Ricky Tomlinson, Michael Winslow and Ardal O'Hanlon bring the house down during a weekend of classic comedy in Belfast, Dublin and Derry

Ireland was alive with the sound of laughter at the weekend beginning September 5, as a wealth of world-class performers descended on comedy festivals across the country.

In Londonderry on Friday, Ardal O’Hanlon appeared as one of the star attractions of the city’s fourth annual Magners Big Tickle Comedy Festival. The Father Ted actor – who played clueless cleric Father Dougal McGuire – has been a stand-up for years, though without ever quite shaking the wide-eyed whimsy of his iconic alter ego. 

Despite a few darker gags about his advancing years (O’Hanlon turns 43 in October) the Monaghan man continues to rely on safe options like Irish weather and backyard trampolines for material.

Opening for O’Hanlon is Derry native Paddy Taylor. You’ve heard of the Singing Brickie? Well, basically, Taylor is the slightly-blue-joke-telling bus driver. Specialising in public transport related humour, his provincial schtick goes down a treat with the hometown crowd.

The following evening, Ricky Tomlinson – aka Jim Royle of The Royle Family – brings his Laughter Show to Belfast’s Waterfront for a gala presentation of variety-style songs and skits. 

To the dismay of some, Tomlinson’s involvement is limited to a half-hour of anecdotes. He spends the rest of the evening acting as compere for three creaking comics from the old school. But for the rest of us the bill represents a rare opportunity to enjoy traditional stand-up in a live setting.

First up is Hull’s Tony Barton, who is to Sinatra what Les Dawson was to classical piano. Mockingly introduced by Tomlinson as one of the worst acts in Britain, Barton bounds onstage, crooning out of key, chuckling at his own prehistoric one-liners and wobbling in a too-small tux. 

The defiantly un-PC funnyman may have insisted that the audience boo him – and some are more than willing – but in reality Barton is a skilled and highly amusing entertainer.

Following Barton is Pauline Daniels, who holds the distinction of being the first female to appear on TV’s The Comedians. Reminding this reviewer of a lewd Victoria Wood, Daniels’ material rarely strays from jokes about her mother, husband, children and grandchildren, but the Liverpudlian’s warmth and energy ensures a favourable response.

Tomlinson’s final guest comes straight from the ‘Where are they now?’ file. Duncan Norvelle hasn’t been on TV for years, but the comedian continues to indulge the same high energy camp that served him well during the 1980s. 

Whether imploring the stalls to chase him, mincing through Michael Crawford and Paul Daniels impersonations or humiliating the front row, Norvelle is consistently hilarious, albeit far from cutting edge.

The final leg of this three-day comedy blowout brings me to Dublin, where Michael Winslow of Police Academy, Spaceballs and Gremlins fame wraps up a weeklong residency at the Tivoli Theatre as part of the Bulmers International Comedy Festival. 

The self-styled ‘Man of 10,000 Sound Effects’ takes the Sunday-night crowd by storm, with a 100-minute set of impressions, mimicry and astounding vocal gymnastics. A particular highlight is Winslow’s one-man take on Star Wars, with the comedian replicating the spaceships, lasers, explosions, aliens and droids of George Lucas’s sci-fi epic.

The abundance of classic comedy and enthusiastic audience responses I encountered across the country suggests that comedy in Ireland is in rude health. What it may lack in innovation it more than makes up for in hilarity. Now that is something we can all laugh about. 

Andrew Johnston

The Magners Big Tickle Comedy Festival runs until September 14. 

The Bulmers International Comedy Festival runs until September 21.