My Face is a semi-autobiographical show about alcoholism and how he confronted it. The sequel, It Was Henry Fonda's Fault, describes a childhood obsession with Hollywood, thanks to an ageing and misleading cinema projectionist.

My Son the Footballer recounts the obsessions of football-mad Danny Mulligan, who attempts to vicariously live his footballing dreams through his son.

So far this year O'Neill has been busy adapting five of his plays for BBC Radio 4, which were based on his one-man shows from Edinburgh.

‘They were adapted specifically for the radio, which was quite difficult. It was a real challenge to cut them down to half-hour shows and to ensure you captured the essence of what they are about.'

O'Neill has recently returned from Montreal's Just for Laughs Comedy festival and has penned a play which was performed at the Edinburgh Festival in August. To the Left of Me was based on two clowns - one old, one young, and was set in the dressing room of a circus.

With so many strings to his bow, O'Neill describes himself first as a writer but admits he likes to experiment with different genres.

‘To be honest,’ he confesses, ‘I like to keep my fingers in all the pies and keep in tune with different things. I like to chop and change. I like to be on stage performing but also I sometimes like to explore different topics through written material.’

O'Neill possesses a talent for storytelling as well as vast experience of writing for stage and TV.

‘I find my inspiration from my past, my childhood, and personal experiences. Most of my plays are autobiographical to some extent.’ His material combines real life experiences and witty personal observations with touches of real poignancy.

His latest work, Chasing My Tale, re-invents some of the best moments from each of his acclaimed shows. O'Neill's exaggerated, heartfelt, and hilarious accounts of his life have audiences laughing in the aisles.