Jason Byrne is busy but smiling, brimming with just as much enthusiasm and exasperation in the hours before the first preview of his recent Dublin Fringe Festival show as he showed refereeing the All-Priests Over-75s Indoor Five-a-side Football Challenge on Father Ted 25 years ago.
On the bright Tuesday afternoon that we meet, in the Banquet Hall of Smock Alley Theatre, tucked off the quays in Dublin – “Jaysus, did you know this was here?” he asks – he is wearing a loose linen shirt and Converse, and repeating phrases over and over with a half-smoked cigarette – a prop – between his fingers.
He has been pulled out of rehearsals for Paddy Lama: The Shed Talks, a one-man show, to talk, but he doesn’t seem to mind, given the number of family anecdotes he shares while also telling stories about some of his favourite subjects: 1980s Dublin, Italia 90, family and casual racism against Irish people. “My director is going to kill me,” he says, looking at the clock, “but I’ll have to tell you this…”
The play is an extension of his new book, Memoirs of a Wonky-Eyed Man, the second in a series named after the turned-in eye he had, after a fall as a child, until he was 11. In it he documents the elements of his 51 years that he has found the most shaping, including, most notably, his late father, who liked to retreat to his garden bolthole. “I wrote the play all about Dad in his shed, the visits I would make and the knowledge I’d get back there,” Byrne says. “We called him the Paddy Lama due to his amazing life wisdom. He was like a smoking Irish guru that smelled of whiskey. I wanted to do the play so people would know who my dad was. He was a very special type of fella.”
Memoirs of a Wonky-Eyed Man tells the story of Byrne’s own childhood in Ballinteer, in the Dublin suburbs, tracing the steps of a family whose relationships with one another are based on humour, love and shirking intimacy. Alongside the recounting of panicked hospital visits, embarrassing first kisses and teenage insecurities – as Byrne’s father said of his eye, it had “a tendency to wander” – there are comic riffs and asides that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Byrne’s stand-up sets.
My dad always said that if you worry you die, and if you don’t worry you die anyway, so why bother? The speed of everything is what kills us all off too quick
He recounts the times he slept in the box room, a space so cold that his mother would set trifle in it; the way a Billy Connolly gig inspired him to take up comedy, only for Tommy Tiernan to beat him, by a single point, to claim the So You Think You’re Funny? award at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1996; how the family biscuit tin, a battery-controlled vessel shaped like a cow, mooed when opened, meaning his father got caught when trying to sneak custard creams (he later removed the batteries); and, in arguably the most entertaining section, how Bono begged Byrne to perform some stand-up for Gavin Friday’s 60th birthday, as he was a “huge fan”. Byrne said yes – then realised, when he took to the stage, that Friday had meant Ed Byrne.
There are also echoes of Byrne’s grief for the man who shaped his comedic style, his masculinity and, indeed, his personhood. What’s most poignant about his writing is that the grief and the laughter don’t just sit side by side; they work together. When Byrne writes about the final weeks of his father’s life, just before Ireland went into its first Covid-19 lockdown, in the spring of 2020, it dreams of a simpler existence – “every time I tweet I lose 100 followers; what does that even mean?” – and encourages readers to spend time with their families and, most of all, to slow down and enjoy life before it’s too late.
“The thing is not to be worrying about everything all the time,” Byrne says. “My dad always said that if you worry you die, and if you don’t worry you die anyway, so why bother? The speed of everything is what kills us all off too quick. He also always said that you only get so many heartbeats in life. What he meant by that was if you’re too stressed your whole body will just give in. He sauntered everywhere. I used to say that if the pub went on fire my dad would finish his pint. I remember, actually, talking to him in 2007 and panicking about the recession. He stopped me talking before saying, ‘This is my fifth recession. You’re going to be all right.’”
Byrne’s overriding theme, you might say, is nostalgia, including how hard the emotion can make it to accept the present. “I’m a nightmare for that,” he says, smiling. “I had the best upbringing ever as a kid. And the minute that ended, when I was roughly 19, I left there and things were never the same, or ever really any better. At the same time you’re kind of looking for something that’s impossible. You want to be in the field with your mates. But, yeah, I’m terrible like that. I get really sad about the way we live now, the lack of freedom we have.”
Some parts of his life have certainly constricted him, including the decades-long touring schedule – he’s about to leave again, for a largely sold-out UK tour – that means he didn’t see his parents for months at a time. “I’d see families at my show and think, Oh my God, I should be at home. Like, hanging out with my dad or whatever. See, my cousins all grew up in Finglas and still live there, so they’d be with their parents all the time, having pints or whatever. I didn’t get to do a lot of that. I’d only see my dad now and again. And so I think that’s why, when people ask me whether it’s hard doing a play or a book about him, I’m able to say no, because my brain still thinks he’s around. It still thinks I’m going to swing up home in a few months’ time and he’ll be there.”
Writing the book, Byrne says, “was kind of my way of holding on to those memories. And so I suppose I want other people to sort of do the same. Like hold on to them, and remember them, and f**king love them – although I so understand that some people mightn’t have good memories. The book is a celebration of my dad and our parents, but it’s also a way to remember our past, because it’s going. It’s disappearing now. We as Irish people are completely changed now. You know what I mean?
“So, yeah, it’s about sitting down and maybe recording your mam and dad, and asking them questions about their past and what they did. I think maybe the lesson is just to let yourself live a bit more. We’re way too restrictive, with our children and ourselves. So we should just live more and enjoy life more. And maybe get yourself a shed, too.”
Memoirs of a Wonky-Eyed Man is published by Gill Books on Thursday, September 28th; Jason Byrne starts his next Irish tour in January 2024