Fringe upstaged by Irish man of letters

David Lister reports on the Edinburgh triumph of a stand-up comedian whose first novel is a roaring success
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The Independent Online
In Edinburgh this week some of the most raucous laughter has been emanating not from a comedy show on the fringe, but from a tent at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

There, Brendan O'Carroll, a Dublin stand-up comedian, has been reading from Mammy, his debut comic novel about Dublin working-class life.

Mammy topped the Irish bestsellers list for 16 weeks. It is a good yarn, but it palls before the far more astonishing story of O'Carroll's own life.

Accurately billed at the book festival as Ireland's most popular comedian, O'Carroll is virtually unknown in Britain where he has to hire his own theatre to put on a show. Yet this is a man who has just returned from New York where he played to 8,000-strong audiences on Broadway; whose debut novel topped the bestsellers list without getting a single review in a national paper; a man who wrote a five-minute daily soap on Irish radio and had much of Dublin stopping work to listen.

At 39, with an elfin face, small black moustache, rather large ears and dressed in his ubiquitous sports shirt, the diminutive O'Carroll looks for all the world like a football referee. His quickfire and largely improvised act is said to be a cross between Robin Williams and Billy Connolly, liberally but never offensively laced with the strong language that has helped to keep him off British television.

He was born one of 11 children in working-class Dublin, and, in a feat that surely must be a record, all of them ended up going into the hotel trade, mostly in menial capacities.

His mother was a teacher and his father a carpenter. "I was the youngest of all," he recalls, "which meant I had to eat fast. My mother had me at the age of 48. She told me I was one last time for old times' sake."

But the repartee ceases quickly when he reminisces about his mother Maureen, who died 10 years ago, and was clearly years ahead of her time in her attitudes. "She married my father, who died when I was nine, because she subliminally knew that he was exactly the sort of person she needed for her to run her life the way she wanted. In 1952, she was the only woman elected to the Dail, and the speaker interrupted her maiden speech because she was wearing a trouser suit. He asked when would the deputy from Dublin North West wear a dress and hat; she said when every other deputy wears a dress and hat.

"When she retired she had pounds 46,000 saved and bought two houses and opened them as places for the homeless. We continued to live in a council house and I worked as a kid making beds in the homes my mother ran."

At 14 he was sent to reform school for stealing. As an adult he starting running a pub, but his partner absconded with the money leaving O'Carroll owing pounds 96,000. He had left school at the age of 12, had been in catering for 16 years and did not know what to do. But he was a natural storyteller, and friends suggested he try going on stage.

"My first gig was in October '91. I got paid pounds 75. Within four weeks I was taking pounds 750 on a Tuesday night in Dublin, and I realised this was a serious business. I suppose I took a James Joyce attitude. Whatever was in my head I would say. I never do racism and I never do Northern Ireland because I don't find either subject funny. But I never worry about being politically correct because I grew up in a house where that didn't exist. The boys made the beds and the girls did the fire."

O'Carroll's big break came in February 1993 when he was invited on to Ireland's biggest chat show, The Late Late Show, for a nine-minute interview. "They asked me five questions and I went on for 35 minutes. The next day my entire life changed. I sat up in bed the next morning, lit a cigarette and thought 'I've passed my A-levels'. Two nights later I was gigging for pounds 3,000". That was at the club where the owner once told O'Carroll he wouldn't have him washing the windows. He gets charged pounds 7,000.

Women form the bulk of O'Carroll's audience. "I will only do mixed audiences," he says, "because girls have a better sense of humour than men. And you can't offend women. Think about the average Irish woman. She has three children. Strange men put their fingers inside her in the hospital and prod and poke her, she delivers those three children to an audience of strangers in the most undignified position. Compare that to a man who may go into a hospital once and would never let anyone touch his genitalia. "

Now O'Carroll, who had 750,000 people a day listening to his soaps and can name his own price on the circuit in Ireland and America, looks for a British break. Two years ago he hired the Beck Theatre in Hayes near London and played to an audience of 80. When he returned recently the word of mouth had spread and both nights sold out in an afternoon. British film director Stephen Frears has headhunted him for a part in the movie of Roddy Doyle's The Van.

As we spoke, O'Carroll's publisher told him his novel was now the biggest home-grown seller in Ireland. I questioned whether this could really be true. Bigger than Joyce's Ulysses?

"Yeah," he replied, "but Ulysses wasn't funny."