Irish-Iranian stand-up Patrick Monahan tells Adam Shaw about fleeing war to end up in Teeside and fighting prejudice with humour
Patrick Monahan is working away with a producer in a Pret a Manger opposite Russell Square Station. A real live-wire, even in such a relaxed setting, his mind is constantly on the move as he plans his next appearance at the Edinburgh Festival. This isn’t until August but, such is the life of the comedian, at least one of his ilk, he must always be thinking ahead.
In Scotland he’ll be introducing a new act – That 90s Show – taking audiences through his life as a teenager in the era of the Spice Girls and Cool Britannia. But for now he’s all about the previous decade when, as the son of an Iranian mother and an Irish father, he fled Saddam Hussein and ended up on Teesside.
“The 80s was such a great decade and I loved growing up where I did,” he says. “In general, everyone was warm and friendly and it seemed as if, whenever there was any racism, it was just ‘of the time’.”
Prejudice was inevitable. Refugees have always had to confront some form of intolerance and Middlesbrough in the 1980s was never going to be the easiest place for an Irish-Iranian family to settle in.
“The Irish were considered exotic to these people; they had no idea what an Iranian was.
“And, at the time, nobody gave a monkeys about Arabs. They were obviously different but this often brought intrigue rather than outright hate.”
It was still a struggle at first. Patrick arrived at a tough school in the North East speaking Farsi. He couldn’t communicate with the teachers or his classmates and, as a result, was singled out as a target. And while his mother might have been relatively fine in day-to-day life, his Roscommon-born father was frequently subject to hassle.
“In the 1980s, it was the Irish who were the terrorists, not those from the Middle East. Dad would tell stories about how he and his mates would try and find work in London and how they’d have nowhere to stay because all the hotel signs said ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’.
“They used to have a little cat and I joke now that the cat was allowed in while they had to sleep in the car.”
This tough life in the UK was one of the reasons his dad moved eastwards; crossing over to Europe and not stopping until he reached Iran. Oil and a booming construction industry had brought several Irish there but Hussein’s bombs meant it was a return to Britain and the steelworks of the North. While some things had changed, there was still a definite wariness towards Irish people – something which wasn’t helped by the growing presence of the IRA.
“They’d stop anyone with an Irish accent and say they were looking for Semtex.
“And dad would, as well as telling them he wasn’t a terrorist, explain how he hadn’t been back in Ireland for ages.
“‘We’ve come from Iran, you know, in the Middle East,’ he’d say. And the searchers would turn round and go ‘Iran. Is that in Northern Ireland or Southern Ireland?’
“‘It’s neither, it’s a separate country,’ dad would reply and then they’d ask him to spell it. ‘Ok, it’s I-R-A’ and, before he could finish, they’d ask him to step out the car.”
This attitude – the idea that sometimes it’s better to laugh at the ridiculousness of a situation than fight it – has stayed with Patrick and his family throughout their lives. He explained that, since he clearly stood out at school and around his neighbourhood, he would come up with ways to make a point of this.
“When you’re different, you have to take that difference and turn it into something positive.
“You might be good at football or have a cracking voice but for me I always just tried to deflect it with humour and talking.
“People would find it amazing that I’d just keep laughing but I used the jokes to fight off trouble. Sometimes there’s no point getting all worked up.”
There was childish name-calling at school, ranging from ‘plastic Paddy’ to, despite a distinct lack of Pakistani heritage, ‘Paddy the Paki’. Others would mock his mum’s non-existent bindi, while others would accuse his dad of being stupid.
“One kid would ask me why me mum had a red dot on her forehead, even though she never has. He’d say it was because the council keep poking her there saying ‘no you can’t have another council house’. I’d turn it round and ask him why his mum’s got a red dot on her head, explaining that it was me uncle – ‘an ardent IRA member’ – watching from next door.”
His technique of coping with discrimination, as well as his unique background and upbringing, led him along a natural course to comedy. But it wasn’t his first calling. This, he explains, was a series of what he always thought of as “Irish” jobs.
He spent time laying roads and working on bridges and found the satisfaction of a hard day’s graft immensely appealing. But he still wanted to talk to people – not just now and then or on a lunch-break but as an act. He thought about working in a supermarket, or, more specifically, as the announcer at a supermarket, before his true destiny was uncovered at an Islington open mic night.
“I went down to the Purple Turtle for a drink and they had a microphone there. A few people got up and sang or spoke or whatever and I asked if I could have a go.
“After five minutes, I was hooked. I got a few laughs here and there but I was trying to be too generic. Someone advised me to talk about something which was unique to me. You can make the Orkney Islands hilarious if you put a personal spin on it.”
Patrick hasn’t looked back since, incorporating his childhood, adolescence and early adulthood into his material and all the while learning to laugh in the face of adversity. The need for this, it seems, has come full circle with rising hate crime figures, increased resentment towards refugees and general intolerance creeping back into reality.
As someone who has lots of family in the United States, there was uncertainty over Donald Trump’s recent travel ban. And he harbours some concern about Brexit – least not because no-one seems to know what’s going on – as multiculturalism, in his eyes, is a huge positive in the UK.
“I do fear for the kids today because it’s like we’re facing the prospect of another Cold War.
“Trump – a shrewd but manipulative man – is going round making these ridiculous orders and he probably couldn’t even tell you the difference between Iraq, Iran and Yemen.
“It’s mental, it’s almost like a sport for him, seeing how many people he can offend.”
“And over in Britain it seems as if there’s just a bunch of people who desperately wanted to have a chance to wave the flag and have a feeling of ‘identity’. But come on, we’ve already got our identity and everyone’s a part of that.”
In spite of everything, he remains an optimist, he’s convinced everything will be okay. “Housing and stuff like that, that’s another issue for another day when it comes to what young people have to face.
“But I think we’ve come too far for things to go back to how they were. People from big cities embrace it – they walk down the street and hear ten languages and love it.
“Even in smaller places though, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I did a gig in Ludlow and I always ask whether anyone has any foreign background.
“It took a while but finally we discovered that someone’s dad was Serbian and everyone was cheering and celebrating. It was mental but great to see.”
Whatever happens, Patrick will always find something amusing to take away from the politics of today, describing Trump (and probably Nigel Farage as well) as “a comic’s dream”.
And this is mighty handy for one of the county’s hardest working comedians who always likes to keep things fresh. In the past two years he has been named among the top three most industrious comics on the circuit – winning it once – and he shows no sign of letting up.
He’s been to Ireland, where on one occasion in Clonmel, people were boated in to the venue following flooding. He’s been to Dubai – “Shoreditch on sand” – where he describes the crowds as very forward-thinking and full of different cultures. And he’s been all over the UK, something he will continue to do on this tour, through his tales of the 90s and, most likely, for the 21st century years.
I ask him whether it’s scary being a comedian – a remarkably standard question but one that needs to be asked as Patrick seems almost too at ease with himself.
“Nah it’s not really,” he says. “Of course there’s a few self-doubts, there has to be. No-one wants to bomb on stage even though it’s inevitable.
“It’s not like being a surgeon. Now that’s a scary job; people can die. There’s nothing like that in comedy.”
He compares winning an audience over to how he had to cope when he met new people on Teesside. Those first 30 seconds where they decide whether they like you – either as a comedian or as a person – are crucial, and he’s had plenty of practice. And I guess when you’ve escaped a brutal war, grafted on the roads of Middlesbrough and copped a fair amount of flack for being ‘different’, standing up in front of a crowd is a piece of cake.
For tour dates and more information, visit: patrickmonahan.co.uk