Tiochfaidh ar Laugh – A brief history of Irish comedy…

At times like these when so many of us are simply not amused humour can often be the best medicine…

After the ground-breaking Father Ted hit our screens a quarter of a century ago, Irish comedy shows tended to keep a low profile within the wider televisual world. However in recent years we’ve had something of a renaissance, now that three Irish comedies have made their mark on UK TV.

The most popular of these shows (purely in ratings terms at least) is the pantomimesque fourth wall-breaking farce Mrs Brown’s Boys starring Brendan O’Carroll in drag as the titular foul-mouthed Dublin matriarch along with various other members of his family in supporting roles. Loved by the masses, but universally panned by the critics Mrs Brown is very much a marmite-style show. But whether you love it or hate, there’s no denying that O’Carroll knows the secret behind a winning formula.

Derry Girls in contrast has received much critical acclaim in its coming-of-age portrayal of a group of schoolgirls set in the 1990s. And it’s also helped revive the careers of ageing comics like Tommy Tiernan and Kevin McAleer. Although not the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, these young Foyleside ladies have an energy and warmth to them which can be quite infectious at times.

Of course when we think specifically of contemporary Northern Irish comedy, the Hole in the Wall/Give my Head Peace/Blame Game brigade will usually spring to mind. On their regular tours of Norn Iron/The Pravince/The North/The Occupied Six Counties/Ulster minus three/Our Wee Country (delete as appropriate) they can easily fill local theatres from Strabane to Newry via Ballymena and Portadown, but the very narrow parochial nature of their “green v orange/prod v taig” style of humour means you won’t see them performing in Letterkenny or Dundalk – nor for that matter in Leeds or Dundee. Another local comic Patrick Kielty was to find this out to his cost during one of his early appearances on a BBC show. A critic in one of the English broadsheets pointed out that jokes about Orangemen marching down roads may go down well in Lurgan – but not so well in Luton. To be fair to Kielty though he does seem to have successfully branched out and since gained a well-deserved reputation as an acclaimed documentary maker.

However of three Irish sitcoms currently blazing a trail on British TV, my personal favourite is The Young Offenders (available on BBC iPlayer) which follows the misadventures of two dim, but likeable juvenile delinquents from a Cork city council estate. Their frequent run-ins with the law, the headmaster and local thugs can verge on the surreal and the farcical. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly original.

A few decades ago the words “Irish comedy” would have conjured up images of old school gag merchants like Frank “that’s a cracker” Carson, Roy “it’s good, but it’s not right” Walker and Jimmy “and there’s more” Cricket; comics who cut their teeth in the smoke-filled northern English working mens clubs and the end-of-the-pier theatres in run-down seaside resorts. Then along came the revolutionary Dave Allen – hugely popular in Britain, but a virtual pariah in his native land largely due to his tendency to make fun of religion. How times have changed! So when Dermot Morgan appeared on the scene with his portrayal of Ireland’s favourite fictional priest, you could say that things really had come full circle.

And today we have a new generation of stand-ups like Aisling Bea, Grainne Maguire, David O’Doherty and Andrew Maxwell who continue to keep UK audiences amused in the comedy clubs and numerous panel shows which tend to dominate the schedules these days. Lockdowns and pandemics aren’t exactly wile craic – but long may the laughter go on.