‘It’s not a political novel, Mary Lou’: Ardal O’Hanlon on writing, religion and Irish republicanism

When Covid put a stop to live performances, the comedian returned to the draft of a book he had started years previously and the result is a laugh-out-loud novel with some dark and bloody twists

Ardal O’Hanlon: ‘As a comedian and writer, I sit on the fence and scoff at all political parties; that’s part of my job.’ Picture: Fergal Phillips

Everyone’s got a book in them, goes the old adage. But not everybody has two. And not everyone takes almost a quarter of a century between their first and second novels. Actor and stand-up comedian Ardal O’Hanlon did, with a first draft sitting at home for “six or seven years” following his 1998 debut The Talk of the Town before he eventually dusted the manuscript off in the midst of the pandemic.

“That first draft took about six months of work,” he tells me in the Ranelagh coffee shop where we meet. “I actually rented an office for six months, at huge personal expense, to show the commitment to myself, because I’d been burned before in terms of starting something and not finishing it, and that’s a harsh lesson to learn. So I really wanted to make sure I got it right this time.”

When lockdown hit, ending his chances of any stand-up work, O’Hanlon found himself with the time to devote to his manuscript. So many years had passed since its creation that it almost felt like reading someone else’s work. “When I was turning the page, I was constantly surprising myself,” he grins. “I couldn’t remember writing it and I couldn’t remember what happens next, so I was really tickled by it. I’m always plagued by self-doubt with everything I’ve ever done, but with this I was getting a real kick out of it myself. I hope that wasn’t just the madness of Covid and brain-fog, but I was really enjoying it and felt it was something I could work on for the next year.”

The result is Brouhaha, a darkly hilarious tale of violence, greed and extortion in a fictional Irish border town after the Good Friday Agreement. When his best friend ends his own life, Philip Sharkey returns to Tullyanna for the funeral, where he teams up with an ex-Garda and a journalist to find out the answers to a mystery that’s a decade old, the disappearance of his teenage friend, Sandra Mohan. What follows is part crime caper and part madcap comedy, as these unlikely allies blunder towards the truth, all delivered with the blackest of humour.

“I had one or two characters that lived with me for a few years, so I knew them inside-out, and more importantly, I had the tone I wanted, that slightly heightened reality, with a slight comic sensibility, but hopefully not at the expense of plot or drama,” O’Hanlon says. “Hopefully, it’s coming from the characters and the situations they find themselves in. I really didn’t want to force the humour; it’s a tricky one, a balancing act, and something I really worked very hard on.”

While the book is fiction, O’Hanlon’s own experiences, growing up close to the border in Carrickmacross in Monaghan, have obviously had a big influence. “I was always an observer as a kid,” he recalls. “I would say I was genuinely a watchful child; even in the school playground, if I wasn’t playing football, I was standing watching. I wouldn’t be one of the boys having all the craic; I would have been watching those boys having the craic.”

“From a very early age, maybe around seven, I would have read the newspaper from cover to cover. I would have watched the news every night with my family and I would have taken in all those stories about the Troubles, the carnage that was happening only down the road. I would have been very aware of the Troubles, growing up.”

His other, slightly more macabre interest, was in the court reports from the Northern Standard and the Dundalk Democrat. “I read those avidly. They weren’t Troubles-related; they were about casual, everyday crazy gothic levels of violence in rural Ireland, so I was shocked and fascinated by them.”

While it’s frequently laugh-out-loud funny, Brouhaha is also very bloody and dark. The book’s violence, he says, is “stylised in a choreographed, Tarantino-esque way”.

“Dark stuff happens in every town in Ireland, Britain and the world. I could have written a cosy crime novel or a jaunty tale of rural Ireland and part of me would love to write that book, but the other part of me has this idea that a writer can’t be squeamish. What attracts you to writing in the first place is life in all its complexity; the beauty, the joy and the horror; we’re drawn to every side of it.”

One group that casts quite a long shadow over proceedings in the novel is The Party, the political wing of a former paramilitary organisation, which bears a strong resemblance to a real life political entity that is currently riding high in the polls. “I didn’t want the reader to have to know about contemporary Irish politics to appreciate the novel,” O’Hanlon says.

While he doesn’t mention Sinn Féin by name, O’Hanlon is quite scathing in his depiction of “the organisation”. “I think that’s part of the satire,” he says. “I’m interested in the rise of Sinn Féin as a student of politics, but I’m not party political in any way. I don’t do politics because I don’t like the adversarial point scoring of politics. So, as a comedian and writer, I sit on the fence and scoff at all political parties; that’s part of my job.”

He is, he admits, fascinated by the continued rise of Sinn Féin. “I’m impressed by how well mobilised they are, how well marketed they are, how dynamic they are as a party and individuals. They’re offering a slightly different alternative to the Irish public and they may succeed. But it’s only 25 years since they were excusing violence, justifying violence so, from a novelist’s point of view, the question is ‘Is that enough time? Have they come clean about everything they could possibly come clean about to help families who are looking for justice and truth?’”

He is not “absolutist” about Sinn Féin, he says. “When I hear journalists asking Gerry Adams if he was the leader of the IRA, I find that tedious and boring. Who cares? That’s not the point here. I welcome the peace process. I cheer-leaded Gerry Adams when he brought Sinn Féin in from the cold. So I’m more ambivalent about it than some of my characters. I’m not alarmist and I’m not worried about the future of our country. Our country is remarkably stable. We are one of the most stable democracies in Europe. But to an outsider, I would imagine it’s very weird that an organisation that was apologising for paramilitaries only 25 years ago could be running the country in a very stable democracy on the western seaboard of Europe. It’s an interesting situation to write about.”

The face of The Party in Tullyanna is prospective TD Fergal Coleman, with a ready smile and a thin veneer of respectability over a lifetime of badness. “I wanted to make him interesting and fun,” O’Hanlon says. “I’ve met people who are bad people and they can be very charming, so you forget about what you know or what you’ve heard about them. You almost don’t believe it because they’re charming and fun; they’re the life and soul of the party. Coleman had a very chequered past and maybe he is a redeemed character, we don’t really know.”

Another character, a former paramilitary leader, is a renowned fuel smuggler, a fact which everybody seems to know, but is happy to ignore in a bid to cement peace.

“The peace process is great and we all celebrated it, but there was a small price to pay for peace and one of those payments was turning a blind eye to certain events,” O’Hanlon says.

“Rumour has it that people from that time were allowed to smuggle fuel, they were allowed racketeer with impunity. You remember the Northern Bank robbery; rumour has it that they were allowed to get away with that. It was the price of peace and we were prepared to pay that, at the very highest political levels. Is it too big a price to pay? That’s one of the questions the book asks. But it’s not a political novel,” he laughs, and leans into my recorder, his voice getting louder. “It’s not a political novel, Mary Lou.”

As well as politics, religion rears its head throughout the book. Religion was an important part of O’Hanlon’s life, growing up. “It wasn’t that we were any more observant or pious than any other family in the area, but when you look back, we were absolutely steeped in it. I remember with the rosary, for example, we didn’t say the rosary every night of our lives, but I think when times were bad, we probably said it more often.”

At one point, the journalist character Joanne wonders whether it’s worse to believe in a vengeful God or to not believe in a loving God.

“That’s Joanne channelling me or me channelling Joanne,” he sighs. “I don’t really believe in God, but I regularly find myself defending God’s honour. That’s where that comes from; which would you prefer, a horrible God who sent the virus, the God who sends famine and war, or the loving God in our imagination?

“I think religion is okay. I value religion as a binding force in our lives. If you meet individual priests, they’re lovely, articulate men; many are scholars, raconteurs. The consoling words they say at funerals are fantastic. So I think there’s a place for religion and a place for reflection certainly, for communal gathering and marking the big occasions in life. Religion does that. We are saddled with a certain institution in this country that has dirtied its bib over the years, so there is damage done. But someone has to fill that role.”

Atheism, he insists, is not the answer: “Even though I’m not a believer, I have less time for atheists. They’re just trying to offer a version of the same thing, basically. You hear people like [British philosopher] Alain de Botton saying we should erect a huge place where atheists can go; that’s exactly the same f**king thing. And there’s going to be a hierarchy if you do that, because there will be someone leading the service or whatever it is.”

O’Hanlon also pays tribute to fellow Monaghan native Patrick Kavanagh in the novel. “I’m a big fan of Kavanagh. I love his bitter, cynical diatribes about Ireland and other writers. It’s great. But he’s at his best when he’s being all poetic,” he laughs. “I did want to give him a nod, but there was also a bit of a satirical aspect about people exploiting his legacy in the Celtic Tiger era.”

O’Hanlon has been hugely busy with TV work of late. He left the BBC series Death in Paradise in 2020 after four seasons shooting in the Caribbean: “As a very pale Irish person who rarely leaves the house, living the outdoor life over there for four summers was a great life experience and one that I will always remember.”

He’s currently appearing in the latest series of Taskmaster on Channel 4, whereby contestants compete in a series of weird and wacky challenges presented by Greg Davies and Alex Horne. “It’s a joyful show, and in my case a liberating show,” he says. “There’s no script, no safety net; you’re just given these ridiculous tasks that no human being has ever been given before and you’re absolutely running on adrenaline, living on your wits. It’s all for laughs and it’s very enjoyable.”

He will also be hitting screens in the near future in a new Sky sitcom, Rosie Molloy Gives Up Everything, where O’Hanlon is reunited with his former Father Ted co-star Pauline McLynn, as well as Sheridan Smith (The Royle Family, Gavin & Stacey), who plays the titular character.

“Rosie Molloy is addicted to everything: drink, drugs, sex, food, and she reaches a point where she feels she has to change her life,” he says. “Myself and Pauline play her parents, who are Northern Irish but settled in Manchester, and in a way we enable her through her own bad choices. It’s a family that’s slightly dysfunctional, but very loving. It’s very funny and very edgy.”

He has also appeared in Derry Girls as hapless cousin Eamon, including a cameo in the recent finale of the series that has become a cultural phenomenon. “My contribution is tiny, but it was an honour to be part of it because it’s going to be one of those shows that kinda transcends comedy, in the way it’s been received,” he says. “It’s a really joyful show, really clever, funny and uplifting. It celebrates women, celebrates Derry, celebrates Northern Ireland. It has a really warm heart. And Lisa McGee, the writer, managed to cram a little bit of politics in there, particularly in the last episode.”

Over the summer, O’Hanlon has some stand-up dates, including the Vodafone Comedy Festival in Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens in July and some festival appearances in Britain, as well as a planned US tour in September.

Having tried his hand at a play (“I had a good start, but I probably bowdlerised it for this”) and a film screenplay (“It got to a certain level but no further”), O’Hanlon feels he has found his groove as a fiction writer. While he doesn’t foresee another 25-year wait for the next book, neither does he have any more hidden drafts under his mattress.

“I wish I could say I had, but no,” he sighs. “I hope I won’t be as long next time. Confidence is the wrong word, but I really enjoyed the process this time, because I had a very bad experience with my last attempt at a novel, so I put it off for a very long time. This was a good experience, immaterial of how it’s received by the public; that’s in the lap of the gods.”

Brouhaha is published by HarperCollins