‘Why did I leave Ireland? I left Ireland because it was bloody lonely!’

Extraordinary Emigrants: Dave Allen became a role model for a generation of comedians

Dave Allen’s status as an Irish man abroad, whether in England, South Africa or Australia, often found its way into his routine. Photograph: PA

Dave Allen’s status as an Irish man abroad, whether in England, South Africa or Australia, often found its way into his routine. Photograph: PA

 

David Tynan O’Mahony. To his family, a gardener, a cook, a painter and a storyteller. To his friends and fans, a comedic legend, a mentor, a lover of the eccentric, a curious soul and a keen observer of humanity. To his detractors, merely a “purveyor of smut and profanity” and a “subversive blasphemer”’. The late Dubliner certainly left a lasting impact on those whose lives he touched.

Better known by his stage name (reputedly adopted to ensure he was always top of the pile alphabetically), Dave Allen became one of Ireland’s best known, if occasionally controversial, emigrants.

His status as an Irish man abroad, whether in England, South Africa or Australia, often found its way into his routine and was occasionally used a premise for social commentary:

“…My name is Dave Allen and I would also like to tell you I come from a little country in the world called Ireland, and like most Irishmen, I live in England.”

“People often ask me why did I leave Ireland? I left Ireland because it was bloody lonely!”

Life in Ireland, the customs of the Irish people and their particular peculiarities were frequent topics he reverted to time and again. His childhood and experiences of school in Dublin and Kildare were also regularly recalled, and played a profound role in shaping his unique perspective and staunch dislike for authority figures:

“I’m bothered by power. People, whoever they might be, whether it’s the government, or the policeman in the uniform, or the man on the door - they still irk me a bit. From school, from the first nun that belted me.”

School aside, Allen enjoyed a relatively comfortable childhood. The son of the managing editor of The Irish Times, he was born in 1936 and grew up in a large, rambling home in Firhouse with his parents and two brothers.

Charryfield House, Dave Allen’s childhoold home from 1942 to 1950.
Charryfield House, Dave Allen’s childhoold home from 1942 to 1950.

After the premature death of his father when he was just 12 years old, his mother moved the family to England, but David remained in Ireland to complete his education. After graduating he worked for a short time at the Irish Independent and the Drogheda Argus newspapers, before following his family to England at the age of 19.

With his hopes of a career in journalism dashed, he took a series of odd jobs, eventually ending up working as a Butlin’s Redcoat; a type of family entertainer at a popular seaside holiday resort chain. It was at Butlin’s he performed his first sketch shows, and developed an affinity for a live audience. At the end of each summer he toured an array of working men’s clubs, theatres and strip clubs, to mixed success:

“I decided I would earn a living at it. I starved for about two years but I was learning.”

Dave Allen hosting Showtime in 1968.
Dave Allen hosting Showtime in 1968.

Success came gradually, and after a spell hosting pop music shows, he began to gain some fame after a successful tour of South Africa with the renowned performer and comic Sophie Tucker. She encouraged him to move to Australia, where he became an instant hit. He soon had his own chat show, Tonight with Dave Allen, but gave it up within a year to move back to England with his new wife, Judith and stepson Jonathan.

It wasn’t until 1967 that he would once more host his own show again titled Tonight with Dave Allen. The Dave Allen Show followed in 1968, while ‘Dave Allen at Large’ first aired on the BBC in 1971. The latter two series saw him move away from the chat show model toward his trademark “bar stool monologue interspersed with comedic sketches” format. His irreverent, reflective style proved wildly popular, and played a significant role in reshaping the British comedy scene. Yes, some of his sketches and the occasional curse word uttered on air caused uproar among certain elements of the British (and Irish) public, but it was this freedom of expression that allowed him to produce some of his most iconic work, and made him a role model for an entire generation of comedians that followed.

His desire for independence in every sense, and his need to chart his own path free of political, religious or societal constraints, is his true legacy to the world. He reminded us that it was ok to laugh at ourselves, that we should live in the moment and not to take life too seriously:

“Life is what you are anyhow, what you experience now. …Death is going to happen to us anyhow so there is no sense worrying in spending 70 years worrying about dying. If you do you won’t even get to 40!”

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Nathan Mannion, Senior Curator of EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world. epicchq.com

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