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PJ Gallagher: Mental illness is the most articulate liar you will ever live with in your life

‘Two years ago, I cancelled the project altogether because I got sick. So seeing any kind of reaction at all to an actual book is making me feel pretty good’

Tell me about your memoir, Madhouse. How did you find the experience of writing your first book?

It was written in two parts. When I started, it felt easy. But then I realized that the process of writing a book should be uncomfortable, and difficult. It didn’t start to get any good until I was completely out of my comfort zone and now I’m quite proud of it.

And the reaction to it?

It’s still early days, but in the first week, sales are better than we thought they would be, and it’s been nominated for a Book Award for Best Biography. Two years ago, I cancelled the project altogether because I got sick. So seeing any kind of reaction at all to an actual book is making me feel pretty good.


You discuss the stigma of being a psychiatric patient but destigmatise it brilliantly as a retreat or place of respite: “St Pat’s is a place where you can turn off from the world and have people care for you”. Tell us more.

I grew up watching American TV shows where anytime you see the inside of a mental hospital, it’s some horrific scene where people are rocking forwards and backwards, staring into space, or screaming into the night-time while cruel staff treat them all terribly. Somehow that got into my psyche and I thought there was a truth to it. In reality, it doesn’t even feel like a hospital. It feels like a place full of really normal people, dealing with a really normal problem. I know it doesn’t work out perfectly for everyone, but I think St. Pat’s is just one of the best places I’ve ever been. Weirdly, I kind of miss it.

What advice would you give to someone suffering from mental health issues?

Mental illness is the most articulate liar you will ever live with in your life. So no matter how convincing your illness is to you that you are unworthy of your own existence or the world is better off without you, don’t believe it. Even if you can’t argue against it, don’t take “no” for an answer when you are looking for help. You have to learn to fight your own corner.

You grew up in a pub. What did that teach you about addiction?

I didn’t actually grow up in a pub but I spent a huge amount of time in my parents’ pub growing up. Just like depression, addiction is an incredible liar. Even though the whole [world] can see that alcohol, drugs, or whatever the addiction is, the addict seems to think that the gambling or drugs is the only thing getting them through these horrible days. What you see as the cause, they see as the only break they get in the day. One thing I know for sure is that a person is more than their addiction, and that the hardest part of beating it is shame.

What’s your new show, Born Lucky, about?

One thing [is] for sure, it is not going to be a stand-up show. It’ll be a bit funny, a bit sad, it’ll be about me going a bit mad. Ultimately, it’s about somebody trying to find a happy ending. And to be completely honest, I haven’t written the ending to the show yet.

You’ve acted, hosted a podcast and a morning radio show as well as doing stand-up? What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of the radio show. I’m just past the nine-year mark of doing breakfast radio. I get to wake up every morning, go to work, and have a laugh with one of my best mates. Our job is literally to tell people it’s OK to wake up in the morning. Considering all the stories in the book, and my recent spell in a mental hospital, getting to say that and really mean it is the thing I’m most proud of.

You’ve just become a father to twins – congratulations! – and are in a polyamorous relationship. Tell us why that works for you and what sort of father you hope to be.

It all works for me because I’m in a really stable relationship and have a predictable relationship with my kids. The type of father I hope to be is honestly boring. I lived in a house growing up where everything was unpredictable, and everyday came with the anxiety of what would happen next. Now I come home, I know who is going to be there, I know my relationship is loving and stable, and I know how the kids are going to react. Most important of all, I know how I’m going to react. Boring, regular, lovely and perfect.

Which projects are you working on?

Unsurprisingly, I’m making a documentary on mental illness and the options that are available to people who are experiencing depression. Finishing writing the stage show. Also, an animated series based on mental health in children. And still getting up and going to Radio Nova every day! Things are a bit crazy now to be honest. But in the past, I would’ve worked out of pure anxiety. Now I know when to give myself a finish line.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

I’m not sure what that means but it sounds like fun.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

I was told that you don’t have to sit down to write. You don’t need a laptop or a typewriter, or an office. You can write a book with markers or crayons, or random thoughts with a bunch of post-it notes or pencils. Or even by writing notes on your hands, if that’s what it takes. Some of us can’t sit down and think and type, and have to find a different way, and that’s completely okay. It still gets the job done.

Who do you admire the most?

Evel Knievel. I better explain. From the first day, I saw that ridiculous man in his cape holding his cane with his mini high-heeled boots jump onto a motorcycle and try to jump over countless buses in Wembley stadium and nearly kill himself purely for entertainment, I was hooked. He knew he was never gonna make any of those jumps, he just had to survive them. Even if he crashed a poor man, if he stood up afterwards, he’d stand up a millionaire. It’s the most insane and admirable thing I’ve ever seen anyone do.

You are supreme ruler for a day. Which law do you pass or abolish?

Dogs are now equal to humans in every way. They are allowed in everywhere and are allowed to vote. They even get the same healthcare. Anyone who disagrees goes to jail.

Which current book, film and podcast would you recommend?

Liz Nugent’s Strange Sally Diamond. For an original horror film, Talk to Me. The Rest Is History podcast. I love history, it’s old stories told in a new and great way, and it’s about everything.

Which public event affected you most?

The penalty shootout between Ireland and Romania in 1990. I was 15 years old and it was the first time it really felt like every single person around me in the whole country was really together in something. There was so much hope and optimism in the air, not just about the football, but everything that was going on. A feeling that Ireland had finally arrived in the world, that we were something special, that we were doing great. The hardness of the 80s was starting to drift away. I was a teenage lad on the cusp of all that, and it changed how I saw the country.

The most remarkable place you have visited?

When I set off on my bike trip, I arrived in Hamelin, in Germany. I genuinely grew up my whole life thinking it was a fictional place, that the rat catcher story was nothing but a fairy tale. Then walking around Hamelin, the whole town is dedicated to the rat catcher story. Rats in the pavements, rats in the walls, giant rats made into the shape of chairs that kids can sit in. A celebration of childhood of the kids that apparently went missing. Then finally coming across the Ratenfanger House, I took a picture of the plaque on the wall, and I truly think about that place all the time. It really is the oddest place on the planet.

Your most treasured possession?

My Honda Fireblade motorbike. It’s 20 years old this year, it’s one of the very few possessions I actually have, and I’ve done everything on it. I’ve travelled to nearly every country in Europe on it, been on racetracks on it, I’ve been happy on it, sad on it, met friends on it. I rode it into work for Naked Camera every day. After Naked Camera, I used it as my vehicle to go to shows. It’s not worth a lot of money but it’s the most valuable thing I own.

What is the most beautiful book that you own?

I don’t own any books. I don’t like to keep books. When I read them I give them away. I just like to know the stories and try to remember them.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Brendan Behan, Bram Stoker and Lewis Caroll.

The best and worst things about where you live?

I’m living in North Strand and almost everything about it is great. It’s close to the sea, it’s close to the city, it’s close to Bohemians FC, close to Croke Park. There’s a pub at the end of my road where you can still get a Smithwicks for a fiver. There’s not much bad to say about it, except the pizza place that everyone says is the best in the world isn’t really what it’s cracked up to be.

What is your favourite quotation?

“These are the days that must happen to you”. It’s Walt Whitman but I first came across it in a book written by a motorcycle traveller, Dan Walsh.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Rocky Balboa. With Rocky it’s not even about winning, it’s about going the distance. All you have to do to be a success is to go the distance. Most people don’t know that in the first movie he loses the fight but it’s still a happy ending. Granted, things do get a little ropey from Rocky 2 on, but he’s still the best character ever.

A book to make me laugh?

Humans by Matt Haig. It’s just a lovely story about a lost alien on planet Earth who is really struggling with the dilemma of should he stay or should he go back home.

A book that might move me to tears?

Richard Pryor’s biography, Pryor Convictions. It starts sad and it ends sad, real sad. But at the same time, he spent his whole life trying to make everyone else happy.

Madhouse by PJ Gallagher (Penguin Sandycove) is out now