Des Bishop: ‘The last time my mother spoke was to say sorry’

Des

Comedian Des Bishop had a complicated relationship with his mother, from her stressed parenting to her enigmatic last words. He uses his new stand-up show to explore it

On the day Des Bishop’s mother died last March, he did what you’d expect of any comedian in the year 2019: he made a podcast about it.

“It’s kind of a handy thing to have a recording of this moment in your life,” he says, explaining why he “banged one up there” the day his mother died.

“I guess some people might think it’s strange . . . I don’t care if people judge, maybe some people think it’s not healthy, but thank god I did it actually, because I would have forgotten exactly how I felt.”

That episode of his weekly podcast The Shift – the sex and dating show he hosts with Irish comedian Katie Buckley – is forensic, raw, unsentimental and funny in parts. Bishop recalls his mother’s request for a closed casket, something she kept repeating through those final days of hospice care at home in New York.

There was also the issue of where she wanted her ashes spread. “I don’t care where the f**k you spread my ashes,” she revealed one day through a morphine fug. At first, Bishop thought that emphatic sentence amounted to her final words – “I was very happy about that” – but later realised that wasn’t quite true.

He tells me the story of her actual final utterances later in our conversation when the last word his mother ever said catches in his throat. He says he can’t yet get through Mia Mamma, the new stand-up show he wrote about her death, without crying at that point in the narrative.

We talk about his mother for most of our time together but first, on the instructions of my younger sister who follows Bishop avidly on Instagram, there is another important issue to be covered.

“Is he as good-looking in real life?” she had asked, so I pay extra attention when Bishop walks into the Dublin hotel where we meet, clocking his excellent hair – we talk about how not all grey hair is equal, how having “good” grey hair is a lottery – and his high cheekbones and conclude that the 44-year-old appears to be conventionally attractive in the flesh and it’s not just clever use of Insta filters.

Des Bishop with his parents
Des Bishop with his parents Mike and Eileen

Bishop has been a regular on the Irish comedy and television circuit for more than 20 years, during which he has tackled subjects such as marginalised communities in Joy in the Hood, the Irish language with his show In the Name of the Fada, and the Chinese language and culture in Breaking China. He first came to many people’s attention in 2004, when he went undercover in hotels and bars exposing the treatment of low-paid workers in the service industry for The Des Bishop Work Experience.

Now he has turned his attention to death, specifically the loss of his mother. Shortly after she died, aged 77, following a long illness, Bishop went to Australia for some gigs and found himself talking about her on stage. The material about the minutiae of his mother’s death began to mount up. Much of it features in the new show.

There are reasons to guess that the late Eileen Bishop would approve of Mia Mamma, or at least of the fact that her son has dedicated a whole stand-up act to her. In 2010 he made a show, My Dad Was Nearly James Bond, about his father, Mike, who was dealing with a terminal lung cancer diagnosis. Bishop says during that process he’d had a running joke with his mother who would ask: “Where’s my show?”

“I told her: ‘Ma, that would be too intense,’” he says, laughing. They had a difficult relationship, though it had improved significantly in recent years.

The show about his dad “was about wanting to celebrate his life before he died”.

This new show is inspired by his mother’s death, and the humour he says can be found in the chaos of funerals and wills. “There is a lot of comedy in that stuff.”

 Bishop says both of his mother’s parents were alcoholics

It’s also about his “complicated” relationship with his mother who was, he says, “an exceptionally anxious, very stressed-out woman who took on the weight of the world way too much, and exuded that energy for way too long”.

Although he was wary of “slamming on my mom” who he says “had her own tough life . . . I wanted to be honest about the relationship . . . We ended up having a great relationship as adults because we didn’t pretend all that didn’t happen. We didn’t pretend I didn’t f**k off to another country when I was 14 because it was preferable, you know what I mean?”

Bishop left his home and family in New York as a teenager to be educated in Ireland, including a few years at boarding school in Co Wexford. While there and at UCC, the alcohol abuse that had begun aged 12 in New York continued until he was 19, when the drinking and drug use became so unmanageable he gave it up for good.

He has done a lot of research, particularly on his grandmother’s side of the family in Glengariff, Co Cork, and uncovered “a lineage of what I think would be a common enough story in Ireland of Catholic repression, mental health issues, alcoholism”. His great-grandmother died during childbirth, and his great-grandfather later died by suicide in the family home. When his grandmother came to New York, she met his grandfather, who came from Co Down, “a tough guy, a labourer during the Great Depression”.

His mother Eileen was born in 1940 in Manhattan, before the family moved to Queens. Bishop says both of his mother’s parents were alcoholics. “She grew up in a typical Irish-American-Italian Queens neighbourhood. Her childhood was super stressful,” he says. In more recent years, when Bishop confronted his mother about the “stress and chaos” that he had grown up with as a boy, he gained some understanding of the roots of his mother’s anxiety.

Des Bishop: 'I don’t care if people judge...'
Des Bishop: 'I don’t care if people judge...'

“My mother’s whole childhood was basically: get her mother out of the pub, get her to bed, get her father to bed . . . and once everything was sorted the kids could finally relax. So most of the time they were not relaxed.” This affected her own parenting of Bishop and his two younger brothers. “In her mind, every day of her life was: ‘If I can just get this next thing done, everything will be okay.’ When in actual fact everything was already okay. It was intense but I could not resent her for that because, she had, like, PTSD,” he says.

Before he was born, he says his mother was “a bad boozer too”. But in the 1970s when she was struggling to become pregnant, “she made a promise to the Blessed Mother that if she got pregnant she would never drink again”. (Mary was bigger than God to his mother, Bishop explains.) In 1975, when his mother made that promise, her father died and she very quickly became pregnant. “So my mother thought two things: that the Blessed Mother got her pregnant, and that I am a reincarnation of her father.”

Bishop’s birth also led to his grandmother giving up alcohol. “My mother told my grandmother that she’d have nothing to do with my children’s life if she drank. So my grandmother was not a boozer in my lifetime. I grew up around very little alcohol abuse.”

He says that in some ways the best, most united times of his family’s life was when his father was ill

He says he could give “hundreds” of examples of how his mother’s anxiety had an impact on family life.

“She lived her life like everything was about to fall apart. For example, now and then my dad, a very calm dude, would lose his temper. He would storm out of the house. My mother would put us in the car, start driving around bars, looking for my dad. He wasn’t in the bars, he’d be in the park meditating. So it was a throwback to her childhood, she couldn’t escape. Or as kids, when she’d come back from work, she’d unload on us for the house not being clean, in a way that did not match the scenario. So we all just started hiding.” 

Another insight into Eileen Bishop’s character comes from the fact that she once ran a homeless shelter in their local parish of St Kevin’s despite local opposition.

He says that in some ways the best, most united times of his family’s life was when his father was ill. “We did this amazing thing together as a family with the show about my dad. Everybody doing their part. We were very close,” he says.

After his father died, Bishop’s relationship with his mother, which had never been easy, suffered a setback. The whole family were united in nursing his father to death but when he was gone there was a return, he recalls, “to the rejection and the coldness . . . She had just lost her husband, and I know it was worse than us losing our dad. Something happened and I stopped talking to her for a year.”

What happened?

“It’s boring to go into the details and I don’t want to make it seem like I was being cold. . .”

He decides to tell me anyway. His mother owned a “beautiful” house in the Hamptons, a house he now owns. They were not well-off but his  parents bought it during a period of “massive” beach erosion in the area. “It was a gamble that paid off, it was very, very cheap,” he explains.

Bishop has been a regular on Irish TV for more than 20 years
Bishop has been a regular on Irish TV for more than 20 years

After his father died he wanted to write his book about his father there. “I asked my mom could I use the house and she was like: ‘Well, I was gonna rent it out.’ So I said: ‘Mom, I will pay for it.’” He says he gave her 75 per cent of what she would have got for the rent, $11,000, asking her not to “bother me about the house or complain about how much money you’re not making”.

He was frustrated by the fact that while he was there, she wouldn’t come out to the house to visit him. “I told her I was here for us, Dad’s just died, I’m here in the shadow of grief . . . but after a week I was like, ‘Holy shit, I paid for peace and I’ve actually had the opposite of peace’ and I wasn’t able to enjoy it one bit.”

That was in 2011. While they were estranged, Bishop says his mother had some time for reflection about her life, and built a new network of young female friends. When they began to speak again, their relationship was on better terms. She made “a good go” of those years, but from the end of 2014 her health deteriorated: she had lung cancer, a bad fall resulted in a broken neck, and then she broke her hip. There was also osteoporosis and lupus, and in the weeks before her death she was in severe pain, being cared for at home.

That’s when he comes to the part about his mother’s real last words. He can’t speak for a moment. He tells the story of how, the day before she died, the family made a decision to hold off on a morphine dose, hoping she would have more to say, to get her “chatty again”.

I actually think my mother died with a hint of regret

They didn’t realise at the time she was so close to death. “So 5.30pm rolls around and she is writhing in pain, because we haven’t given her the morphine.” They gave her the tablets and all the while “she keeps saying: ‘Sorry, sorry. . .’” his voice is wavering now.

“Which of course at the time, I am thinking she is saying sorry because she thinks she’s being a nuisance . . . Now . . . I think she knew . . . But we’ll never know. The last time she spoke was to say sorry.”

This new show sounds a world away from the one about his father. “In that show you see my dad is like this beautiful arc. But my dad was a much simpler guy . . . My mother was like, way more complicated. She’s a woman . . . She had to live through all that s**t. You know what I mean? Like, it’s tougher for her. Being a mom, you know, she had to f**king raise us, raise ungrateful kids and then she had to come to terms with whether she did a good job.

“Had she earlier on in her life faced some of that stuff, I think she would have had a more difficult arc to finish, but I think it would have been more complete. I actually think my mother died with a hint of regret. And I’m not afraid for that to be there [in the show] while at the same time, completely celebrating the character that she was and how funny she was and how a lot of her dysfunction is really quite hilarious.”

We don’t have much time left, but I have to ask him about The Shift, his sex and dating podcast which, despite being hosted by two comedians, Bishop and his sidekick Katie Buckley, is not very hilarious at all.

It is refreshing though, and for some – okay, me – educational. Bishop says there are loads of sex and dating podcasts in the States, but it is still quite new in Ireland to hear a man and a woman discussing “period sex”, “butt play”, “kissing after going down” and something called “breadcrumbing”. (Sorry, I haven’t listened to that episode yet.) He is enjoying the podcast, but finds it interesting that it’s difficult to get his male Irish friends to talk about sex.

“They can’t handle it,” he says.

He hopes he might be doing a bit of a service to the nation. They recently had an Irish listener in her 30s tell them she’d never had an orgasm with another person. “Nobody had ever told her you can just tell the guy: ‘This is what I like.’ So after listening to the podcast she tells him a couple of things and it works. How crazy is it that listening to two idiots, two comedians can change the game. . .”

Bishop has a home in his long-term stomping ground Rialto in Dublin 8, but lives mostly in the US at the moment (he did a lot of his grieving for his mum while on a spin bike in his house in the Hamptons). He is single, having had a serious relationship in China that for a while he half thought might lead to a family of his own.

“I was really broody after my dad died, but living back in New York . . . you see many people without children having very happy lives . . . Having said that, if any of the numerous child-having scenarios presented themselves to me, traditional and non-traditional, I would seriously consider it.

“I’ve nursed two parents to death, I can’t help but think there must be a hollowness or loneliness to that journey, but I am not going to base all my life decisions on that one time.”

For details of Des Bishop’s Mia Mamma tour see desbishop.net You can listen to The Shift on all podcast apps