Ogling Ardal O'Hanlon

Ahead of the Fermanagh Live festival, the Carrickmacross comic talks Irish audiences, Father Ted and why comedy is good for your health

As the phone rings, a voice suddenly comes over me. Ironically it’s Father Ted himself, reminding me, just like in the TV series, 'Whatever you do, don’t call him Dougal'. Over a shaky line, I manage a shaky 'Ardal, how are you?' Phew.

Speaking ahead of his sold-out gig at Enniskillen’s Blakes of The Hollow on Sunday, October 7 as part of the Fermanagh Live festival, the comedian, actor and novelist is quick to point out that he has never performed in Fermanagh before, despite being a local man from Carrickmacross, County Monaghan.

'Funny enough, it’s one of the few places in the country that I’m really unfamiliar with,' admits O'Hanlon, who has had gigs in every other county, north and south. 'For some reason, it’s never came up, so I’m looking forward to it. I just love playing new places and to new crowds. It’s always good.'

While familiar to millions as Fr Dougal McGuire from Channel 4's Father Ted and BBC1’s superhero sitcom My Hero, Ardal O'Hanlon is also an acclaimed stand-up comedian who has toured to sell out audiences internationally and has released two top ten DVDs. Growing up, however, O'Hanlon showed no early signs of a future career as a performer.

'I grew up in a very sort of quiet, sober, studious household,' he recalls. 'I spent all my spare time out the back kicking a ball around or else buried in a book. I think my parents are shocked, and even to this day are still scratching their heads thinking ‘How did that fella slip through the net?"'

It wasn’t until nearing the end of secondary school that O'Hanlon, the third of six children, realised that comedy was for him. Shy and withdrawn, he entered a school debate – 'just to give it a go' – and ended up making his classmates laugh.

'By then I suppose I was a little bit of a clown, but in a sort of a normal school-boyish way with my friends. I guess they dared me to get up and make a mockery of the debate. That was my first ever public performance you could say. I was about 17 at the time and I remember I wrote a fairly funny speech – or what I thought was funny at the time, and you know. The boys laughed and it was a great reaction.'

In the late 1980s, O'Hanlon set up the Comedy Cellar in the International Bar in Dublin with fellow comedians Barry Murphy and Kevin Gildea – at a time when Ireland effectively had no comedy scene at all, with very little happening in the capital or elsewhere.

Soon after, O’Hanlon became a comedy fixture, winning the Hackney Empire Act of The Year Competition in 1994 and being spotted by comedy writer Graham Linehan the following year, who was working on the idea of a little show they were calling Father Ted.

'I was shocked to be involved in any TV work,' O'Hanlon admits. 'I moved to London around 1994 with the single-minded purpose of being a stand-up comedian. That was the only thing on my mind. So I was really surprised to be even considered for a part in a sitcom. To this day I’m still a little bit surprised that it actually happened at all.'

In the past O'Hanlon has expressed discomfort in people turning up at his shows expecting to meet him as Dougal. He is, of course, very far removed from the infamously inept character. Yet O'Hanlon, rather refreshingly, accepts and appreciates the legacy, recognising the impact the role has had on his career.

'I suppose you can never underestimate how popular the show was, so it’ll always rear its head no matter where you go. And I understand that. I notice from my own kids. They’re getting into it and their friends are getting into it, so it’s enduring and I wouldn’t sniff at it. I owe it an awful lot. It’s always been great for me.'

Throughout the years, O'Hanlon has consistently returned to the stage, and recently toured around Ireland in May and June 2012. 'Testing the water' is essential for comics trying out new material, yet, perhaps surprisingly, O'Hanlon says that he rarely gets an easy ride from Irish audiences.

'It can even be harder sometimes [playing to Irish audiences]. They can be more judgemental because they feel they know you and, as you know, everyone in Ireland fancies themselves as a bit of a comic anyway. So Irish audiences are actually a really true test of your stuff.'

Not forgetting his kids, who are the quickest to tell him if he was funny or not. 'It really keeps you on your toes,' says O'Hanlon the father, 'but that’s part of the joy of doing it. I like the live arena and I really look forward to every show – possibly because I don’t do as much as I did a few years ago. I really take every show quite seriously and really look forward to doing it.'

With so many performing and writing credits to his name, it’s hardly surprising to learn that O'Hanlon is currently writing a new play, which he is understandably tight-lipped about. Writing seems to provide the worker in O'Hanlon with a purpose between jobs.

'I work very hard at home on various writing stuff and on the stand-up and all of that, but I keep one ear cocked for the phone. I consider every offer very seriously but I don’t like doing stuff just for the sake of doing it, so you won’t see me on panel games and stuff like that, which is stupid because it’s probably great fun and they help your profile and everything but I’m just not that comfortable doing them. I try to pick and choose projects carefully and you know, if good ones come along, brilliant.'

All in all, O'Hanlon has had an exceptional career, and is still loving every minute. Asked why he regards being a comedian as the 'best job in the world', he explains: 'I suppose because, to some degree, you’re the master of your own destiny. It’s not about how much you can earn. I always think I’d be doing it anyway, whether being paid for it or not.

Also, you're very engaged with the world, with current affairs. You’re engaged with just observing human behaviour. You’re in touch with popular culture and everything that’s going in. So I think it’s a very healthy thing actually. So long as you don’t become too obsessed or too self-obsessed, I think it’s a fairly healthy way at looking at life.'

Coming back to his forthcoming Fermanagh show, O'Hanlon promises to be observational and a little bit surreal in places. 'Grossly exaggerated, of course, but it’s about your various concerns – how the whole world seems to be falling apart.

'I mean, that seems to be sort of a theme at the moment for me, just how everything seems to be falling apart and you have to try and stay calm. It’s my take on the world so it’ll encompass everything. It’ll encompass politics, religion, economy, family, growing up and getting old.'

Fermanagh Live runs from October 4 - 7 in venues across Fermanagh. Visit the Fermanagh LIve website for more information.