Paul Howard: ‘Ross O’Carroll-Kelly was born out of anger’

The author discussed comedic gold and the origins of Ross at The Irish Times Winter Nights Festival

Paul Howard stands next to a statue of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly in Dublin. “I set out to make him the most hateful character in the books.” Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Paul Howard stands next to a statue of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly in Dublin. “I set out to make him the most hateful character in the books.” Photograph Nick Bradshaw

 

Patrick Freyne begins his Irish Times Winter Nights Festival interview with journalist, author and Ross O’Carroll-Kelly creator Paul Howard by discussing formative comedy influences, “because most people who are into comedy are very nerdy obsessives”.

As a youngster, Howard loved “very, very English classics”.

“The things I loved were Blackadder, and Only Fools and Horses, and I had a cassette tape of Billy Connolly, and a Victoria Wood live show,” Howard recalls.

The Irish Times Winter Nights Festival – supported by Peugeot – is a series of online talks taking place each evening this week, until Friday, January 29th.

Irish Times writer Patrick Freyne and Paul Howard, creator of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, during The Irish Times Winter Nights Festival on Tuesday
Irish Times writer Patrick Freyne and Paul Howard, creator of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, during The Irish Times Winter Nights Festival on Tuesday

Both Howard and Freyne agree that there is plenty of comedic gold to be mined from the unreliable narrators within comedy, like Ross O’Carroll-Kelly. Freyne cites Adrian Mole, in which “his version of reality versus his version that the reader can see are two different things”.

Adds Howard: “It’s interesting because my favourite characters like Alan Partridge, David Brent, Larry David and Basil Fawlty – they’re funny because their sense of themselves is so at odds with the reality of who they are.”

Howard and Freyne note that they moved around a lot in childhood – the former, from the UK to Ballybrack in Dublin, the latter from Cork to Kildare – and this in turn shaped their respective senses of humour.

“I like to think that sort of contributed to my sense of myself as an outsider, somebody who just sort of stood back and watched things happen, rather than, you know, participate in them,” Howard notes.

Paul Howard during The Irish Times Winter Nights Festival on Tuesday
Paul Howard during The Irish Times Winter Nights Festival on Tuesday

Howard also mentions the origins of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, the fictional Dublin southsider behind his hugely successful and longstanding Irish Times column.

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“I covered schools rugby, as a sports reporter, and I think because the environment was so alien to me, I just found it funny,” Howard recalls.

“It was kind of the rituals that surrounded the game ... it was the dads who were still going to see the school team play 40 years after they left school. They haven’t really left school; you know, it’s kind of like a permanent adolescence for these men, you know that they still go back and support the team. And the mothers were standing in the mud to watch Traolach play, along with these gangs of girls [who were] throwing themselves at these horrifically ugly rugby players.

“I just thought it was gold. Then I got a solicitor’s letter after covering a match because I gave the try to the wrong kid. And, then I realised how high the stakes were and how ludicrous it all was.”

The character of Ross, Howard says, was “born out of anger”.

“What was odd was that the people whose skin I was trying to get under turned out to be the audience,” he recalls.

“A friend of mine who worked in a bookshop told me that these kids used to come in on a Saturday morning and it’d be like five of them crowded around the books, laughing and saying, ‘oh that’s so Traolach’.

“And this was so disappointing to me because Ross was really born out of my class consciousness and my sense that, you know, if you had money in Ireland that you could lead a largely frictionless life.

“[Although] what I’ve realised, especially over the last two or three years writing the books, is that Ross is now probably the only character in the books that I really love. And at the very beginning, I set out to make him the most hateful character in the books.”

Referring to what what he deems as the golden age of TV, Freyne notes that he is enjoying the HBO series Barry, Netflix’s Russian Doll and The Good Place.

“Probably the biggest blowback I ever get [from readers] is if I write a bad review of like Game of Thrones, or something people really love,” he notes.

Fans waiting for Ross O’Carroll-Kelly to be afforded the small-screen treatment may be left wanting, according to Howard.

“It’s so difficult to make anything in Ireland, and it’s a really, really difficult thing to do with a character like Ross,” he surmises. “To make an Irish TV show or film you need some kind of overseas investment or co-production.

“I’ve gone down the road about four or five times with potential TV collaborations, but the thing is, he is an Irish character, and I’ve sent the books to friends of mine in England and they’ve absolutely no idea what they’re about. They don’t know the significance of Portmarnock Golf Club, or who Glenda Gilson is.”

Festival tickets

The Irish Times Winter Nights Festival runs until Friday, January 29th. Upcoming guests include: MEP Mairéad McGuinness; Irish-Nigerian author, academic and broadcaster Emma Dabiri; Comedian Dara Ó’Briain; Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon; Taoiseach Micheál Martin; professor of biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin Luke O’Neill; 16-year-old award-winning author Dara McAnulty; actor Gabriel Byrne and Washington-based CNN commentator John King.

A single price of €50 admits ticket holders to all events at the festival. Our Digital Subscribers can purchase tickets at the discounted price of €25 – just make sure you are signed in and follow the link below. The discount will be automatically applied.

Ticket buyers receive a link by email allowing them to attend the events each evenings via their phone, tablet, laptop or desktop computer.

For more details see irishtimes.com/winter-nights

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