Although conceived and part-written years before anyone heard of Covid-19, Ardal O’Hanlon’s latest book is a happy offspring of the pandemic, when he “relaxed completely” for the first time in his adult life.
The fact that it brings his average output up to one novel every 25 years might suggest he was relaxed already. But that would be misleading.
Between his 1997 debut and the 2022 publication of Brouhaha, there was also a long-drawn-out “miserable failure” of a book, killed (wilfully, in the end) by his busyness with other projects.
And even after he wrote “a decent first draft” of this one, six or seven years ago, he had to put that aside too while throwing himself back into TV and stand-up like never before.
So when the pandemic descended, he was ready for a break. And in the “skeletal” draft of a novel, had the perfect lock-down project.
Brouhaha is a sort-of murder mystery, set in “Tullyanna”, which a niche section of readers (including this one) might recognise as Carrickmacross, Ardal’s home town.
Like that, Tullyanna has a conspicuously wide main street, with a courthouse at one end and a Protestant church at the other. It’s also just a few miles from the Border, which features prominently in the plot.
The broadness of the main street was “a handy feature when there were so many people to avoid”, suggests the novel. “Which was all very well except, in what was a smallish border town populated by just three thousand pinched faces and all of them secretive, you were never quite sure who exactly it was you were supposed to be avoiding.”
At the suggestion that Tullyanna is a “thinly disguised” Carrickmacross, however, O’Hanlon laughs, composes a straight face and says: “Absolutely not! I don’t know where you get that idea.”
Growing more serious, he suggests the book’s physical setting is just “a kind of template for a Border town”. Besides, he points out, the plot was imported from England.
His story was inspired “by a feature-length article I read about a very strange case, about 10 years ago, while touring”.
That arose from the stand-up version of “due diligence”, researching the place you’re performing and scouring local newspapers “for any little titbits you might be able to use onstage”.
“I remember being fascinated by this story about a person who had disappeared. It became clear reading the article that everybody in the town knew who did it, but nobody spoke out.”
He had been looking for a book subject, “in the crimey area”, at the time: “And I thought this would be a good story if you could transpose it to the Irish Border region, where I come from, and where you come from, and where there is a genuine culture of omerta anyway for obvious reasons.”
There's always been this ambiguity towards the law. We all know people who are involved in smuggling, to this day. And that was considered perfectly normal and acceptable
The imported plot and setting are certainly a natural fit. Even while stressing the fictional nature of his town, O’Hanlon admits that part of the motivation in writing was to capture the humour and language of the area he grew up in, and the weirdness of the events there, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, that formed both him and his characters.
Border people are “quite careful about what they say”, he notes with understatement. “They do kind of speak out of the side of their mouths. It’s not a bad thing [he laughs], it’s perfectly normal. But I think they’re a little bit wary and always have been.
“There’s always been this ambiguity towards the law, for example. We all know people who are involved in smuggling, to this day. And that was considered perfectly normal and acceptable. Then later, with the paramilitary stuff, real or imagined, there was also this kind of fear lurking in the background.”
“Pretty black” humour is part of the make-up too. And a certain slyness. “When people are joking, it’s not always obvious that they’re joking. You’re never quite sure. I’ve traded on this all my life as a stand-up. You’ve traded on it. And people have a great way with language. As they do everywhere in Ireland – but there’s a unique way with words in the Border region.”
Then there was the strangeness of the background that formed his characters (the book’s pivotal event happens in 1994, near the end of the Troubles). As a serious young teenager, O’Hanlon “read The Irish Press every day” and was “rapt” by the carnage that was happening “sometimes only 10 miles away”.
He came to think of that as normal. Yet when writing this book, underlining the oddity of it now, he found himself drawing on parallels from Colombian fiction and from a novel about terrorism and Mafia violence in 1970s Italy.
As for the local sense of comedy, he has found echoes elsewhere too. “Even watching Fargo, the Coen Brothers. That felt very familiar the first time. Everyone’s laughing in the cinema and I’m going: that’s the kind of milieu I grew up in. The deadpan tone. You don’t quite know what people mean when they’re talking to you because they keep a very straight face.”
With the episodic novel-writing career, O’Hanlon is going back to his first vocation, before he was distracted “by the sexy world of stand-up comedy and TV”. He composed “the usual cringey poetry” as a teenager and, aged 16, attempted a crime novel set in Montreal, “a place I’d never been”, and featuring a French-Canadian detective called “Philippe”.
Unsurprisingly, that went nowhere. A communications and journalism degree and the life-changing phenomenon of Father Ted later, his literary debut had to wait until his early 30s with the coming-of-age novel Talk of the Town.
It was a critical and commercial success. But he now thinks the two-book deal he earned was “a terrible thing to happen to a writer”.
Like the difficult second album, the follow-up novel was much harder. Whereas the debut was written in a “splurge”, he was now hamstrung by self-consciousness and the need to produce something more sophisticated.
“I had what I thought was a decent idea but I kept stopping and starting and going away and doing other jobs and then coming back. And the tone would change and I would lose my way. And I lost my way too many times and ended up tying myself in knots.
“Basically, I was looking for any excuse not to do it. Any job – yeah, I’ll do that, if it means getting away from this for three or four weeks. So eventually I binned it.” He had spent part of the advance “on a kitchen extension” and was embarrassed when he had to give the money back.
I had just come off the back of four hard years in the Caribbean. Nobody believes that, I know
In writing the first draft of Brouhaha, he learned from that experience. First, he took six months off work. Then he hired an office.
Even in his Rathmines home, he had always felt the need “to carve out a little space”. It used to be the attic, magicked up by a carpenter friend who turned the door into a bookcase: “A kind of portal to another world, a Narnia world of creativity. That was the theory anyway.”
But hiring an office was a way of demonstrating commitment, getting himself to be professional and “knuckle down”.
Did he write from nine to five? “Yeah, I did. Well, 10 to five,” he laughs apologetically. “Well, 10 to four. With an hour for lunch. But I did stick at it and that was the key.”
A skeleton draft complete, he plunged back into stand-up and TV, becoming busier than ever. He toured Britain and Ireland for 18 months and spent “very, very long summers” in Guadeloupe, making the TV series Death in Paradise.
Then Covid-19 struck and, unlike many performers, he had a ready-made project waiting: “It was brilliant to have something like this to work on. Whereas a lot of [writing] people found it very difficult, especially to get started on things, I was the opposite.”
He was well-used, anyway, to having “fallow periods, when you sit at home and think the world is falling apart”. But the two-year release from performing proved a sort of emotional sabbatical.
The “low-level anxiety” he had lived with all his adult life – “the anxiety of live performing, getting on a plane every week, meeting new people, going on to a TV set”, suddenly evaporated.
“I had been working my hole off for the previous five years. I had just come off the back of four hard years in the Caribbean [we both pause for laughter at this last phrase]. Nobody believes that, I know.”
Then, overnight, it all stopped. “Suddenly, I was drained of adrenalin. My body didn’t quite shut down, but for the first time that I could remember in 30 years, 40 years, I relaxed. Completely. And yes, my income fell off a cliff. But there were compensations. It was strange but there was a sense of almost exhilaration.”
Most small towns in Ireland are wonderful places in so many ways. There's a great sense of community. But, under the surface, there's all sorts of things going on
While Brouhaha is on the surface a “crimey” novel, with dark subplots of sexual abuse and of a victim “disappeared” by paramilitaries, it also has a “bog-standard philosophical” element. Above all, it’s an attempt to observe life in a typical small Irish town.
“I will say it again – it is not Carrickmacross. But what I love as a writer is the disconnect in small-town life between surface reality and what’s underneath.
“Most small towns in Ireland are wonderful places in so many ways. There’s a great sense of community. There’s great neighbourliness. A great sense of propriety. And piety. And modesty.
“But, under the surface, there’s all sorts of things going on. I personally have met at least three people who have killed other people. I just have. And maybe many more for all I know.”
Post-pandemic, O’Hanlon is open-minded about his future. He has grown to hate travel, especially air travel, so writing may be an increased part of his life, although he has no immediate plans for another book. In general, he is “past striving”.
He currently sports a beard for the part of a “very scruffy man” in another TV show in London. But he doesn’t look at all scruffy during our interview. On the contrary, the beard suits him, adding a layer of distinction. It would look good on an election poster.
As the son of a former government minister, was he ever groomed for politics? “No, not me. Even in my family, I would have been probably the least likely candidate. Because I sort of ran away from it.”
But when asked the Zelenskiy question, about the latter-day tendency of comedians to end up running countries (and wars), he is not dismissive: “I think I would be quite good at it, actually.”
He very much doubts he would be electable. But in a variation on the classic political answer, he continues with a smile: “I guess if our country plummeted down the world corruption leagues or we were attacked by a powerful military force, then yeah. Maybe I would rise to the occasion.”