By Pierce O’Reilly
This weekend, tri-state Irish welcome the New York Irish Comedy Festival, a full year after Irish comic Ardal O’ Hanlon and Tommy Tiernan delighted New York audiences with their sold-out double bill in the city.
O’Hanlon, a Monaghan native best known for his role as the beloved Father Dougal in the acclaimed TV show "Father Ted," is now back in the Big Apple and eager, he said, to "hurt your belly" with laughter.
O’Hanlon is an award-winning stand-up comedian, actor and author. He has appeared in a number of films, including "The Butcher Boy" and "Flying Saucer Rock ‘n’ Roll." His first novel, "Knick Knack Paddy Whack," was a bestseller in the UK.
Hot from his sold-out run at the 1,200-capacity Edinburgh International Center and having stormed the Montreal Festival, O’Hanlon will return for the New York 2001 Irish Comedy Festival. Not content with having comedy fans in Ireland and the UK in his pocket, O’Hanlon may soon have millions more across America at his feet.
"New York is definitely one of the best places that I’ve ever gigged," he said last week. "Irish people are great for having a laugh and it amazed me the turnout and support we got last year. To be honest, the cross-cultural audiences were magnificent: you could slag basically who ever you wanted."
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The New York festival will feature season comics as well as newcomers. Among those invited to take part are Colin Quinn from "Saturday Night Live," Janeane Garofolo and Graham Linehan, of and writer for "Father Ted" and the hit film "The Matchmaker".
"You don’t have to be Irish to have an opinion on Ireland; in fact, you don’t even have to have been there," according to Tracey Ferguson, the festival organizer.
For his part, O’Hanlon started his career as a member of the comedy trio Mr. Trellis when The Cellar was founded in Dublin in 1988.
"We were basically unemployed entrepreneurs," O’Hanlon said. "We’d stand up in front of a full room of critics and try to make them laugh for free."
The Cellar has been run by the comedians who have performed there since its conception. It’s a no-frills venue — no promoters or PR personnel, no messing or fighting, not even a mike to hide behind. It’s simply a place where comedians make punters laugh for free every Wednesday night.
"To succeed, all the good comedians had to travel to London," O’Hanlon said. "Irish people love comedy, but they expect to get it for free and that’s a problem for us. You see everyone in Ireland is a comic in their own right, we just have such a humorous nature and we love to laugh at each other.
"In London, they laugh as much, but they pay for the privilege. The punter doesn’t realize how hard we work."
O’Hanlon grew up in a privileged household. His father Rory O’Hanlon was a government TD for Cavan Monaghan and there was always enough food and love for the family.
"I loved the country people around where I lived," he said. "I’d spend hours talking to the auld fellows coming home from the pub or the mart and getting the most amazing stories from them, some true and others complete rubbish, yet they were all told with gusto and imagination."
O’Hanlon hit the headlines when the TV show "Fr. Ted" hit the screens. He played a curate on Craggy Island and with the late Dermot Morgan. The show took the mickey out of the clerical life in Ireland over the last century. With nearly 2.5 million people visiting their website now and two British Comedy Awards for Best Sitcom, O’Hanlon is a confirmed favorite with British and Irish audiences.
"I might be making a better living now than in the past, but I still do the same job, try and make people laugh and that’s no easy job," O’Hanlon said. "TV work and films and sitcoms are good for the income, but the bread and butter of life for all comedians is the standup gigs every weekend."
O’Hanlon is currently working on a short film in L.A., where he played the role of an Irish gangster.
"It’s exiting work for me, but with two young daughters and a wife, it’s getting more difficult every day to get away and do those sort of things," he said. "When they happen, they are great, but you can only do a few a year."
As for the New York gig this weekend, O’Hanlon is excited about the program. "We’ll have a laugh and enjoy the experience," he said. "It’s amazing how popular Irish comedy is now. Just look at all the festivals that have sprung up around the country."
O’Hanlon will perform with British Comedy Award Winner for Best Stand Up, Tommy Tiernan. "Tommy is great fun, really," O’Hanlon said. "I suppose he’s a mixture of honesty and lunacy. We do a good show together. Tommy’s enchanting combination of hilarious recollections of growing up in rural Ireland, with acute observations of the world at large, guarantees that there is no other performer like him. "
The festival will take place this coming weekend, culminating in the final night, Monday, Jan. 29, on Broadway at Symphony Space.