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Comedy in the Irish language
When Colman Higgins was invited to gig in Belfast, he was by no means certain his Irish would stand up...
by Colman Higgins
‘Where are you for?’ asks the taxi driver in central Belfast, in that curious local way they have of asking where you are going.
‘210 Falls Road’, I answer, acutely aware that I’m asking him to go to the heart of Republican nationalist West Belfast – and that I’ve a definite southern Ireland accent.
He seems to fiddle with his window. The paranoid ‘Southerner up in Belfast’ part of my mind wonders if he’s trying to close it up, in case I want to shoot him.
But no, he just has a dodgy window and when it doesn’t work, he opens the door a little to say ‘Come on in’. Later we pass a Republican mural honouring the ‘taxi-drivers who lost their lives – serving the community through transport’. (During the Troubles, many taxi-drivers were the victims of sectarian killings.)
Two miles later, he drops me at the Culturlann, a converted church that serves as a community centre for promoting the Irish language. It seems to be succeeding, because half the shops have bilingual signs in Irish and English and the pub advertises ‘bia agus deoch’ (food and drink).
Irish is only spoken by a few people in Ireland as a mother tongue, but nationalism north and south of the Border has always encouraged the language. Indeed, in the South we all learn it in school – and remember it to widely varying degrees. I think I have enough to do a standup gig in it – and I’m about to find out.
Inside the Culturlann, four other comedians from Dublin are clutching cups of tea around a table. Danny Kehoe and Padraig Fox are a bit freaked by all the IRA graffiti and murals. One accompanies the other to the chipper across the road – there’s safety in numbers.
But in reality they’re safe enough here – at least compared to the ‘Village’, the loyalist area our taxi takes us through on the way to our B&B. Red and white Ulster flags flutter from bunting strung on countless houses and King William of Orange stares out threateningly from murals painted on gable ends.
The show we’re doing is a benefit for a local guy who’s climbing Kilimanjaro in aid of cancer research. The audience is a mix of pensioners and some young people. The venue is the Culturlann café, with everyone seated around tables in front of a large makeshift stage.
It starts with traditional Irish music, first lively jigs from a band of teenagers and then some ‘sean-nos’ (old way) singing. The sean-nos is beautiful, but slow and mournful – a challenging buildup for standup comedy.
The MC chatters away in a mix of Irish and English, swinging from one to another like a drunk switching lanes on a busy motorway. Just as a experiment, he tells a joke in Irish – no response – then the exact same joke in English, to peals of laughter. How encouraging!
First of the comedians up is Breda O’Donnell, who has fluent Irish. My own rusty command of the language is struggling to understand all the crucial words. Her best gag is about all the women in her home town coming out of the beauticians with over-made-up orange faces – like an Orange parade, she says. The audience smiles. Unknown to us, somewhere across town, at that very moment, a contentious Orange Order parade is being cancelled.
Next follows a sketch with Breda and Elanor Tiernan, and then Elanor doing her own standup. I can understand about 70% of it – and it’s taking all my concentration just to do that. How am I going to be able to speak like that for 10 minutes?
Then come Padraig and Danny, with a newsreader sketch about the various ‘axes of evil’. The sketch has never been done in English – although Padraig did it in German once.
Eventually, I’m on myself and I suddenly feel surprisingly relaxed. I start with saying ‘Hello’ in the local Ulster dialect, even though I sound like I’m from Cork, at the other end of the country. Bizarrely, there’s a guy wearing a Cork football shirt, although he seems like a local man.
Some of the older people start engaging in what seems like good-natured banter, but I can’t understand a word they’re saying. ‘Caithfidh na heckles go leir bheith as Bearla, le do thoil! (All heckles have to be in English, please)’, I tell them. In vain.
I translate some of the important bits into English, but they seem to understand it in Irish first time round. Most of it gets a good response and I end up stretching seven minutes of material into twelve before getting off.
If only my Irish teacher could see me now!
(c) Colman Higgins 14 August 05
Colman Higgins’s one-man show ‘Bus-spotting’ (in English) is at the Edinburgh Fringe 8-14 August 8-14. 19:20 (20:00). Venue 28 - Greyfriars Kirk House, Studio 2. A bus-spotter from rural Ireland travels the world on local buses – meeting characters who cure his obsession. Box office 08452-262721 or 0131-2260000. www.busspotting.com.
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