The 2 Johnnies: Tipperary double act who stormed Ireland without ever leaving Cahir

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O’Brien and McMahon, in between the gags, are prizing open conversations among a generation of young people, to whom that skill does not always come easily

Johnny “Smacks” McMahon can pinpoint the nadir of his colourful working life to the final week he spent in the pig factory. “It was soul-sucking, lad,” he tells his friend, Johnny “B” O’Brien. McMahon had played minor football with Tipperary and had a hazy idea of himself as a teacher of history and Irish, and a still-glossier private dream involving showbiz and auditions in front of Cheryl Cole and Simon Cowell.

“My mam said to me, ‘You are gonna have to get a job.’ I was after dropping out of college, like. She used to drop me to work. I was a grown man of 19. And I cried on the way to work. I was on the line one day and all the Yugoslavian boys had had their breakfast and I said to the boss, ‘Hey, when am I going for my breakfast?’ I was hoovering the spinal cords out of pigs – that was my job. He said, ‘You’ll go when I tell you.’ I fired the vacuum down. I finished, then, the following Friday. Told them my knee was at me.”

O’Brien, meantime, had starred in the school musical, Jesus Christ Superstar. “When you had the luscious locks,” McMahon says. O’Brien’s fantasy future also included bright lights and crowds cheering. When he applied for the Rock School at Ballyfermot College of Further Education in Dublin, he was certain they’d trip over themselves to offer him a place. “I didn’t even get a callback.” Instead, a job in a garden centre beckoned. Nights were for his band. He spent some time as a carpenter and worked for Tipperary County Council, paying house visits to fit stoves and the like.

“I saw the best and worst of this county. Like, a fella would come down the stairs about my age and wearin’ nothin’ but a track suit. And he would take me out the back and say, ‘Do you want to see me bulldog?’ No, lad! ‘He is going fighting a badger later on.’ I’m fairly sure that’s illegal, ya know.”

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The entire conversation is available in the very first podcast that the two friends recorded as part of a double act that has cut a unique swathe through Irish pop culture, The 2 Johnnies. That first podcast was in February 2018, four short years ago. In it, they stand back to observe their ascendant star as a comedic act forged from an underground social media following and, later, live gigs.

They are playing for gags but beneath the laughter, they are talking about the tricky, uncertain ground where countless young men find themselves during that period after they leave school and wake up to suddenly find themselves drifting through their mid-20s with no clarity on what they want to do – or why – or how to go about it.

It is terrain that has been deeply explored in the Irish literary tradition: hope thwarted, promise dashed and the beautiful dreams that make tolerable the humdrum hours of an interminable afternoon on the clock. And in a peculiar way, whenever O’Brien and McMahon speak through a microphone now – which is often – they are partly talking to their former selves or to those like them.

“They are always the third person in the room. I can nearly see them,” O’Brien says.

The short version of their story is that they have stormed Ireland without ever leaving Cahir, which serves as both their home and spiritual heartland

“We play gah [GAA]. And being in a small town, your friends can be anything from 20 to 50. And you just pal around with them. When we started The 2 Johnnies, I was 30. And had tried to make it in a rock band. I was making hurleys in the family business. Ash dieback was coming in and I wasn’t sure where that was going. Johnny had missed the X Factor,” he says, glancing across at his partner.

“I never even went for the audition,” McMahon clarifies with a laugh.

“That’s how delusional I was. I jumped from job to job saying, ‘well, someday I’ll win the X Factor’. And I wouldn’t have to do anything; they were going to come for me! I would be at work in the butchers, talkin’ to meself about what I would say now when I will be on stage for the audition: I’m Johnny from Tipperary…”

It is arguable that 2FM, which was launched in 1979, lost its mooring after the untimely death, in 2010, of Gerry Ryan, who was one of the indisputable stars of the analogue age. Ryan emerged as an unlikely radio voice; a posh boy who stared down the obvious lifepath defined by his law studies in Trinity and decided instead to grow a ponytail, throw himself into pirate radio and use that voice of his – warm, conspiratorial, lightly mocking – to become the roguish morning radio alternative to Gay Byrne.

“The Ryan line is open,” he told listeners and, at its best, his radio show was a portal into the subconscious of morning time Ireland – its worries, its desires and, occasionally, its wacky and filthy stories. That was then. When the station signed The 2 Johnnies for a daily show this year, it was broadly interpreted as a move to arrest its declining listenership. Like all Tipperary independents, the pair brought with them a loyal following: they had an army of 250,000 podcast listeners.

The short version of their story is that they have stormed Ireland without ever leaving Cahir, which serves as both their home and spiritual heartland. Their podcast was always among the most-listened to. They front the 2FM show, Drive It, for which RTÉ is still seeking an advertising sponsor. Their live show has sold out the 3Arena – 10,000 capacity – twice. When the most recent date was announced, the tickets went in less than eight minutes.

On Monday, their latest television show, in which they take the viewer on a high-octane tour through the underbelly of America, begins. Through it all, the pair hold steadfast to their tenet that they are partisan Tipp lads to the core who are managing to take on the world on their terms.

We meet in their studio, in a business park on the edge of Cahir, beside a hydraulics factory. They’ve just soundproofed the studio and it’s from there they broadcast on 2FM. They are proud of not having to leave. O’Brien, who is 36, is slightly quieter than his partner and a sharp observer. McMahon (31) is bubbly and a natural raconteur, who imbibed the DVDs of D’Unbelievables and Tommy Tiernan growing up. The pair have made an uncanny success of straddling the middle ground between stand-up and talkshow entertainment.

“That can be hard in Ireland because you go to do a show and lads are, like, sure we are all funny,” says McMahon.

“And it is true. There are definitely lads even locally who are like, ‘I don’t think they’re funny, I’m f**ken funnier than them.’ And even in Cahir, there’s probably a hundred lads who are funnier than us. But they don’t have the balls to go and do what we do. You can be funny down the pub. But being funny in front of thousands of people; there is a skill to that. We learned that fairly fast.”

And that may be the secret to the fever-spread appeal of the pair. They speak in the cadence and vernacular of the Golden Vale. They thrive in the pub tradition of communication through yarns and punchlines. They’ve lived.

They met through the GAA: McMahon was moving from Roscrea to Cahir. O’Brien and another friend needed a lodger. They played junior hurling for Cahir, powered through the surreal nightlife rituals of Irish provincial towns and slowly formed a double act. They did a 10-minute skit at a pantomime and then nothing for a full year. “Did it again the following year and then nothing.”

After talking their way into fronting the local GAA club’s Strictly Come Dancing fundraiser, they began to post skits on a Facebook page. The first ever post was a meme about Bruce Springsteen’s endless catalogue. They both wanted to create their own material. So do countless others. But The 2 Johnnies caught fire.

People would see me walking up and down the road with a notebook in me hand and be saying ‘there’s the lunatic who writes the things’, like. Living in a small town is great. But we don’t let us hold us back

“We went hard at it. We quit our job and went full-time at it,” says O’Brien by way of explanation. They said yes to everything. There were late-night drives returning from stand-up slots in Leitrim or Mayo. They did a rap for the Tipperary hurlers before the 2016 All-Ireland final that got them a slot on RTE’s Up for the Match. Other invitations followed.

“We would be takin’ days off work and driving to Cork and doing Dáithí and Maura for nothin’,” McMahon says. They became a hot ticket on the GAA fundraising circuit. A guy who owned a bar on Daytona Avenue in the Bronx offered to fly them out for a week of gigs. “Had never been to America,” says McMahon. “Never been anywhere. We were getting known at this stage. It was weird. Went back to the butchers and was thinkin,’ f**k this.”

There was a period when they worked flat out with little reward, acquiring a cult following and continuing their day jobs. At home, people were supportive and there was a bit of slagging because there was no pretending now: the two boys were going for it.

“There was a bit of an overlap where we were still working our jobs and playing junior hurling and lads would be saying: are you going to put this in your f**ken podcast?” O’Brien says.

“But most people aren’t chasing their dream. We are living in a different world. We are getting up every day and making things up for a living. Much like some newspapers! So, if you want to write a sketch about a Junior B player who goes into space, you can’t worry about what the neighbours are thinking. You have to embrace the ridiculous. And people would see me walking up and down the road with a notebook in me hand and be saying ‘there’s the lunatic who writes the things’, like. Living in a small town is great. But we don’t let us hold us back.”

They possess a demonic work rate and prepare assiduously for their broadcasts. O’Brien did a sound engineering course and was always a stickler for production values. They practised. “We would never take the listener’s attention for granted,” he says, and McMahon adds: “We wouldn’t be arrogant enough to think we are that good.”

But they were just four shows into their 2FM radio career when they were temporarily taken off air by RTÉ. A video of their podcast, used to promote the radio show, included a segment where they read aloud car-sticker slogans that were crude, sexist and dismally unfunny. On the day the show was pulled, McMahon switched on Ireland AM on Virgin Media TV. “There’s a war in Ukraine and we were on the front page of a newspaper. It was a horrible time. They were ringing where I used to work, ringing my mother. It wasn’t fair.”

They apologised and waited while 2FM deliberated on their future. They are adamant that the protests came from people who had not listened to the offending podcast and argue that a scroll through their 200-odd podcasts will uncover a track record of covering sensitive topics through the prism of irreverent – but never mean – humour.

“I think the thing that killed us is that we have always tried to have those open conversations,” says McMahon.

“We have done pieces on the podcast about consent, which is never an easy topic to cover and not for two lads of our age. We ran a campaign when ladies football teams wanted to change their colour of shorts – by the rules they were meant to be white and obviously girls were, like, with everything, sometimes white shorts aren’t an option. We helped with that campaign. We had a lad write into us who wanted to come out as gay to his GAA club. We covered that. We have tackled hard subjects. And there is nobody on Twitter writing that.”

O’Brien says he was “disappointed” by the public reaction. “We put up a video, apologised, happy to have a conversation about it. Nobody wants to have a conversation.”

There are loads of people probably funnier than us, better singers than us, songwriters than us. And now, if you wonder why maybe are they not full-time: well, your parachute won’t open unless you jump. And we jumped

A radio show had been an offer they thought hard about and it was contingent on their freedom to broadcast from Cahir. Their latest television offering on America plonks the street-savvy Tipp duo into the delights and shocks of the southern Gothic experience. They were clearly taken aback to meet a police officer with a full arsenal of weaponry in his house and left stunned by the explicit poverty of the Lower Ninth in New Orleans.

“And Kentucky surprised us as well… like, how f**king desolate it is,” O’Brien remembers.

“It’s beautiful and it had some really nice people. But it also had a bang of one of those towns that had its heyday in the 1950s.”

Soon, they will start recording an album. There is vague talk of a book. “A few people would have to die first, but yeah.” Their iron is red-hot. They’ve no clue where this will take them. You don’t have to listen to their material for very long to become aware that behind the swear words and the buck-eejit indulgences, O’Brien and McMahon are prizing open conversations among a generation of young people – primarily male – to whom that skill does not always come easily.

“Ah, we are a wicked nation of young lads fronting,” O’Brien says, out of the blue, at one stage.

“Everyone afraid to stand up and say: you know what, I’m gonna quit me job because I want to go and do gymnastics. You are afraid of being laughed at, like. It takes a bit of time for lads to warm up to each other. The best conversations would be had in the car when you have dropped everyone off from training and there’s only the two left. Or when you are full of pints. But… you cannot imagine how buoyed we are by the freedom of, at 25 and 30, we quit our jobs and chased our dream. And it is kind of working out. And there are loads of people probably funnier than us, better singers than us, songwriters than us.”

But, he says, “your parachute won’t open unless you jump. And we jumped. And when that works out you feel like you can do anything.”

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times