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Comedian Shane Daniel Byrne: ‘You get good at changing the topic of conversation when you’re young and secretly gay’

One of Irish comedy’s recent breakout stars built his following on Instagram during the pandemic, and is about to embark on a nationwide tour with his show, But He’s Gay

Shane Daniel Byrne is on a Dublin walking tour of his own design. On the route: the places that hold significance for one of Irish comedy’s breakout stars. Byrne is funny, really funny. But until relatively recently, that was more a personality trait than a career path.

When he began posting sketches on Instagram during the pandemic – a middle-class mother wondering in a slightly passive-aggressive fashion whether her daughter could “get her set up on the Zoom”; the now infamous Shannon character of the fictitious Shannon’s Hair, Beauty, Brows, Nails and Dog Grooming on the Lower Kimmage Road (“I picked Lower Kimmage Road because I didn’t think there was a salon on it. Turns out there is. Sorry about that”); and a widely-shared, very clever, Easter-time skit of Mary contacting a neighbour about the return of her briefly missing son – his comedy career, then nascent, began to take on the sort of star quality that was waiting for the live performance industry to grind back into life. Next month, he’s starting on an Irish tour of his one-hour show, But He’s Gay, which will go on to include two nights at Vicar Street in Dublin in March.


Reuploading cos it used to be in two parts. Happy Easter! He is risen!

♬ original sound - Shane Daniel Byrne

The tour begins at a nondescript building on Upper Gardiner Street crucial to his origin story. This is the former headquarters of Dublin Youth Theatre. “Everything I’ve done since is rooted from [here],” he says outside. At DYT he met his best friends, and with different practitioners visiting every week to teach, the atmosphere “blew our minds”.

Byrne went on to make experimental theatre in Dublin for a decade, as one of the founding members of THEATREclub. If there’s a clear line to be drawn between that era and his current one, it was at the Abbey Theatre, where a section of him performing stand-up during Grace Dyas’s 2019 play, It Was Easy (In The End), bridged two halves of a lengthy show.


The previous year, he performed stand-up at an experimental scratch festival in Project Arts Centre. A note on the programme read, “Shane Daniel Byrne has decided to become a comedian. Grit your teeth and dig your nails in; you’re about to watch the start. Disclaimer – This is not a play. This is actually what he’s doing.”

He found himself getting good, fast, in part down to his experiences at DYT, a place that leaves him somewhat wistful. “I like living in Dublin, I don’t have any desire to live elsewhere. I like that there are pockets of it where you leave your memories. The sign is missing, but I know the secrets of this building.”

At the Garden of Remembrance on Parnell Square, Byrne strolls around talking about the influence of this place. The era of marriage equality and abortion rights protests were “a significant time for my generation, those few years”, he says.

“For me, as a gay man, marriage equality was amazing; to see so many people on your team, on your side, backing you. I’m just old enough where you’d have no protection in a school. ‘Gay’ was just an insult still. It was the same as saying ‘dope’. So a teacher wasn’t going to give out to anyone for saying it. It wasn’t to do with hatred, or making fun of the essence of who someone was, it was just normal, acceptable, ‘banter’. So then when you’re in your early to mid-20s, and suddenly people have your back, that’s interesting, but it’s also conflicting… Facebook was still going at the time, and you’d see people you went to school with saying ‘vote yes’ or whatever, but you’re like, ‘Yeah, but what about all the stuff youse did?’ I still sometimes feel ‘Youse never apologised’. You feel like you’re owed some kind of reparations.”

Walking down O’Connell Street, we discuss this in the context of his new show, But He’s Gay. “Things are aimed at them and made for them,” he says of straight people. “Every ad is about a straight couple, and every film... I do think representation of all things is important, but now it’s in the bank ad, a gay couple getting a mortgage,” he says, rolling his eyes. He wonders, “What would it be like if you did a show that was just full of gay things that queer people know and that straight people don’t? That’s kind of what I’ve made.”

He recalls advice he heard Maeve Higgins give years ago, “‘Stay as close to yourself as you can’… I think I’m quite close to what I do. My brother came to one of the shows and was like: ‘Oh, it’s just you doing jokes’. That was a real compliment for me from a craft point.” He cites Joanne McNally as someone who nails this stage-level closeness to one’s authentic self. “Joanne is good craic all the time. Why I think people love her in such a passionate way – it’s that thing of, ‘She’s saying it, so I can’… There are loads of ‘cool dude comedians’ who want to be really clever, but the root of it is that it has to be funny… It’s still transgressive to just have a laugh, no matter what’s going on.”

Next stop is the donut kiosk on O’Connell Street. “Older generations will talk about the characters around town, but these little things to me are the characters.” We get a cinnamon and sugar donut, and it tastes like it always has.

“We are ‘neath the portico of Amharclann na Mainistreach!” Byrne announces outside the Abbey Theatre. It’s here, aged eight, he first saw a piece of theatre that truly inspired him, Dancing At Lughnasa. “I couldn’t believe you could hear the actors all the way in the seats. I loved the whole thing, the excitement of it, that we were all watching it together. I couldn’t get over it. I wanted to be part of it.” Years later, as Byrne was performing that stand-up segue on the same stage, someone who worked for Aiken Promotions happened to be in the audience. They rang their colleague Bren Berry, insisting Berry consider Byrne for the comedy festival at Iveagh Gardens. “Just a weird chance,” Byrne says. “I came to the Abbey going, ‘I want to be an actor telling stories on stage’, and it springboarded me in a different way.”

Across the river, Byrne walks through Temple Bar towards Project Arts Centre. Some Dublin-is-a-village moments unfold. The pop star CMAT briefly interrupts to say hello. A few minutes later, when Byrne is describing another early stand-up gig, his friend waves from across the road who was at that same show.

At Project, Byrne further developed his connection to contemporary and experimental theatre. “More abstract art, when things are less literal, have less narrative – that’s better to feed your creative brain, because you have to challenge yourself. When I’d go see a show, I couldn’t wait until it was over because I couldn’t wait to talk about it, sitting in the smoking area up there. I loved that even more sometimes than sitting watching it. Talking about it is just as informative.”

His theatre chops inform his work now in a vital way. “I knew about a 70- or 90-minute structure of a play. I knew the arc… instinctually. That’s where theatre benefits me in comedy… Loads of comedians going much longer than me, I can’t give them advice on their jokes, but I feel when I watch their shows in Edinburgh, I’m able to go: you could move this, because this is a better step up to that. I wouldn’t be the type of comedian who gives someone tags [post-punchline comments], but I can offer structural [advice].”

At Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019, Byrne was runner-up in the prestigious So You Think You’re Funny? competition – past winners include Aisling Bea, Dylan Moran, Tommy Tiernan and David O’Doherty. Byrne settles down outside the International Bar on Wicklow Street, the home of Irish stand-up comedy. Like so many Irish comedians, this is the place where he feels he really started. The first time he performed here, O’Doherty was headlining. Byrne’s set went well. O’Doherty was kind to him. When he listened back to a phone recording he made of his set, he could hear one comedian side-stage commenting, “He’s so comfortable up there”. When Byrne returned to Edinburgh last year with But He’s Gay, the majority of his shows sold out, with some gigs upgraded to a bigger venue.

Much of the show focuses on how Byrne “missed a window of time” as a gay teen. By the time he went to college, people had begun to come out in school. For those already out in college, “I thought they were professional gays and I wouldn’t be able to keep up.” As a child, he was self-sufficient and independent. He hated that he couldn’t use such characteristics to reckon openly with his sexuality. “Basically what I needed was help, but I never asked for it, or never knew you could get it. I was real doom and gloom about sexuality: I’ll just deny it forever, I’ll just live a life like that, be a bachelor – that doesn’t work, not any more – or go to London.” He dropped out of college, having approached the campus therapist, only to be told she had a three-week waiting list.

“A lot of what I do now is so informed by my sexuality,” he says over a pint of Guinness. “How I think, my politics, my principles. Who I am is informed by that period of secrecy. You get good at changing the topic of conversation when you’re young and secretly gay. You get good at manipulating things. That’s all useful for comedy, managing the room, managing the topics…

“You know you’re happy with your sexuality if someone says, ‘If you could wave a magic wand and be straight?’ No. Of course not. I love it all. I love being part of a community, a story, a history, all those things, the profound understanding of each other before you know each other. I love all that, the subculture. I’d never change it now. But I think what the magic wand would do, is go back and hurry it up.”

Strolling up South William Street, Byrne talks about how the venue formerly known as SPY was instrumental to him connecting clubbing with culture. Beyond that is Metro Cafe, where he loves sitting outside all through winter.

We keep walking south, ending up at Whelan’s on Wexford Street. At the bar counter, Byrne discusses the pub’s significance in his life. As a teenager, he’d be here drinking Jameson and white “thinking I was grown up”, or finishing off a naggin of Malibu in a McDonald’s Coke outside. “I think Whelan’s is an institution… It’s a wood-panelled place where most of the men are going to be called Dermot, and that’s fine for me.” Whelan’s is also home to his favourite comedy night, Cherry Comedy.

A block over is Iveagh Gardens. This location represents a huge step up in Byrne’s career. “I was terrified,” he says of his first gig at the summer comedy festival in the park in 2019. It wasn’t until the third day of the festival he realised there was an artists’ area. There, the comedian Kevin McGahern took him under his wing. “I was minded and looked after,” he says of McGahern’s kindness. He returned post-pandemic, performing five sets.

We continue up the street to what was POD, another “used to be” location for Byrne. Here, he’d get to the indie club night Antics early to avail of the discounted €3 entry price. “That it’s a Pret A Manger now breaks my heart. That there is nothing for going out and having fun here is so upsetting… Things come and go, but when something disappears forever and the facade is still here, it’s almost taunting you saying: this used to be fun.”

What is fun is seeing Byrne reach bigger stages and larger audiences. As he traces the remnants of realness in his city, he may have overlooked one pretty obvious marker of fun, unapologetic authenticity: himself.