Tommy Tiernan, Ireland’s ‘bad boy of comedy’, tells David Hennessy he no longer cares about breaking the rules, why he could not have predicted the phenomenal success of Derry Girls and that there are no funny people from Ballinasloe.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Tommy Tiernan tells The Irish World about his upcoming English tour. Tommy has long been revered for the high energy and off-the-cuff stand up that makes him one of Ireland’s best known comedians.
Although he is undoubtedly one of Ireland’s best loved comedians, Tommy Tiernan has been at the centre of a couple of controversies in his time.
He has caused outrage due to comments about people with Down syndrome and the Holocaust. However, he wouldn’t see himself as controversial at all, saying instead that comedians have to take risks and so controversy is part and parcel of what he does making people laugh. He also says it is not something that worries him like it used to.
Tommy told The Irish World: “I think what I do is I presume an intimacy, I genuinely talk to an audience as if I’m talking to one person in a bar very quietly.
“So sometimes when you’re intimate, there’s an honesty in that. All the controversies that have happened, they’ve never really been in the room if you know what I mean. In the moment of the show, they’ve never really been controversial. It’s only when people think about it afterwards, often people who weren’t in the room in the first place, that they decide, ‘This is controversial’.”
However, Tommy is self-aware enough to admit he has done wrong: “But I’ve absolutely made mistakes. But that’s what you want eejits to do. An eejit is only an eejit if he breaks the rules. Otherwise, he’s an obedient fool and an obedient fool isn’t really a fool at all. I think part of what we’re attracted to in comedy is rule-breaking so you’re bound to get into trouble for that every now and again. I think that’s par for the course really. It doesn’t worry me really as much as it used to.
“You have to trust your own intentions and if you say, ‘I’m a good person and I’m only having a laugh’: You have to trust that. But also sometimes your intentions can be dark. We’re full of bad spirit as well so sometimes you can end up saying things that are kind of slightly toxic. But you say them and then you realise it yourself and you kind of go, ‘Woah, that was a bit unpleasant. I’m not going to do that again’. But the risk is worth it because 99% of the time, it serves as a release.
“There’s a psychic release that happens when people laugh, kind of a liberation from manners and from being careful and a liberation from care. Sometimes there can be an element of destruction in your liberation but it’s worth it, it’s worth the risk. I mean, it’s only a joke really.”
When asked what people can expect from his new show, he says: “I tend to cover the same areas all the time: Sex, death and children with a bit of God sprinkled through it. I would be the worst person to ask in terms of what the show is about. It has to be composed of adventure and duty.
“The duty is to the audience: You’ve paid money for a ticket and I want to give you value for your money. But if it’s all duty and no adventure, it’s a very, very dull experience for everybody involved so there has to be some sense of not knowing exactly where we’re going to go but kind of trusting the captain of the ship a little bit.
“Look, I’ve no idea what’s around the next headland but it’s a good boat so let’s try it.
“If I knew what it was I was doing, it probably wouldn’t be interesting. That sense of adventure is really important. If Columbus knew exactly where he was going, I mean we wouldn’t have Trump, would we?”
And is it hard to avoid subjects like Trump in his material? “I’m not naturally very drawn to issues of the day, I prefer to think in very vague philosophical notions like ‘What is truth?’ and ‘Are women people?’”
Tommy plays Gerry in Channel 4’s smash hit, Derry Girls. Erin’s father must negotiate the teenage years with the sharp put downs from his father-in-law and as an outsider for simply being from the south. However, it’s Tommy’s character that has often served as the voice of reason.
On the show’s unbelievable success, Tommy says: “These things are kind of beyond your control. I always kind of knew it would do well in the north and I presumed it would do well in the south as well.
“It landing in Great Britain and in America and Australia, it was phenomenal. It was one of those weird things as well because it was so specific.
“If you tried to write a sitcom that did well in all those places I’ve mentioned, you would imagine it would have to be so generic and so universal but the key to it seems to be how specific it is. It’s specific to a town in Northern Ireland. I’m quite struck by that, how it’s kind of like a strange Ulster folk song that people in New York and Melbourne are dancing to. It’s kind of like if people in New York or Los Angeles binge watching Glenroe. You would be going, ‘What the f**k? What’s going on? This is for Ulster people.’
“That’s the strange result, that it is a local story. You couldn’t dare predict that it would be a global success. Lisa (McGee, writer) said, ‘I want to write a story about what it was like for me growing up in the North of Ireland and whoever likes it likes it’.
“There was no allowance made like talking slower so people can understand ya. It was just, ‘Fire it out in your normal fast Derry accent’. Huge attempts weren’t made to make it understandable so in terms of people in Birmingham and Newcastle, never mind Manhattan and Melbourne, understanding what the girls are saying, there was no concession made for that.”
Derry Girls has drawn Father Ted comparisons. Tommy was involved in Father Ted playing a suicidal priest that Dermot Morgan’s character counselled back from the brink with the help of the theme tune to Shaft only for a bus driver playing a Radiohead song to send his mood crashing once again.
On any similarities between the two shows, he says: “Ted was almost a fable, it was kind of like a silly world full of silly people. So imaginative, it was so daft whereas this is realistic. Style-wise I think they’re very different.
“In terms of its popularity, I remember Ted would have started back in the days before Sky boxes and binge-watching. You knew 9 o’clock on channel 4 it was going out and you made it your business to watch it. I know viewing habits are very different nowadays. Someone said to me, ‘I love Derry Girls. I watched all of season one on a flight to Boston’. It’s a very different way of watching it. in terms of how it’s landed and the effect it has had on people, I suppose in a sense it’s done what Father Ted has done, it’s had the same kind of effect but that’s not something you can set out to try and do.”
Tommy has just returned to his chat show on RTE, a show that is unique in that the presenter does not know who his guests are until they walk out: “There’s a huge amount of the unknown in that show but yet the premise is so simple. When you think about it, the premise is less complicated than a traditional chat show because a traditional chat show, the guest will talk to a researcher and say, ‘You have to leave out this and you have to leave out that’.
“The host often has a little earpiece while the interview is going on with the producers saying, ‘Don’t forget to ask him about the divorce’. It’s a very convoluted attempt at making something look natural. The way I do my one is removing all those complications. I think what people have responded to in the chat show is it’s a very natural thing, it’s not convoluted at all.”
Father Brian D’Arcy wrote in his book It Has to Be Said about talking about the sexual abuse he was subjected to as a schoolboy and as a young priest. He went on to write about how Tommy called him the next day to see if he was alright.
“That particular moment, the conversation just wandered into this moment of abuse and because it’s a genuine conversation, it would be the same if you were sitting beside somebody in a bar at 2 o’clock in the day and all of a sudden they revealed this thing to you. Your inclination would be to phone them the following day and say, ‘Are ya alright?’ It’s as ordinary as that.
“Anytime you’re talking to somebody, even if you bump into someone at a bus stop, a conversation can float on the surface or else it can cut to the heart of the matter. You can look for drama and (it is important) not to be afraid to ask an important question.
“I’ve had some amazing conversations and conversations that people have responded to in a way that surprised me like the interview with Paul McGrath, there was a very strong reaction to the interview with Adam Clayton.
“Jon Kenny had what for me was an amazing story about how he got sick with a form or leukaemia and he reckons one of the things that healed him was staying behind in Thomond Park after matches and standing there with his hands open trying to draw all the positive energy that has been left behind from the crowd into his body. There’s kind of wild stuff like that that makes you go, ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, that’s interesting’.”
Tommy still does radio work and other projects with his former school friend Hector Ó hEochagáin. Dylan Moran, another of Ireland’s best comedians, also went to the same school as them both. Is there something in the water that makes Navan produce so many funny men? “I often wondered about it. Growing up, Navan was a town of the word. It could be a physically violent town, there was always that kind of undercurrent there but the liveliness and its vivacity and its danger was expressed through talking.
“I definitely remember growing up- Not that you had to be funny but you had to be able to survive verbally. Maybe there are parts of the East End that are like that, Liverpool and Manchester would have those reputations. So towns can have a kind of motif and Navan absolutely had that thing of the power of the word. I remember I spent four years in secondary school in Navan and then I was sent to a boarding school in Ballinasloe, it absolutely didn’t exist in Ballinasloe. It just wasn’t one of the ways that they behaved and there are no funny people from Ballinasloe,” he laughs.
“It brings us back to the sense of humour in Northern Ireland which is sharper than it is in the south of Ireland, specifically in Belfast and in Derry. They really will cut you down to size up there, they’re very, very sharp tongued.
“Growing up in Navan, it doesn’t surprise me that it has produced a few comedians really.
“I suppose there are parts of Ireland very famous for their sense of humour and Navan is one of them.”
Tommy is probably more associated with Galway these days. He has lived there a long time and just recently featured in the award-winning documentary Cumar: A Galway Rhapsody: “I’m here 31 years and Galway always survived on the stranger. It always kind of survived on outside traffic. I had an incident really where I was in a cafe with my son who’s 21 and he’s born and bred here. This woman came over, a Galway woman and she said, ‘Are you from Galway?’ I said, ‘I’m here 31 years’. ‘Ah, you’re not one of us at all’. And I said, ‘Well, my son was born here’. And she put her arm around him, ‘Ah, well, he is now, he’s one of us’. It’s a place where people who are not from here can feel at home. I feel at home here.”
Tommy got to feature in Ed Sheeran’s Galway Girl video but tells us his involvement came about rather unconventionally: “You would think somebody from Ed Sheeran’s management team would contact an agent who would contact an agent who would contact who would contact an agent who would contact a PA to try and organise this, ya know?
“I got a call from a fella who owns a garage in Galway and he said, ‘Ed Sheeran’s shooting a video in O’Connell’s tonight. If you want to be in it, be here at half nine’. I swear to God that’s how it happened. I was chatting to my wife and kids about it over dinner and they said, ‘You have to go’. It’s a very Galway way of ending up in something.”
The camera finds Tommy and Hector sat over pints. Is there any reason it finds them having a drink in the toilet? “Absolutely no reason. The camera was to follow Ed looking for Saoirse Ronan, he opens the door of the jacks and they wanted myself and Hector to be in there either pissing or fighting inside in the jacks. We said, ‘Look, any chance you can put a table and a few pints of porter?’ And they said, ‘Grand’.
“But it was an actual jacks so the stench of piss was f**king overwhelming and we were sitting in there for an hour or two to get it done. It’s odd, two fellas sitting down in the jacks drinking pints.”
Tommy Tiernan tours the UK with his Tomfoolery show throughout the month of March. His website.