Culture

Ardal O'Hanlon: 'As a writer, you want to look into the abyss'

With his new novel Brouhaha, Ardal O'Hanlon joins Derry Girls writer Lisa McGee in finding a way to talk about Irish history that actually gets people to listen.

Ardal O'Hanlon

Photo: Mark Nixon

Growing up near the Irish border has informed everything Ardal O’Hanlon has ever done. His childhood years in the County Monaghan town of Carrickmacross, on the southern side of that dividing line, saw him steeped in the area’s unique way with words (“they’ll often use 20 words where one word will do”), the deadpan humour, and the underlying threat of violence. It’s been there from his early stand-up, through his time on Father Ted and Death in Paradise, and – perhaps most tellingly – in his new novel, Brouhaha

“I grew up in a lovely small town, a beautiful town. Very happy childhood,” he says. “And you could easily ignore the underbelly but, as a writer, you’re drawn to the dark side. You can’t afford to be squeamish as a writer, whether you’re a journalist, a fiction writer, or a stand-up comedian. You want to look into the abyss.” 

Arriving 24 years after O’Hanlon’s debut novel, The Talk of the Town, became a bestseller, Brouhaha is set in a town very much like the author’s childhood stomping ground, with all the darkness and humour that implies. It follows the investigation into a young woman’s disappearance, and is part hard-boiled mystery, part “bog-standard existential novel”, part satire – but, most compellingly, it’s a humane study of a place and the people who live there. 

“Growing up, my father was in politics [Rory O’Hanlon was a member of the Irish parliament for the conservative party, Fianna Fáil]. So there were always hundreds of people coming and going in the house,” says O’Hanlon. “I was exposed from a very early age to a lot of characters, and a lot of guff. So, when it came to writing this book, I was determined to set it in that locale and to capture that atmosphere, that humour, and that low-level sense of uneasiness. I was always interested in that contradiction between the civilisation of small towns, and the violence. In Ireland, we had things like forced adoptions. We had clerical sex abuse. We have poverty. I think a lot of us choose to ignore that a lot of the time, because otherwise life becomes unbearable.” 

And, of course, for most of Ardal O’Hanlon’s life, there was the shadow of the Troubles. Brouhaha takes place in the period just after the Good Friday Agreement, a time where there was always a question lurking around any disappearance in the region: “is there a paramilitary involvement?” 

Too complex, too unwieldy, too frightening, too sad… for much of the last 50 years, the Troubles has been near the top of the list of ‘things to ignore’, both in Ireland and the UK. It took the finale of Derry Girls – featuring a return visit from mother’s boy Eamonn, O’Hanlon’s fan-favourite character – to remind much of the UK what was at stake.

With his Two Taytos analogy, grandfather Joe did a better job of explaining the conflict than many ever had in school. O’Hanlon admires the sneaky way Derry Girls writer Lisa McGee brings the audience in. “It is only through art that people will pay attention,” he says. “You need to almost misdirect them, like a close-up magician or something. Derry Girls did that brilliantly.  

“It captured the imagination of not just the Irish public, but the British public, and indeed, the American public. They would have run a million miles away from a history lesson on Northern Ireland. But by stealth, they were introduced to some of the minutiae of politics in Northern Ireland. That’s great.” 

Though he didn’t set out to write a political novel – and modestly points to Anna Burns’ Milkman as a better way to engage with the Troubles through a novel – Brouhaha is part of a new wave of cultural reflection on those times. Like Lisa McGee, Anna Burns, Wendy Erskine and Lucy Caldwell, he’s bringing humanity and humour back into the mix. 

“It is through art that you inform people,” says O’Hanlon. “This is why we write, because politics doesn’t always work. Journalism can be a bit too dry and factual. Art is really the way forward. And there’s an appetite for it, particularly among the younger generation, who are totally pissed off with politics as we know it.” 

So why did it take him 24 years to return to novel writing? Partly it was the lack of a good idea – but it was also that better offers kept coming in. “My head is turned very easily by a nice TV job or a nice gig somewhere,” he admits. It took the pandemic lockdown to give him the space to finally commit. “It was just a godsend really, to have this to focus on.”

Brouhaha by Ardal O’Hanlon

As the lockdown eased, though, O’Hanlon was glad to be able to get back out into the world – and one of the first offers came from Taskmaster. “It was out of my comfort zone, the kind of thing I probably wouldn’t have done pre pandemic,” he says. “But Taskmaster was probably the best fun I ever had doing a job. You have no script, you have no safety net, you’re just at the mercy of Greg Davies and Alex Horne. And, I just loved it, I found it liberating. I found moving, to be honest with you.”

Goofing around on Taskmaster may not help the case for Ardal O’Hanlon as a Serious Writer, but it’s more important to him keep trying new things.

“One thing I’ve always loved and craved is variety in my career. Even though I’m aware of the pitfalls of spreading yourself too thinly across various media. It’s fair enough, people might be sceptical about a comedian writing a novel. I totally get that.  

“But I’m attracted to telling stories, whether that’s in stand-up, as an actor, or as a writer. To me, it’s almost the same thing. Ultimately, the bottom line is you’re telling a story. And that’s how we make sense of our lives.” 

@laurakaykelly

Brouhaha by Ardal O’Hanlon is out now (Harper Collins, £16.99)

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