Ardal O’Hanlon: ‘I was always this weird, watchful kind of kid’

The comedian on stand-up terror, growing up with a politician for a dad, and Father Ted

Ardal O'Hanlon meets me in the cafe at the National Library of Ireland, next door to his father's old workplace, Dáil Éireann. He's neat and trim, dressed in a black suit and shirt. He looks, in fact, a little like a hip priest or a trendier politician. So I ask him what it was like growing up in Monaghan with the Fianna Fáil minister Rory O'Hanlon for a father. I mean, are Fianna Fáil people funny?

“Inherently hilarious,” he says. “Their hairstyles are particularly funny... I think people along the Border have this extraordinary deadpan sense of humour, which definitely rubbed off on me.

My father was a shy man. I would say he had to make a massive effort to be a politician. I guess it didn't seem like the biggest leap in the world for a similarly shy, awkward teenager to put myself up there

"I think I was always this weird, watchful kind of kid, and there was an awful lot of coming and going in my house as a result of my father being a doctor and then, later, a politician... We'd literally be having to get through the window some days because we couldn't get in the door. To a kid it was great. Famously, this guy came in and asked my father could he get Hawaii Five-O back on the telly."

O’Hanlon is self-deprecating, incisive and, well, very funny. He’s here to talk about his new stand-up tour, but he’s generous with both his time and the scone he just bought for breakfast. We end up discussing a lot of things – the ways his father (who is now 85) influenced him, for example.

“He was a shy man, probably a little awkward socially,” he says. “I would say he had to make a massive effort to be a politician and to get up and speak in the Dáil and to get up and speak on the back of trailers during elections... I’d say that was really tough for a man of his demeanour. So I saw that growing up, and I guess it didn’t seem like the biggest leap in the world then for a similarly shy, weird, awkward teenager to sort of put myself up there.”

So was he inspired by his dad? “A little bit,” he says. “Certainly not by his politics... I was never an avid supporter like the rest of the family.” (O’Hanlon is the third of six children.) “I felt very bad about that. I was always made feel bad about that. I didn’t like helping out at election time. I didn’t like being posted to some hilltop village to mark his opponents. I was never ideological in any sense, or a slave to any particular politics or religion. My solace and my inspiration always came from books and literature.”

Did the family argue about politics? They “don’t confront each other about anything”, he says. “And the family survives very well because of that. There can be a lot of tension, particularly during our culture wars over the past four or five years. I think that was the first time it ever flared up into the open, where it was kind of worrying... My sister is a prominent member of a pro-life group. My dad would be very pro-life. Others in the family would be to some degree or other quite pro-life. So there was a lot of heated debate, a lot of soul searching, a lot of anger.”

Were any minds changed? He laughs. “God, no.”

O’Hanlon started to find his own niche, he says, as a daydreaming teenager at Blackrock College, in south Co Dublin, where he fell in with boys who liked to write poems and read them to each other. “I went to what would be considered in American terms a ‘jock school’,” he says. “Rugby players were godlike and revered, and so you found [your own] way of making your mark.

Melanie was kind of the breadwinner. She was funny as well. Most people, when they meet us, can't believe I'm doing what I do and she's not

“The big turning point for me was a school debate in sixth year when, against all odds and to everybody’s surprise, I put myself forward... I wrote this funny speech and was determined to do my own thing, and it wasn’t on topic and people were laughing a lot. I really can’t describe how wonderful an experience it was. A lot of these people wouldn’t have even known I existed over the previous five years.”

He went on to study communications at what is now Dublin City University. His family thought this a “bit too arty”, but he loved it, loved all the new ideas and political discussions. “You had your divorce referendums, your abortion referendums,” he says. “Sinn Féin were still a prescribed organisation. But I was always conscious that my dad was in politics, so I was in an awkward position. I was very much inhibited. I was very unsure of my own politics then and very unsure of myself generally.”

After college he banded together with his fellow students Kevin Gildea and Barry Murphy to form the comedy group Mr Trellis and to establish the Comedy Cellar club at the International Bar in central Dublin. This was the beginning of alternative comedy in Ireland, but it was stranger and less political than the UK iteration. "If you could come up with a good surreal one-liner – Kevin Gildea had great one-liners – they were absolutely treasured. Weird stuff was really good. Goofy stuff was very important."

What was their Mr Trellis act like? He laughs. “Much funnier than anything we’ve done individually. It was really stupid. We’d do famous films as performed by synchronised swimmers.”

What was his own stand-up like back then? “I just fell into being this very stiff, awkward bloke who had this bewildered take on the world. It reflected my actual demeanour, but everyone thought it was a really good character. Dougal definitely came out of that.”

He moved to London in 1994, when he was 28, leaving the dole and insecure employment behind for Britain’s comedy clubs. He did so with the support of his longtime girlfriend, Melanie, who is now his wife. “She was kind of the breadwinner,” he says. “She was funny as well. Most people when they meet us can’t believe I’m doing what I do and she’s not.”

He loved London. “While I loved my family, I would always have this association with my father,” he says. “I would always be coming up against that conservatism. It was just liberating to be in London.”

When Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan asked him to audition for their new sitcom, Father Ted, he was ambivalent because the duo had just done an Alexei Sayle sitcom "which was a bit rubbish". He laughs. "I had reservations until I went into the audition."

Father Ted proved to be, lest you’ve missed it, hugely popular. O’Hanlon was soon an uncomfortably public figure and the subject of prurient press interest. He did an interview with a women’s magazine in which he was asked if he did drugs. “And I thought I was making a kind of anti-drugs statement by saying, ‘Oh yeah, I love drugs. I put cocaine on my toast every morning and everyone should take ecstasy’... About a month later one of the Irish tabloids had it on the front page: ‘Father Dougal’s Drug Shame’.

“People are going on radio shows saying, ‘Who does he think he is, pontificating about drugs?’... and I’ve got my dad ringing me going, ‘Drugs aren’t cool, you know.’”

After the end of Father Ted, and the sad death of its star Dermot Morgan, O'Hanlon went on to write a novel and appeared for several years in the quirky BBC sitcom My Hero. He also persisted at stand-up despite spending most of his first decade riddled with nerves. (These have subsided more recently.) "People have likened an hour of stand-up to a car crash in terms of the impact it has," he says. "You feel sick. You feel very tired. Your body decides to shut down. You're yawning uncontrollably. You just want to go to sleep. You spend a lot of time on the toilet... Your body is literally trying to resist, saying 'Stop! Cop yourself on.'"

So why did he keep doing it? “It comes from the same impulse that a novelist or a musician has,” he says. “You want to express yourself as clearly as you can. The biggest part is sitting at home musing – and musing, as you know, is never time wasted... You’re very engaged with the world. You’re informed. You’re well read and you listen to music; you watch television. And you can justify all this – that’s the beauty of it. It’s about thinking about what it is to be alive, to be a man, to navigate the fjords of life, to try and figure out contemporary mores... And then you try to boil it all down and distil it into a stupid joke.”

He’s comfortable, he says, not having all the answers. “While I would be much more political now than I was, I’ve always had reservations about comedians wearing their ideology on their sleeves. I love the old-fashioned idea of the Irish corner boy, someone spitting and smoking and chewing gum and sneering at everyone but also recognising their own piety and preciousness. I do most of my stand-up in the UK, and since doing Death in Paradise” – the hugely popular BBC crime drama in which he stars – “I think a big part of my audience would be Brexiteers... so to do Brexit stuff you have to find a very canny way of doing it. You can’t just say, ‘You’re wrong and you’re stupid.’”

Later I ask what he thinks of Linehan’s online activism. Linehan is not someone averse to saying, “You’re wrong and you’re stupid.” He believes that identity rights granted to trans women are often at the expense of women in general – a position at odds with that of almost all LGBT organisations – and he is exercised about this subject online.

O'Hanlon sighs. "I don't know why he gets involved in some of the things he gets involved in. I mean, it's another reason I don't do it myself. First of all, I don't want to be spending most of my life fighting fires, because that's what happens when you become a Twitter warrior – time-consuming, energy sapping spats online... I don't know why he feels the need to do it. I mean, what transgender issues have to do with Graham I really can't for the life of me figure out."

He’s still friendly with Linehan and Mathews. He’s going to the latter’s birthday party the week we meet. O’Hanlon and Melanie moved back to Ireland in 2006 to raise their children here. (Those children are now 22, 20 and 17.) Moving back did not lead to more Irish-based work, something he was hoping for, but he still regularly appears on high-profile British TV, from Derry Girls to After Hours to Cucumber. He currently spends half of his year in Guadeloupe filming Death in Paradise.

He seems most enthused by the theatre work he has done, however, particularly a stint on Conor McPherson’s play The Weir. “It’s an absolutely wonderful experience to totally immerse yourself in a character and to be someone other than yourself.”

The British have been good to Irish performers, he says. “The reality is they like us. We provide something for them that, I don’t know, is it missing in their lives? I think we’re quite good at selling a version of ourselves that we know they like.”

His own relationship with Britain has changed recently, he says. “Brexit seems like a very backward step, a crazy fantasy that can’t end well. I suppose we always put the English on a sort of a pedestal. We tried to shoot them down, obviously, but we ultimately thought they were the most sensible people in the world... And now, of course, we realise they are just as restless and irrational as ourselves.”

He delights in Ireland's particular brand of irrationality. "While we've become outwardly much more rational, much more punctual and professional and articulate and assertive and confident, I think we're still very good at holding competing thoughts in our heads," he says. "Our irrational side comes out in our music and our literature – like Kevin Barry: he taps into that bit of irrationality beneath the surface. There's a line, I think it's in Declan Kiberd's book Inventing Ireland, where someone says, 'I don't believe in ghosts, but that doesn't mean they're not there.'"

This is an attitude that’s rare in modern discourse, he says, particularly online. “There’s no room for nuance,” he says. “I read this morning in The Irish Times that 40 per cent of students are expressing extreme anxiety. Thirty per cent have been diagnosed with depression. Thirty per cent! I would say a large part of that has got to be down to social media, where you have to pick a side on everything. You can’t have a moderate opinion.

“I had my parents on holidays for a week, and there was a lot of debate, because they have very definite opinions. And sometimes, I don’t know, I just don’t have an opinion yet. Give me another year and I might be able to come up with something. The world is not black and white for me.”

Ardal O'Hanlon plays Cork Opera House on October 30th, Market Place Theatre, Armagh, on November 7th, Millennium Forum, Derry, on November 8th, Vicar Street, Dublin, on November 9th, University Concert Hall, Limerick, on November 29th, and Belfast Waterfront on November 30th

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne is a features writer with The Irish Times