Tim McGarry's Irish History Lesson

The veteran comic on finding the funny side of invasion, war, famine and the Troubles

Hello Tim. You're back with your solo show, Tim McGarry's Irish History Lesson. What periods does it cover, and do you keep it updated with current events?

The show covers everything from the dawn of time to last Tuesday. From the Big Bang to the kerfuffle in Woodvale, from Stone Age man to Ruth Patterson, everything is covered. OK, a few things and some details are left out, but I try to keep it entertaining and up-to-date. There will always a few topical jokes to keep it fresh.

With there being two sides to much of Irish history, how do you strike the right balance when writing the material?

The most important thing about the show is not how balanced it is, it’s how funny it is. Some people take their Irish history too seriously, and I hope I annoy and offend them by pointing out the ridiculousness of some of our past and some of our obsessions about the past.

The past cannot be changed. It is important, but it is extremely important that we don’t let the past dominate our present. Refighting old battles or basing policies today on things that happened tens, or even hundreds, of years ago is a little mad. I try to point out that madness.

Do you feel that there are others in Northern Ireland who don’t know enough about the country’s history?

I do a routine about Protestants knowing nothing about Irish history and Catholics knowing far too much. That is, of course, a sectarian stereotype, but like all stereotypes there is a tiny grain of truth…

What have been the most interesting or surprising things you have learned while researching?

That King Billy might have been gay or bisexual. Scotland is named after Irish raiders called the Scotti by the Romans. And Brian Boru had so many concubines he was like an 11th century Russell Brand.

You have toured the show around much of Northern Ireland. Have there been any especially heartening, or hostile, responses to the show?

Nothing hostile, thankfully. I think most people who come to my shows know what to expect – a bit of plain speaking, some bad language, but above all good jokes. I’ve been very heartened by the response. I’ve been asked to perform it for cross community groups, and I’ve performed it for representatives of victims’ groups. I’ve been told it would be great for school kids – if only I stopped swearing.

Do you tweak the show at all according to where you’re performing?

Absolutely not. I pride myself in not pandering to the perceived views of the audience.

The show was released on DVD in 2010. How did it do?

I was really delighted with the DVD. It was shot in Antrim Courthouse and has great added animation. It is available on Amazon and at the gigs, but I’ll be honest – I won’t be retiring any time soon on the profits.

If you could go back and experience any period in Irish history, when would it be?

Despite our present-day difficulties with 'flegs' and marches, the present is a million times better than virtually any period in our history. So I don’t want to spend much time in any period of history – though it would be fun to go back to 1690 and tell King Billy that people will still be celebrating this battle 323 years from now.

What are you predictions for the future of Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland will not win the World Cup in 2018. Apart from that, virtually anything is possible.

How does performing Irish History Lesson differ to doing your regular stand-up?

I enjoy doing stand-up and after dinner gigs, but I’m probably most proud of the History show. It was my first ever full-length solo show. I had never done 90 minutes on my own before. It has always had a great reaction from audiences and always been a real joy to do.

You’re also still active with the Hole in the Wall Gang. The Give My Head Peace live show now seems to be an annual fixture. Is there any end in sight?

I’m still very surprised and slighted at how GMHP is still regarded with genuine affection and fondness by a huge number of people. Our stage shows still sell out, and they are the perfect vehicle for summarising a year of politics. We’ll be back on tour all across Northern Ireland in 2014, finishing in the Grand Opera House in March.

How do you feel the Give My Head Peace television series holds up today?

I suspect parts of it will have dated slightly, but I also think it will stand up to scrutiny. Every episode of GMHP had laugh-out-loud moments. We haven’t been on TV for six years, but I think the issues GMHP dealt with are still as relevant today. In fact, since we’ve been off air, have you noticed that there has been a marked increase in sectarianism? Just saying…

The Northern Ireland comedy scene seems to have exploded in the past few years. Do you have any favourites amongst the new comics, and how do you feel the scene has changed since you started out?

I’ve done a lot of gigs with really talented acts like Micky Bartlett, Sean Hegarty, Paddy McDonnell and others. My warm-up act is a very fine and funny gentleman called Paddy McGaughey. It’s great to see lots of new comics coming through, but comedy is a tough and unforgiving business and nothing is guaranteed.

I’ve been very lucky, and been able to do radio and sitcom and stand-up. New comics have to do a lot of work in small clubs or online for nothing or virtually nothing. As long as they don’t steal my history jokes, I’ll be happy…

Tim McGarry gives his Irish History Lesson at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, on August 16 and the Marquee on Ballycastle Seafront on August 25 (tickets available from Ballycastle Visitor Information Centre on 028 2076 2024).