'My marriage ending was the kick I needed to start my own journey'

Working Abroad Q&A: Comedian Fiona O'Brien on starting her career in comedy in Canada and life with her three children

 

Fiona O’Brien,  originally from Sutton, Co Dublin,  lives in Toronto in Canada where she is a stand-up comedian.

When did you leave Ireland and why?

I left Ireland in 2012 with my first husband (I’m optimistic) and three small children - they were seven, four and three when we left. In 2010, after our youngest had turned one, we decided I would stay at home with the kids as the childcare costs were outweighing my income, but then my husband lost his job due to the recession. Canadian companies were headhunting skilled Irish workers and held interviews in the RDS in Ballsbridge. He got hired by a Canadian company and the company offered to bring us to Toronto.

Did you study in Ireland?

I studied to become a Montessori teacher and a nursery nurse at The London Montessori Centre on Holles Street. I worked at that for a few years, but it just wasn’t for me. I then worked for eight years at a national charity, Headway Ireland, coordinating their fundraising events. 

You are a stand-up comedian. How did you end up there?

I used to stay up at night writing funny stories about growing up in my family, and life in general. I wrote them to amuse myself. Friends would often tell me I should write a book or try comedy, but I wasn’t ready so I just enjoyed writing them at home. I used to help a friend, who was trying stand-up in Dublin, but I was writing from a female point of view and he kept telling me to get out on stage an do it. I still wasn’t ready.

When we arrived in Toronto we had no family or friends, no support system, and my husband was at work for very long hours. I was alone and needed to keep myself busy, so I would write more while the kids were in bed. Sadly our marriage ended in 2014. It was the kick up the arse I needed to start my own journey. I went online and looked up comedy courses in Toronto. In 2014 I signed up to become a student at Second City Toronto. I took all my stories and went in every Saturday for five hours to a stand-up comedy and writing class. It was a whole new lease of life for me, and I haven’t looked back since.

What do you like about stand-up?

I love to tell stories and make people laugh. It is fabulous to write ideas on paper, then take it to a stage and see if anyone else enjoys it. I find it very empowering and luckily so far, people here have been enjoying what I do.

Is Canadian humour different to Irish humour?

I find Canadian humour to be observational. Irish humour is different in that we love to tell stories and embellish things to make people laugh. The Irish are inherently fun loving and friendly, and I feel that has helped me so much over here. In Ireland, funny people are everywhere. I find my family and friends hilarious, it is just in us. Canadians can be a little more reserved.

What do you find funny about Canada?

The milk comes in bags - in plastic bag. It took me years to get used to this simple thing. It was the first thing I Skyped my mam at home about.

Canada has so many different cultures, which surprised me. My kids go to public school and so there is no religion mentioned at Christmas time, which seems crazy as it’s a holiday and the school closes to celebrate the birth of Jesus. I’d give my left arm to hear the kids sing Little Donkey or Silent Night at the school Christmas play. Not an angel to be seen. It took a while to get used to that.

Canada is bloody huge! Just the province of Ontario is over one million square kilometres, where Ireland is just 84,000 km2. I mainly do comedy in Ontario, but you could be driving forever and still be in Ontario. The Canadian comics laugh at me when I need a break after driving for two hours straight.

Canadians love to tell you they are Irish, and of course now with different ancestry sites they know exactly what percentage Irish they are. I sometimes put on a Canadian accent in the shops to avoid the inevitable conversations.

Fiona O'Brien: 'I recorded my first comedy album ... it’s scary and exciting, but I’ve nothing to lose'
Fiona O'Brien: 'I recorded my first comedy album ... it’s scary and exciting, but I’ve nothing to lose'

What do Canadians find funny about the Irish?

Canadians seem to find us very amusing and love all our stories. They love our accent and find it funny … then I tell them I love their accent and their heads explode. They find our terminology hilarious. For example once I said “I’m just popping to the shops to get a few messages”, and a woman at the kids’ school asked me why my emails would be in the store?

This question might be too fluid, but do you have an average day?

An average day for me is getting the kids off to school. In the winter I have to get up earlier and shovel all the snow off the drive way so that we can get the car out on the road. Then it is home to answer emails, write, and contact bookers. I'll Skype my mam, well call her to tell her to turn on her Skype, then Skype her and have a chat with the top of her head as she still doesn’t know where the camera on the computer is. I also have a part-time job, which the Canadians find hilarious, and I suppose it is. I do demonstrations and sell potato starch in health food stores (it’s a prebiotic, feeds your healthy bacteria in your gut). I’m one of the top sales reps as they love hearing an Irish woman talk about PO-TAT-OES , and I’m here to milk it.

Then home to make dinner for the kids and do homework. My daughter is now old enough to watch her brothers if I have a gig. I tend to try and book gigs for the weekends when the kids are with their dad. They go to him every second weekend and I will make sure I’m doing as many shows as I can those weekends.

Is making people laugh hard?

It depends really. If I’m in a comedy club people have come for a comedy show and want to laugh, those nights are great. If I’m in a bar performing and people didn’t know there was going to be a comedy show it can be hard, but then I try to win over the unsuspecting punters. Sometimes it's hard, but I keep trying and I love it, I think my accent helps a lot. 

Would you ever bring the act home?

Yes of course. I was home last year and went into a pub in Dublin called Sin É and did a show. There were around 50 people cramped into the room under the pub, mainly my cousins. They heckled away at me and we had a brilliant night. I loved it. The Canadians are too polite to heckle, so it was fabulous. Nobody at home really knows me so it was hard to get booked. I completely understand this as I'm still new, and it has taken me six years in Toronto to build a reputation in the comedy community.

Is there a living to be earned from comedy in Canada?

If you can get into a writing job for the CBC or get hired on a show, you can. If you get plenty of corporate comedy gigs there is good money, but there are no guarantees. It is all down to hard work and some luck. Being asked to do the big comedy festivals and getting TV credits are the events most of us strive for. Most Canadian comics achieve this and then move to the US to work.

I’m thrilled and delighted to say that I’ve been invited to perform at The Halifax Comedy Festival next April, and I will have two sets filmed for CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and aired on TV. That will be a huge help to me and provide more opportunities. I also recorded my first comedy album in December 2019 at the John Candy Theatre in Toronto. It’s scary and exciting, but I’ve nothing to lose.

Do the Irish fit in well there?

Yes, but it takes time. You need to find your people - like minded people. The Irish and UK expats all tend to find/hear each other and then start forming relationships. It is very strange to be in your 40s and trying to make new friends. It’s a unique position to be in and sometimes you make friends with people you would never have been friends with at home. You start to consider these people as your family and start little traditions, as we are all here missing our families at home. Most of us came here for work and opportunities and had to start again so that is a common bond for us.

Are there any other Irish people in your circles?

I’m friends with a few Irish people that arrived around the same time as us. It took a while to find each other but now they are like family to me and if something happens we are all there for each other. When my Dad died two years ago and I had to suddenly fly home, my friends here stepped in immediately to help with the kids. I’m so grateful to have met genuine people.

What is it like living there in terms of accommodation, transport and social life?

Toronto is very expensive. Rent is crazy. For an average semi-detached three bed it is about $2,400 a month. Car insurance is expensive, as is cheese and meat. When my mam comes to visit she walks around the supermarket roaring about the price of chicken breasts, four for $20, when she could get 10 for €10 from the local butcher at home in Ireland.

Public transport is good, great subway and train system. It takes more than a couple of leaves on the tracks to delay the train service. Social life is hard as there is no community or local pub like home in Dublin. Toronto is just too big. Also, the Canadians like an early night. Not much is open after 11pm where we live, some bars even close early. This was quite a shock to the system on one of my first “girl’s night” out. A bunch of Irish mams, delighted to get out and next thing the restaurant staff all had their coats on, and were hoovering around us at 10pm wanting us to leave … and we'd only gotten started. There was nearly a riot. 

Is there anything you miss about lreland?

I miss my family and friends so much. I’m actually tearing up thinking about how much my heart aches for them on a daily basis, so I try not to think about it. When my marriage ended in 2014, I wanted to come home but the kids obviously needed to be near their dad and they wanted to stay. They had already moved from Ireland, and now they liked school and had made friends here. So we stayed and I made the best of it. Now after seven years here, I am more settled and the huge decision to leave Ireland was a good decision for me and my family. I can say that Canada is now my second home and has been very good to me.

If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do.

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