Most people know him as the chubby, slightly cherubic Father Dougal. Now meet the chubby, slightly cherubic stand-up

the interview: ARDAL O'HANLAN TALKS TO SHEILA JOHNSTON photograph by tony buckingham
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Compering last week's BBC New Comedy Awards Ardal O'Hanlon outlined the glittering future that awaited the winner. A fat cheque. A radio commission. A tasteful trophy. And (pause for effect) a huge ego, a drink problem, a sordid lifestyle and a pauper's grave. Followed swiftly by resurrection on a television game show.

O'Hanlon's own stand-up act won him a Comedy Newcomer of the Year Award in 1994, days after his arrival in London. Then there were a couple more prizes, and then he landed the plum role of the gentle simpleton Father Dougal in Father Ted, the Channel 4 sitcom about three renegade priests exiled to the Wild West of Ireland (the second series is being repeated on Saturday nights). Then that won him the award for Best Television Comedy Newcomer last year. He is about to embark on a three-month, 45-gig tour, as well as presenting the next season of BBC1's The Stand-Up Show. A third series of Father Ted is in prospect, and there will be a Christmas special to tide us over until it arrives. All that's missing is a regular spot on a game show. He is, surely, speaking from experience.

Both as Father Dougal and in his stand-up persona, O'Hanlon comes across as chubby and slightly cherubic - naive, inquiring and permanently perplexed by the marvels of the world. A rampant ego is not much in evidence there. He might begin a typical gig like a schoolboy presenting an end of term project to his classmates: "My name is Ardal and I know a fair bit, and now I'm going to tell you some of the stuff I know". What he knows is a fair distillation of the sum of human knowledge, from how to drive off on holiday without any petrol to what happens to sheep in the rain.

He inhabits a bright, spick-and-span rented flat in Crouch End. "We spent all day yesterday cleaning it," he confesses. "It's always clean," objects Melanie, his childhood friend (they met, aged four, in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, the small Irish border town where O'Hanlon grew up) and, for the last six months, his wife. Not quite a sordid lifestyle, then. "I've tried everything," he says earnestly "but it didn't work for me. I actually disapprove of competitions. It takes away from the spirit of comedy; it encourages an element which I don't think belongs. Comedy, surely, is about self-expression; it's not just a job. I see it more as an attitude - it's about rejecting conventional society, the rat race and all of that. But I've done very well out of it myself. I'm a walking contradiction."

His visit to year's Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal - an invitation he was proud to receive - summed up everything he hates about competitions and conventions. "Everyone's incredibly hyped-up there, no one's less animated than, say, Jim Carrey. And the gulf between the different comedy cultures is as big as the Atlantic itself. Here it's more casual and relaxed and shuffling, whereas North American comedy is very sophisticated, far more polished. It's high-powered and it's macho and big. And you're playing to suits, North American television executives. Everyone's walking around with a clipboard. We could have been selling armaments. It was soul- destroying. You go there and you think 'is this what I do comedy for?' "

Why, then, does Ardal O'Hanlon do comedy? "I suppose it was rebellion in some way. I was always shy as a kid. I had no experience of showbusiness or anything like that in my family. I never spoke in my home village. I never left the house, ever," he says beginning to riff on the subject: the absurdities and mock-hardship of his rural childhood forms a cornerstone of his stand-up act (a typical aside: "From where I come from, expectations are very low. If you expect a kick in the balls and get a slap in the face, its a victory"). In fact, as O'Hanlon, the third of six children, admits, he comes from a comfortable, educated background; his father, a doctor, was and is a Fianna Fail politician.

Neither of his parents was delighted at their son's choice of career. "They couldn't believe it. They were shocked, dismayed. They always encouraged their kids to go into respectable professions. My sister is a doctor, my brother is an accountant, I've another sister who's a nurse. And they saw me doing absolutely nothing. They would pop in sometimes when I did shows and would be two of 10 people in the audience. They would hang their heads in shame. I remember my mother saying 'but ... but you're just not funny.' They just didn't get it." The black sheep of the family, then? "There are sheep who are blacker," he says darkly. "But the less said about that the better, I'm a chameleon sheep."

His overnight transformation from black to white came with the enormous success of Father Ted. "It is really only since then that they finally appreciate what I've been up to. And, if anything, now my father sees the show as an advantage. When he knocks on people's doors, they say, 'oh it's hilarious, we all love it'. So it reflects well on him, because normally he's viewed as a very sober politician. It gives him a bit of youth cred."

It all began at university in Dublin where O'Hanlon started up a sketch review with two of his mates. "We went to a pub and we said 'you've got a fine room there, can we have it on a Wednesday night for no rent?' and they said 'grand'. So we set up the Comedy Cellar. It's still there. We played there week in, week out. It was a beacon for Irish comedy." The trio, called Mr Trellis, performed sketches. "Silly stuff. Like we would be three synchronised swimmers doing impressions of famous films, if you can imagine that. I'm always," he adds needlessly, "drawn to the silly."

He stayed on the dole, scavenging money where he could find it: a day as an extra in My Left Foot earned him pounds 50, and his ear may be glimpsed in one scene (his film career continues to flourish with a role in Neil Jordan's forthcoming film The Butcher Boy, in which, he says, you can practically see his whole head). "I told my parents I was an engineer living in California, designing computer chips," he deadpans. "They didn't believe me, 'cos they had my phone number in Dublin. You didn't admit to being a comic in Ireland. You'd say under your breath 'I'm a comedian' and people would go 'yeah, sure you are'. They have, not contempt but a healthy disregard for anything as pretentious. "There's a different culture of going out there. You make your own entertainment. You go to the pub, you share stories. That's why Ireland produces such good comics and writers and people in the creative arts. There's not much else to do. You have to leave eventually: it's an age-old Irish problem. It's a great place to learn, though, away from the competitive businesslike arena that is London comedy."

And so, two years ago, at 28, O'Hanlon crossed the Irish Sea, but took with him his accent and a supply of what reviewers invariably refer to as "Gaelic charm" (this, he points out with slight embarrassment, is probably because the phrase appears on his press release). "There is an expectation when an Irish comic comes out that he will be whimsical, absurd, gentle and meandering. It's based on a certain reality. And I surely am one who fulfils that expectation, although I'm trying to get away from it."

The one occasion on which the old Gaelic charm failed him was the night of the Canary Wharf explosion. "It's the only time I encountered any hostility. Somebody objected very strongly to having an Irish person on the bill, and just went a bit crazy. Fortunately the rest of the audience turned on that person and I was able to get through my act. And then get off and run away. After that I didn't feel uncomfortable about being Irish in London, apart from the same worry as everyone else, that a bomb might go off in a bin beside me."

This brings us to Father Ted, which (on paper, at least) recycles the greenest of Oirish stereotypes; the whiskey priest, the lovable rogue priest and the holy fool priest. But, as O'Hanlon points out, that would be to underestimate its sophistication. "The two writers [Graham Lineham and Arthur Matthews] are based here and very media-literate, up to their necks in popular culture. You get the odd second-generation Irish people living in Britain who still have a kind of siege mentality about the way they're represented. But then what sitcom doesn't make its subjects look foolish? In Ireland Father Ted is popular. Ireland of late, and it's only of late, has grown in self-esteem and self-confidence. We aren't remotely worried about what people think, the way we were 25 years ago." He describes the filming as "a holiday camp atmosphere", with a fair degree of collaboration from the members of the cast. Standing under a rain machine, Dermot Morgan (Father Ted) once joked that they would soon find themselves under a lorry load of shit, and duly found the gag written into the second series. Sadly an episode proposed by O'Hanlon in which the priests all go on a jaunt to Rome was not picked up on by the producers. "But," he says "it's one of the few things that I can say is more enjoyable to do than nothing."

And there are other perks. "I went into a shop in Limerick one night for some chocolate and the guy behind the counter gave me it all free, not because he was familiar with the show but because he thought I was a priest. Then he said - the Catholic Church gets such a hammering every day in Ireland - 'don't worry about which they say. We love you.' The respect you get is incredible. As a priest you get everything free in Ireland. One football club used to let priests in free and loads of people used to turn up dressed in dog collars." That scrap of knowledge might come in handy some day if O'Hanlon should ever find himself down on his luck, with even an advertising voice-over out of the question. But somehow one doubts he'll need it.

8 Ardal O'Hanlon's national tour begins on 23 Sept. For details, call 0171 580 9644