Sean Hughes: ‘I would have done anything for Ireland except live there’
Growing up between London and Dublin left me without a strong identity but unable to shake off my inherent Irishness
Sean Hughes: ‘In London, once we took off the balaclavas there was a certain hipness to being a Celt.’ Photograph: Alan Betson
At the Fleadh in London’s Finsbury Park in 1999
I’m bringing Penguins to Ireland for three nights in April – not literally, like the two women who came to see my show in Buxton recently following a three-month Antarctic expedition studying the animals. The show is more about the exploration of the human condition as seen through the eyes of a middle-aged Irishman.
I do know that penguins tend to let their young fend for themselves from a very early age, leaving them to their instincts. In a society that puts children before all else, we are very keen to entrust ours, from the age of four, with strangers for most of the day. This brings to mind my youth in Dublin, where we were thrust into the wild, relying on the Christian Brothers for guidance. We were told how to behave and conform, and not to think for ourselves.
I could only imagine the rest of the world was as uniformly grim in the early 1970s, but only a tiny part of Dublin was my catchment area. Bob Dylan wrote that “the times are a-changing” in 1964. It only took Ireland 20 years to pick up the message, but transportation and communication were notoriously bad back then.
Here, we were not being herded like cattle or following suit like sheep, but rather waddling like penguins in the freezing cold of the wilderness, accepting the situation. I didn’t even eat fish.
I think we were kind of aware that a new world was opening up, and change was happening under our very noses. Teachers were full of remorse for their casual violence. We had piped TV, a notion of a better afterlife and cheap bicycles. The guys in charge were still getting over the fact that the Swinging Sixties had swung by them, and they took it out on us.
I was even more the outsider, as I was born in London, and so was constantly referred to as a f***ing Brit. Contrarily, this gave me an even more impassioned approach towards Ireland’s romanticised freedom-fighting history.
The harshness of my growing-up has now turned the memories fond, not through rose tint but rather necessity. Reflection is a wonderful thing, and it became a career choice. Not my career guidance teachers’ choice: they thought I was more suited to forestry, I think because I looked to them like a cheeky monkey.
My schooling seemed sound on paper, an all-boys Christian Brothers school next door to the nuns’ all-girl, sweet-smelling place of learning. This sounds idyllic but between the two was a towering wall of concentration camp proportions, which gave me a warped attitude to women – and to climbing.
We would stare out at this wall of desire, hoping for a sighting of one of these unobtainable girls. There was much excitement one day when we saw a pair of hands climbing over to our side, but it turned out to be a very confused East German guy.
Lessons were learned, not taught. They rammed facts into us that held little interest in themselves, but I learned that imagination was powerful, that nothing would come easy, and most importantly that anticipation is one of our greatest gifts.
On a whim I transferred to a school two miles away, called Rathmines Senior High. It was a place of misfits, but it opened my eyes and saved me, simply by showing me possibility. Wounded, I left for London aged 19, still resentful of its sepia tones and the duck-assed finished product they had thrown into the world. I left to pursue a comedy vocation and to try to lose my virginity.
I had no identity as such, but I could not shake off my inherent Irishness. I became – as Owen O’Neill and I described in our play Patrick’s Day – one of those Irish people who would do anything for Ireland except live there.
I never sought out expat communities with their entitlement of heavy drinking and their love of corny Irish country-and-western music, but I knew there was unfinished business and felt my love had been left unrequited. Every time some proper Irish culture burst through, I would see it as a personal triumph. I don’t care what you think of their music, but U2 moved Ireland culturally beyond gratitude and finally banished our historical inferiority complex.
In London, once we took off the balaclavas there was a certain hipness to being a Celt. For once being an outsider was a positive. My finest moment on a stage was at the Fleadh festival in Finsbury Park, where I was asked to introduce Christy Moore to 40,000 people in various states of Irishness. “Is there anyone in from across the water?” I asked, at which point the crowd went ballistic. When they calmed down, I hollered “ bonjour! ” It was like a goodbye to old Ireland.
When my dad died a few years ago, I spent a lot of time in Dublin and realised I could retrace my pitter-patter steps without trepidation. Death makes you come to terms with the life you are given.
I come from the drawbridge generation, stuck in the middle, not knowing whether to harp back to our feral upbringing or try to grasp hold of the new technology.
We live in the biggest generational gap we will ever know, between the computer-literate under-29s and the over 29s who had to take everything at face value from our parents, teachers and priests.
I am thankful to have grown up in a Dublin that made me question everything, constantly seek out the truth, and say “bollix” a lot, completely out of context.
A confident Dublin
At last year’s All-Ireland football final, I was overjoyed that Dublin showed such confidence: that’s what the city lacked when I was a child. Leaving Croke Park with my expensive ticket stub, I remembered the old days, when Dad would hurl me over the turnstile to get me in as a junior, something he did until I was 18.
Seeing tradition and modernisation mix, as both sets of fans mingled without a hint of trouble, made me feel at home. An old Mayo man who recognised me asked was I a Mayo supporter. I told him I wasn’t, and he said matter-of-factly: “F*** you then, Sean. F*** you.”
He made it sound welcoming, and I felt proud.
Sean Hughes’s Penguins is at The Mac, Belfast, on April 9 , Dublin’s Project Arts Centre on April 10 and Galway’s Druid Theatre on April 11 . seanhughes.co.uk