By Eileen Murphy
Most people have a fair idea as to when they began their careers. Brendan O’Carroll can name the exact date: Oct. 10, 1990, at about 9 p.m., give or take a few minutes.
“My world had just crashed down,” he said over cigarettes and coffee last week at the Fitzpatrick Manhattan Hotel. “A friend and I owned a bar in a tough section of Dublin. I’d taken my first vacation in four years, to go to my sister’s wedding in Toronto. When I came back, my partner was gone, my money was gone, the tables, the chairs, carpet, everything — even the light fixtures — gone.”
At the age of 34, O’Carroll was left without a job. “I’d no money, no social security, nothing,” he recalled. “I went into shock for about two weeks. I couldn’t even talk.”
Then O’Carroll thought of his mother’s advice.
“She’d say, ‘If you want somethin’ bad enough, pray for it, then get up off your knees and do something about it,’ ” he recalled
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O’Carroll called a friend, John Sweeney, who owned a pub in Rathmines and asked for a performing gig.
“Doin’ what?” asked Sweeney.
“Comedy,” replied O’Carroll.
“Jaysus, you can’t be serious,” moaned his friend.
O’Carroll’s first performance was on a Tuesday evening. He made _75. Within three weeks, he was packing them in and earning _750 a night.
“I thought, ‘Right, that’s for me’ ” O’Carroll said with a grin. “And I never looked back.”
In the nine years since he stepped onto that stage in Rathmines, his career has expanded exponentially.
“I’ve written four No. 1 novels, three plays and two screenplays,” he said with pride. “I’ve had a No. 1 hit album, two television series, I’ve acted in five movies and I’ve given over 2,000 live performances.”
“It just took off,” he said.
O’Carroll was born in 1955 in Stoneybatter, part of Dublin’s north inner city. He was the youngest of 11 children. His mother, Maureen (nee McHugh), was a T.D. representing Finglas — the only member of the Dail, to his knowledge, living in corporation housing. His father, a cabinetmaker, stayed home to raise the children while Maureen pursued her political career.
Their roles were completely reversed, O’Carroll said. “It was an unusual arrangement, because my father was a very old fashioned man, very strict, very quiet, very traditional in his outlook,” he said. “And my mother was so different. But they loved each other.”
O’Carroll laughed. “He had to love her, because it wasn’t an easy life. Eleven kids, plus themselves, in a two-bedroom house. But they were — I think they were — happy.”
His father ran the house like clockwork. “Bedtime was at 8 o’clock, and that was final,” O’Carroll said. “You’d better have your pee done by 8, because he didn’t want anyone getting out of bed after that.”
Nature being what it is, not all of the O’Carroll children needed to use the loo before 8.
“Sometimes, you needed to go at 8:05,” O’Carroll said, laughing.
The senior O’Carroll died when Brendan was 6 years old, which spelled the end of Maureen’s career in active politics.
“My mother was an incredible woman,” he said fondly. “During her years in the senate, she got four laws repealed and four laws passed.”
After leaving the senate, Maureen developed a course to teach first-time politicians how to get things done. Her most important legacy was establishing the Ban G_rda as a regular police force.
“Up until that time, women in the police force were just doing clerical jobs,” O’Carroll said. “My mother worked to bring women into the front lines of law enforcement, on par with male guards.”
This dovetailed with Maureen’s broader agenda of improving life for women in Irish society.
“One of the laws she had repealed said that it was legal to beat your wife, provided that you used a stick no longer than your forearm,” O’Carroll said incredulously. “Another was a law that prohibited women from working in banks or civil service after they married.
Maureen also concentrated on the problem — and pushed for prosecution — of domestic abuse.
“If a woman called the police to report that her husband beat her, the male cops would consider it a domestic matter,” O’Carroll said. “Women cops deal with it differently.”
When Maureen died in 1983, the road to the cemetery was lined for a mile and a half with an honor guard of female officers. As her flag-covered coffin passed by, they saluted.”On” when he’s on
Brendan O’Carroll is a bundle of nervous energy — he’s friendly, witty and funny. What distinguishes him from most other comedians is that he’s not constantly making jokes.
“I know a lot of comedians who are ‘on’ all the time,” he said. “They bore the ass off me. I mean, it’s OK for five minutes, but for an entire night to be told joke after joke after joke . . .
“Anything that’s discussed — boom! — there’s a pun. Ughh!”
O’Carroll is drawn to the humor of the Monty Python troupe and Charlie Chaplin — he confesses that he loves slapstick.
“I like the clever stuff too,” he said. “But physical comedy just cracks me up.”
He’s a big fan of Robin Williams and, surprisingly, Irish comedian Hal Roach.
“Hal is always ‘on’, you know,” said O’Carroll. “But he’s so funny. I met him at the airport a while back — it was about a year after he’d had a lung removed — and he looked great.
“I said ‘Jaysus, Hal, you’re looking terrific.’ And he said to me,” O’Carroll adopted Roach’s distinctive Waterford accent, ” ‘Brendan — so nice to see you. I’m thinking of having the other one removed!’ ”
O’Carroll howled with laughter. “He’s a master — I think he’s got the best timing in the business,” he said. “I’ve had young comedians come up to me and ask if they could watch me, to learn my timing, and I tell them to go watch Hal Roach. He’s the one to learn from.”
O’Carroll comedy style is rapid fire, with humor rooted in everyday life. Unlike most comedians, he doesn’t go onstage with prepared monologues or lists of jokes.
“I just talk about whatever’s on my mind,” he said. “I might jot down a note before I go on, if a story occurs to me, but that’s it.
“But then,” he laughed, “I never remember to bring the note with me anyway.”
O’Carroll has an astonishingly good memory — a byproduct, he says, of his dyslexia.
“I read slowly,” he said. “At the speed of a 12-year-old. But once I read something, it’s locked in here” — he taps his head — “I’ve got a memory like an elephant.”
“My mammy used to tell me that it was a gift, the dyslexia. She’d say, ‘Brendan, you’re so lucky with your exams. You’ll get all the answers right. But of course, you won’t have a clue what they mean,’ ” he said.
65 on stage
O’Carroll says that offstage, he’d rather talk about foreign affairs, current affairs, sports, lots of things. “I prefer a bit of a chin wag, a bit of a gossip,” he said, laughing. “I’m a bit of an aul wan, really.”
This trait comes in handy, since he plays an aul wan — 65-year-old Agnes Browne — on stage in his play “The Mammy.”
The play is based on his popular radio series, “Mrs. Browne’s Boys,” which, in turn, inspired the novels in his “Mrs. Browne” trilogy: “The Mammy,” “The Chisellers” and “The Granny.”
“I wrote ‘The Mammy’ as an exercise,” O’Carroll said. “She’s a collage of the traders and dealers I knew in Moore Street,” he said.
The more he wrote about her, the more Agnes took on a life of her own. O’Carroll began the story with the day in 1967 when Mrs. Browne became a widow.
The writing exercise was published as “The Mammy,” and spent 20 weeks on at the top of the Irish bestseller lists. It has been turned into a film starring Anjelica Huston, Tom Jones and O’Carroll himself. The film was chosen to close the director’s XXX at the Cannes Film Festival, which is considered a great honor.
“They’re probably dying with nerves over there,” he said, referring to the film’s producer, October Films. “It’s a huge thing, to be chosen to close the festival.”
O’Carroll plays the title role in the play, which may strike people as unusual.
“When I’m onstage as Agnes Browne, that’s who I am. The audience has to buy me as Agnes, not as a man, or the gig’s up. And they do,” he said. “After the show, I hear them saying things like, ‘Did you see what she did?’ or ‘Can you believe she said that?’ ”
One thing that stands out about O’Carroll’s work is the crisp and funny dialogue. He says he worked hard to avoid lapsing into the shorthand of the neighborhood.
“Like, you’d have two guys in a public house, and what they’re trying to say to each other is, ‘What did you think of the football match last night? Weren’t Manchester United terrible?’ And the other guy wants to say, ‘Oh, don’t talk to me. And the referee made some very bad decisions.’
“Now, the actual conversation goes like this:
‘Feck. Don’t talk.’ ”
O’Carroll laughs uproariously.
Failure before success
Despite his success in the entertainment world, O’Carroll says he’ll definitely end up in politics.
“In the last presidential election, I had two parties that asked me to run,” he said. “Of course, I’m too young yet. But some day . . . ”
Were his mother still alive, O’Carroll said he feels sure he’d have followed in her footsteps rather than go into the entertainment business.
“I had to fail before I could be a success,” he said slowly. “My mother told me I could do anything, be anything. She instilled me with great confidence. But she also protected me, maybe because I was her baby. She wouldn’t allow me to fail.”
“But,” he said pensively, “failure is the only way to learn. You have to fail before you can be a success.”
“When I lost the pub — and I had nothing — that was the lowest point of my life. I had nothing to lose, so I took a chance with the comedy.
“Everything else came from taking that one chance,” he mused.
“Yeah . . . Oct. 10, 1990. It just took off from there.”