Oliver Callan: ‘I was a perfect candidate for exploitation’

Oliver Callan at the Merrion Hotel, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

It takes a few minutes to settle into the interview with Oliver Callan, satirist and star of Callan’s Kicks, columnist, and recent stand-in presenter for Ryan Tubridy’s radio show. That’s because we are both temporarily distracted by the novel experience of being in a building that is neither of our homes; looking around us, and admiring the artworks.

True, we are the only two people sitting in one of the Merrion Hotel’s elegant reception areas, but it still feels like we are on holiday, or back in time; a time several weeks ago, when it was normal to conduct interviews in public spaces.

Like everyone else, Callan’s life has been disrupted by the pandemic. Just as lockdown began, he had “finished the first rehearsal of a show for a tour, which was going to end in the Bord Gáis”. The show had already sold out. It’s unlikely he will be able to re-use any of that material in the future. “It’s a very perishable product, comedy,” he says with resignation.

He has also had to put off his wedding till next year, with his partner of eight years, which was to be in October. “You need to have dancing at a wedding. It’s not a wedding without dancing. And you can’t dance with social distancing two metres apart after a bottle of wine.”

Callan grew up on a farm in Iniskeen, Co Monaghan. Not just Patrick Kavanagh country, but the town where Kavanagh was born. He was vaguely aware of who Kavanagh was, from the local statue of the poet in the town, but felt no influence from him. Early on in life, Callan figured out he was gay, and also that he needed to keep that information to himself.

Imagine a 12-year-old going to the cinema for the first time now? It’s that version of me that went to college

“I have a distinctive memory of being in primary school – we were a mixed school – and all the boys wanted to kiss all the girls, and I was well, I’m not quite into that,” he says.

“Yet I knew enough somehow from the world that you keep your mouth shut. You don’t gormlessly say: oh, I’m not into that! I want to kiss that boy there! Society just taught you that that version of you wasn’t acceptable and you just hide it away.”

By the time he came to do his Leaving Cert, he had been to Dublin only three or four times in his life; a city less than 100km away from Iniskeen. “I had literally been to the cinema twice before I came to Dublin,” he says. “I saw Into the West when I was 12, and then I saw Batman Forever. Imagine a 12-year-old going to the cinema for the first time now? It’s that version of me that went to college,” he says.

Callan is quick and sharp in conversation, effortlessly referencing all kinds of books, or specific periods in history, or recent events in Irish politics. It’s a hot day, but he is formally dressed. He’s wearing a beautifully pressed pale blue suit, a pink shirt, startlingly grass-green socks, and a distinctive signet ring on one little finger.

He throws multiple pieces of information up in the air, swiftly tossing them around with the confident ease of a juggler. He’s the one who has arranged for us to do this interview in the Merrion, although it is closed to the public and only putting up some essential workers, so clearly he is well connected there.

He seems so urbane, it’s hard to picture this same man during the summer of his Leaving Cert, washing machinery on a Monaghan farm. “In the middle of the Leaving Cert, I had torn a cruciate ligament in my knee,” he says. “I did it while running out after cattle who had broken out into a field; cattle were always breaking out. So I hardly ever left the farm all summer. The furthest I travelled was to Carrickmacross, just once. I remember listening to Gerry Ryan when I was washing out milk tanks each morning.”

At the end of that summer, he went to Dublin, to study journalism at DCU. He chose journalism because he was – and remains – obsessed with current affairs, particularly politics. “I was the nerd who sat down during the 1997 elections at the age of 16 and was taking notes as the results were coming in, and wondering who this Bertie character was.”

At DCU, Callan soon became keenly aware of his Monaghan accent, and tried at once to disguise it, so he could fit in with his Dublin classmates. He was already displaying the preternaturally attentive ear for successfully mimicking accents that was to make his name.

“My Monaghan accent is long gone at this stage,” he says. “As a student, it was partly thinking that to make it in the big smoke, you have to hide where you come from. Everyone thought you were in the IRA in 1999 if you came from Monaghan. I was riddled with self-doubt back then, and my self-esteem was very low. Dublin was still a kind of frightening metropolis, and I got a street atlas when I arrived there, just to figure out the place, and know where I was going.” He got a bike, and cycled everywhere with the street map atlas, trying to orientate himself in this new city.

After graduation, Callan worked first as a reporter on Today FM, and then on the Gerry Ryan Show, doing Nob Nation comedy sketches. He was increasing his profile, while at the same time confusedly struggling with his sexuality.

“I wanted more than anything to be straight, and be the same as everyone else,” he says. He watched with envy and admiration as other friends of his had arrived in Dublin from rural Ireland and come out.

“Whereas I stayed in the closet for another 10 years, which is obviously ridiculous. You don’t want to call it cowardice, because you don’t want to be hard on yourself, and all the other people who maybe stayed in the closet all their lives. But it was just total fear, really. And desperation. It was killing me mentally.”

Some months ago, Callan was interviewed by Róisín Ingle of this newspaper for her podcast, Back to Yours. During it, he refers to this period in his life in his mid-late 20s, when he was experiencing mental anguish about his concealed sexuality.

People use secrets against people all the time. We humans can be horrible to each other

“It’s a block of five years I like to delete . . . There’s a proper sob story there if you want to dwell on it, but I don’t because everything ended up very well,” he told her.

What was he referring to?

“I came out to someone and it was used as a controlling mechanism against me,” he says eventually. “People use secrets against people all the time. We humans can be horrible to each other.”

What then happened was a classic example of abuse of power. Instead of being supported by the person in whom he had trusted and confided such personal information, he was gradually demeaned and undermined in all sorts of way. “I was a perfect candidate for exploitation,” he says, explaining how vulnerable he felt at the time.

Callan recognises now that he was under coercive control during that time, but because it happened so gradually, he took a long time to realise what was going on.

“It doesn’t happen bang one day. It’s very gradual and, all of a sudden, you find yourself trapped,” he explains. “The thing about coercive control is that you think you are under the lock and key of a person; of a bully, let’s face it, but as soon as you confront that power, it crumbles and you go, Oh my God, if I knew how much of a thread that power was holding over me, I would have smashed it years ago.”

This abusive controlling behaviour went on for five years – “and that feels really long when you are in your 20s” – during which time he hid the abuse from everyone, including his family. “I had a long experience of being in the closet, so I was very good at hiding stuff,” he says wryly.

During this time, he was beginning to build a significant public profile with his Nob Nation satirical sketches on the Gerry Ryan Show. But in his personal life, he felt the total opposite of the mouthy, shouty persona he presented weekly on the national airwaves. “I had done enough comedy that people probably thought of me as that arrogant pup, but if they knew that my confidence was absolutely underground. It hadn’t even made it to floor level. My confidence was subterranean.”

In the end, he found the courage to come out live on TV, on the Saturday Night Show in 2011. He was finally able to take full possession of his identity, and the ensuing relief was enormous. “I got my life back,” he says. Not long afterwards, he met his now fiancé.

In his professional life, he went on to write, present and star in Callan’s Kicks, a show that has continued to build its audience. Last year, the show, which satirises politicians and people in the public eye, had 1.9 million podcast downloads.

“What I do is quite risky. If I wanted to have a quiet easy life, I would just do funny voices and not even bother trying to have a point,” he says. “We are political savages and animals in this country. Politics is so interesting because it is an endless drama, and there’s the fact that really nobody ever knows what is going on. People are just kind of swaying around in the breeze.”

Twitter probably brings out the worst in all of us

Callan writes an occasional opinion column for this newspaper. “I always say, I have opinions but I don’t have an agenda. If you have opinions, you can change them, but if you have an agenda, you can’t really change that.”

So if he uses his opinion pieces to express opinions, what is it he is expressing on Twitter, where he is regularly active?

“Sometimes it’s a gag, sometimes it’s an opinion, sometimes it’s not. I never write in the one voice on Twitter. The context is always lost in Twitter, isn’t it? Twitter probably brings out the worst in all of us. Sometimes I write a tweet which I’ve written in the voice of a character, and people don’t appear to hear the voice of the character when they read it,” he says. “They bring all their own subjectivity to it, so Twitter is not a good barometer of public opinion.”

Recently, Callan provoked much reaction when he posted a tweet criticising Leo Varadkar’s May 1st televised address to the nation, which outlined the timeline for the different stages of opening up the country, post Covid-19.

“The Robot has addressed the nation. Never before has anyone spoken so woodenly. So slowly. And. Said. So. Little. He tried to smile and do the empathy thing, it did not go well. The autocue fought the robot, and won,” Callan tweeted.

Judging by the hundreds of exercised replies to the tweet, many people were not one bit amused. At a time when the country was still locked down, and the public was desperate to learn more about plans for a gradual reopening, they thought it was a cheap shot to make fun of a person under immense pressure.

Politics momentarily became less important than acknowledging that everyone, including the Taoiseach, was dealing with exceptional levels of stress due to the pandemic.

Does Callan regret that “robot” tweet? He said afterwards on Twitter that he hadn’t read the replies, or “comments” as he called them, but he must have read at least some of them to know that the majority were negative.

He continued to attract negative responses when he followed up with another tweet. That one was a link to a sketch Callan made of Leo Varadkar’s subsequent appearance the same day on the Late Late Show, during which he was obliged to refer to notes to refresh his memory about the sequence of reopening dates.

I think satire should take something, send it up, and reveal the truth in a way that nobody has thought about or nobody is really saying

“Yeah, I do,” he says eventually, with reluctance. “I probably do. Because there was no benefit to anyone.” He says he intended the robot tweet to be a set-up for the sketch of the episode he then posted of himself playing both interviewer and the Taoiseach, but “context is everything”.

Is there a limit to where satire can go?

“Well, there isn’t a guild of satirists that spells out in its constitution exactly what satire is. Some things are pure comedy, some things are satire, some things, like my two tweets, are just wrong. So there are no exact rules. I think satire should take something, send it up, and reveal the truth in a way that nobody has thought about or nobody is really saying.”

It’s somewhere about then I notice the branding on the bottled water that has been brought to our separate tables. It’s called “Oscar Wilde Water”, with a trademark no less. It’s even been endorsed by Merlin Holland, Wilde’s grandson. I draw Callan’s attention to the branding on the label.

He reads out Holland’s florid words of endorsement. “This is an exquisite water,” he says with exaggerated primness, and we both start howling laughing. There’s an exquisite irony in there somewhere, that the gay man who was so intimidated for years about coming out, is sitting in a hotel drinking water that celebrates the memory of Ireland’s most famous gay man.