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Ardal the Third: Comedian blames his two older siblings for hitting the stage

© Mark NixonArdal O'Hanlon
Ardal O'Hanlon

“Ardal, there’s a question I just have to ask,” I say. “How many times a day are you forced to talk about My Hero?”

Ardal O’Hanlon, stand-up comedian, novelist and much-loved comic actor, barks a laugh as he sits in his Dublin home. “Not a huge amount,” he admits. “There are other shows I get asked about quite a lot.”

There you have it. When fans meet him it’s not his role as Thermoman in the BBC sitcom of the early 2000s they want to talk about. I suppose they are too busy asking him about his time in the BBC crime drama Death in Paradise. Or maybe, just maybe, that other show he was in, back in the 1990s. What was it called again? Oh yes, Father Ted.

O’Hanlon only played Father Dougal McGuire, the gormless priest on Craggy Island, for three years and 25 episodes back in the mid-1990s. But it remains the thing he is best known for.

But before he was a TV star, O’Hanlon was a stand-up comic. He still is. And, if you are in Forres, Oban or Inverness at the start of next month, there’s a chance to catch him at his day job.

“I’ve never been to Forres before,” O’Hanlon admits. “Never been to Oban. Been to Inverness a number of times. But this is one of the reasons I still do stand-up. You get to visit new places and meet new people.

“I’ve always wanted to do a Highlands and Islands tour. This is as much as we could come up with. I just love to travel.”

Caped comic in My Hero

So, he’ll be taking in the sights of Forres and Oban then? “I have a routine now. I go for a walk, have a little nosey around, see if there is anything I can crowbar into the set later on. I go looking for soup. That would be a big part of the day. And I have a little nap and then do the show.”

What should we expect? “I touch on how big tech has taken over our lives. About online medical consultations, for example. That’s been a rich source of fun for me. And also I don’t know if anyone wants to revisit the pandemic, but there’s a bit of that in the mix.”

O’Hanlon grew up in Carrickmacross in County Monaghan, close to the border with Northern Ireland. His father was a doctor and a Fianna Fail politician and a member of Dail Eireann, sitting in the lower house of the Irish Parliament. His son took a very different journey. Why stand-up, Ardal?

“It should be obvious. I’m a third child. I didn’t get enough attention when I was younger. It goes without saying.” He’s not kidding. “I honestly think that is a factor, for sure. I was a really quiet, shy kid growing up and I didn’t want to be. So when I got the opportunity at college – and I think you only get one or two opportunities in your life to reinvent yourself – I just decided to put myself up for the stage.”

He circles back to his original point. “I think the third child is interesting. I’ve done research myself, and the research showed that the vast majority of Nobel Prize winners in all the fields – science and arts – they’re all first-born children, which tells you a lot. And likewise all the US presidents are first-born. Henry the Eighth was a third-born. Hitler was a third-born. So my parents were lucky I’m a comedian.”

Ardal O’Hanlon, left, as Father Dougal in Father Ted

O’Hanlon, now 57, has spent nearly 30 years (and counting) making people laugh. The thrill of it hasn’t soured yet. “I do it because I enjoy it. I love it. It’s a great way to get stuff off your chest, you get to rant and rave, you get to be a bigger version of yourself for a short time.

“It’s a great platform and, even though my stuff is all pretty uncontroversial – I think I’m a bit of a crowd pleaser by inclination, by instinct – you get to smuggle in your own little thoughts and ideas about the world, as well.”

Is that becoming more difficult, though? A few days before we speak, his fellow Father Ted star Graham Norton deleted his Twitter feed after he was criticised for remarks he made challenging the idea of cancel culture and asking for people to listen to transgender people. (One of those criticising him was Graham Linehan, one of the writers of Father Ted and an outspoken anti-trans activist).

Does this kind of thing make O’Hanlon think more about what he’s going to say on stage these days?

“I think I always thought a lot about what I was going to say, anyway. I try to ignore that debate as much as I can. You can’t ignore it completely, obviously. You’re always going to upset some people. My instinct would be to be, by and large, pretty respectful of most people. The nature of my act is not to be willfully offensive or gratuitous in any way.

“But, having said that, you don’t want to censor yourself too much…unless your parents are in the audience.

“I do think the debate is particularly acute in Britain, where there is a kind of raging culture war. It’s not really the case here in Ireland.

“I did this little tour of America just last month and I went to a few different comedy shows on my nights off and they don’t have any problems. What was really interesting was you had to hand your phone over when you went into the venue. You had to put it in a sealed envelope and, instead of being a safe space for sensitive audience members, it was a safe space for comedians to do whatever the hell they wanted to do. And it was very politically incorrect in places. Very funny as well.

“I’m all for cancelling really bad comedy, really unfunny comedy and there’s plenty of that around. But if it’s funny and if the intent is pure, I’d be reluctant to cancel.”

I haven’t asked him anything about Father Ted, have I? Is it true you only got £2,000 per episode, Ardal? “That’s roughly about right, yeah. It was my first job for TV.”

How about residuals? “Not as much as probably people think I do. Very little as time goes on. I’m not playing the poor mouth here. That’s the reality of when you do a show when you’re starting out. You’re going to be paid peanuts and I’m sure that’s still the case today.

“But the rewards were enormous in other ways.”

Ardal as DI Jack Mooney in Death In Paradise, centre

What is fascinating is how the series helped change our image of Ireland. And maybe Ireland’s image of itself.

“I think it came along at the perfect time,” he agrees. “People were totally ready for it. They were totally ready for the church to be satirised in that way.

“There was a big interest in Irish culture generally around that time in the UK. Irish bands were doing really well, Irish writers were winning prizes. There were a lot of Irish people on TV and a lot of Irish stand-ups. I was part of that wave.

“At the very beginning of Father Ted, I think people were a little bit worried about how Ireland would be represented, with the drunken priest and the stupid priest and the feckless priest and the violently hospitable housekeeper. People thought, ‘Oh, this is very cliched’. That was their immediate reaction. But I think they quickly realised this was a confident Irish generation who were playing with those stereotypes.”

It’s now been almost 25 years since the last episode aired in 1998. But O’Hanlon, Norton and Pauline McLynn (who played Mrs Doyle) have long since moved on.

Or have they?

“Interestingly, myself and Pauline have been reunited 25 years on in a new show for Sky,” O’Hanlon says. “The show is called Rosie Molloy Gives Up Everything and we play the parents of a character played by Sheridan Smith. So there’s a little twist of fate there.”

Everything comes around again eventually. Can’t be long until the My Hero revival, surely?

Ardal O’Hanlon plays Forres on November 4, Inverness on November 5 and Oban the day after. Sky comedy Rosie Molloy Gives Up Everything will air in December