Ireland’s biggest comedian Tommy Tiernan on fame, fortune, family and controversy
“Ireland is – and I mean this in the most positive sense – we’re peasants,” says Tommy Tiernan. “Even rich people in Ireland are peasants – rich peasants – and you can tell this from how they spend their money.
“But I don’t mean peasant negatively,” he adds.
Despite the serious, deadpan delivery, a hearty grain of salt comes as a side order here. Tiernan is, after all, invariably dubbed Ireland’s “most successful” and “most controversial” comedian.
Dissecting and mocking his homeland is his bread and butter. In this case, he is simply explaining to me, unprompted, why he’s good at his job.
“The strength of peasant culture is talking, singing and storytelling,” he says. “Peasants aren’t usually great painters or architects. The only decent architecture in Ireland is either the stuff left behind by the English, or the stuff that’s still intact from before they came. We’re not great at opera.
“But we do have strengths, and one is talking.”
And talking is what earned Tiernan the superlatives noted above. The success part is indisputable. On home turf he is reportedly the bestselling DVD artist of all time, while in terms of ticket sales, he is second only to U2.
As for “controversy”, more than half of his Wikipedia entry can be found under that word.
“That [title] wouldn’t be something I’d aspire for,” he says. “I always feel like it’s a diagnosis some other doctor has put on me.”
Born in County Donegal, Tiernan got his big international break after winning the Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s career-making Perrier Award (now known as the Edinburgh Comedy Award) in 1998, as well as Best Stand Up at the British Comedy Awards. His reputation was forged with a manic, “shouty” style defined by his angry delivery.
In 2009, Tiernan hit the headlines with his record-breaking stunt of performing a continuous stand-up show for more than 36 hours. It was a move made not for publicity, he says, but to talk out his angst.
“Sometimes you follow that energy as if it’s a highway, and realise it’s a cul de sac,” says Tiernan. “I started to feel drained at the very idea of shows.
“I had this idea that if I kept talking for 36 hours, surely I’d talk myself into another style, because you can’t be angry for a day and a half.”
It worked. Within six months a “new, mischievous, gentler” approach emerged.
Six years later, his work is continuing to evolve. While Tiernan acknowledges that the last show he brought to Dubai, in March 2013, was distinctly Irish in flavour, his recent stand-up is inspired by something even more personal – middle age, or what the 45-year-old describes as “coming to terms with the second puberty”.
“The show now is about the new lease of life that happens to men in their mid-40s, and how if they panic they end up with sports cars, and if they don’t panic they end up more defeated, but more generous – and less inhibited,” he says.
“In your 20s or 30s you’re trying to prove something to the world, that you deserve status or respect, but I’ve found that in your mid-40s you care less and less about what people think. I absolutely want the shows to get funnier, but I’m less concerned about awards and worldly success.”
It sounds, I suggest, a bit like giving up.
“You’re surrendering to the winds,” he says. “There are very few things more upsetting and disturbing than seeing very wealthy men in their later years hungry for more money. I much prefer the company of sad wealthy people, because they’ve realised what a waste of time their lives have been.”
One needn’t be a psychologist to work out there’s a lot on Tiernan’s mind. He dwells further on success, credibility, ageing, fame and money – issues that have troubled many a middle-aged man.
But it’s his thoughts on family that close our conversation. He is the father of six children, between the ages of three and 21, who each view his notoriety with a range of reactions from “mystification” to “boredom”. His eldest son works with him on the road.
“We all went out after a show. I went to bed early, and my tour manager overheard my son talking to a member of the public,” says Tiernan. “Everyone there had been at the show. It was a girl about the same age as him. They were getting on very well, and she said to him, ‘what’s your name?’
“And he said ‘John Moriarty’. He absolutely did not want to be associated with his father. ‘I am nothing to do with that guy.’”
• Tommy Tiernan performs at The Irish Village, Dubai, on Thursday, March 26, at 9pm. Tickets cost Dh199 from www.timeouttickets.com
Updated: March 24, 2015 04:00 AM