When Danny O’Brien says that 2017 was “a long road,” he’s not only speaking metaphorically, writes Ellie O’Byrne.
The Wicklow-born, Dublin-based comedian was chosen to tour with the annual ‘Best of The Edinburgh Fest’ show, after his stint at the 2017 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. But it was a long road, travelled by motorbike, that got him there.
Inheriting a decrepit Honda Nighthawk from his uncle last year, O’Brien toured Ireland on it,
performing in out-of-the-way places and building up material for a new show, ‘RaconTour’, that he would then motor to Edinburgh with.
But he wasn’t reckoning with quite how bumpy his metaphorical road was going to get. “I had the ingenious idea that I’d take the bike and drive it all around Ireland; I had a kind of romantic notion of reconnecting with my country,” O’Brien says.
“Then, I failed my test three times. Every time I failed, I was haemorrhaging money and it was breaking me down.”
As well as failing his test, O’Brien battled with the bike’s mechanical failings: dodgy brakes and no fuel gauge. He was about to quit, when the chance discovery of a photo of his estranged dad, at 17, on a similar motorbike, provided the turning point.
“He’s been completely uncontactable for 20 years, so I made it my dual mission to do the show and find out what the craic was with him, at the same time,” O’Brien says.
Although it’s high family drama, and a vein that O’Brien taps into for RaconTour, he’s still wary of sensationalising the backstory about his missing father, who has been living in the UK for the past 30 years, but with whom he has no contact.
“I’ve already had really trashy headlines to try to make it seem dramatic,” he says. “I last spoke to him when I was about 14 and that was literally it, but it’s not like he walked out the door to go to the shop one day and vanished. Him and my mum had split when they were younger.”
The dual purpose of touring the country and tracking down his dad — he plays his cards close to his chest on any resolution to the family story, saying all is revealed in the show — fuelled O’Brien on a country-wide tour that demonstrated that Irish people are as full of deranged whimsy as ever they were in Flann O’Brien’s time.
“I wanted to push my boundaries, so I took weird gigs in pretty obscure places, because I wanted to write something a little different,” he says.
“I met some absolute headers and ended up giving them lifts back after gigs and stuff.
“I also did the worst gig that I’ve ever done in nearly nine years, in Kerry, to about five people. It was a brutality. Afterwards, I had to drive back home on the motorbike, for five hours, in the absolutely roaring rain. It gave me far too much time to reflect on what I was doing with my life and career choices.”
O’Brien, resident host of the Comedy Crunch, in Dublin, has had a highly promising couple of years in comedy, with shows like ‘Ah, Jaysus!’ and ‘Back to the Hills’ garnering reviews that praised his energetic delivery and anecdotal, personal content.
“I’m not one of these comics who sits down and writes jokes at my kitchen table all day; I write stories around real things that have happened to me,” he says.
But exploring his relationship with his dad meant tapping into deeper veins of the personal than he had before, and one concern was how his family would respond when they saw the show at a sell-out night in Whelan’s: “I didn’t want to upset anyone. But they absolutely loved it, and if I got through them, the rest of Ireland should be grand.”
With 22 dates in six countries, including 15 Irish shows, already underway for 2018, O’Brien is going to try to drive his motorbike to as many as possible; one upshot of his time with the bike is that he has formed what he describes as a ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ connection to the ancient machine.
“It’s basically like an old tractor with two wheels, but now I have a weird attachment to it,” he says. “I can’t leave it; it’s like having a really, really expensive kid that doesn’t talk back to me.”
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