There has long been a tradition of supporting charities in the comedy scene. Esther McCarthy talks to top Irish comedians about the causes close to their hearts
WHILE many people donate to the men and women who go out in all weathers as part of our lifeboats service, comedian PJ Gallagher went one further — he joined their ranks.
The comic, who has long been involved in charity work, has spent the past two years training and has already been called out to sea about 20 times.
Passionate about motorcycling, PJ used to volunteer for Blood Bikes, which helps hospitals by transporting blood and urgent medical supplies. When he started his broadcasting career at Classic Hits, he no longer had the time to commit. But he missed volunteering, and on moving to the Dublin port of Dun Laoghaire, realised the RNLI lifeboat station was on his doorstep.
“I’m a full member of the crew now and I absolutely love it. I feel very privileged to be a part of it. I go out every Monday and most Sundays and you have to train constantly, that never stops. They keep you up to a very high standard. They’re pretty strict about it and they should be.
“You need to be a good swimmer but it’s more than that. It’s about a willingness to learn and a willingness to give your time. You need to dedicate yourself, swimming is the easy part.
“I’ve been called out about 20 times in all. One day we had a paddleboarder who I think is a very lucky man. He didn’t know where he was, it didn’t look good, but one of our crew spotted him.
“I talk on the radio and I tell jokes. As enjoyable as it is, when you do something like this you get a great sense of worth out of it. And I genuinely do enjoy it. It keeps you busy and the crew are nice guys. You get the support of friendship. That’s invaluable.”
PJ is also glad to have encouraged conversation about mental health through his play, Madhouse. It’s based on the true story of how when he was 10, his mother, who was a nurse, moved six men with schizophrenia into the family home to care for them. “I tried to tell the story in stand-up but it didn’t really work.
“It is an unusual story and I didn’t know if people would respond. It sold out and we couldn’t believe it. It’s been selling out like crazy with very little press.”
Deirdre O’Kane recently completed a hugely successful run of her comedy show ‘A Line of O’Kane’, where she rediscovered her love for stand-up. The star has frequently given her time for free to MC at charitable events and says having to turn down such events is one of the trickiest elements of her job. “My heart is broken saying no, it’s one of the things that gets me down but I have to make a living.
“I do as many as I can. I could fill my diary for the year with charity events, and a lot of that is because people in Ireland are incredibly good.”
Deirdre is one of the organisers of Comic Relief, a live show featuring many of her peers, which has become one of the hottest tickets on the comedy calendar. She is developing plans to bring the format to Irish television. The money raised would bring much-needed funding to homeless charities and international refugee agencies based in Ireland, she says.
“We’ve done three live gigs that raised over €600,000 for charity, so you could imagine what we could do it we had it on television. I’m determined to make it happen.”
Deirdre travelled with Trócaire to Gaza earlier in the year to witness first-hand the experiences of people there. “The refugees there are in dire straits. I found it very hard to walk away from Gaza. People need your charity but they want to be able to help themselves and I find that very hard.
In the new year, she will be one of seven comics on the bill for a comedy fundraiser hosted by John Bishop to support Seán Cox, the Irishman who suffered a serious brain injury following a vicious attack when he went to see Liverpool FC play.
“That gig sold really fast, in like 15 minutes. I think it was the combination of football fans and the line up, and also the cause, and rightly so.”
Deirdre, who is currently appearing in a new campaign for Sky TV, says there has long been a tradition of supporting charitable causes in Ireland and the comedy community is no different. “I guess we’re a small community and people have a desire to help people. I think we have an innately charitable streak in us. We like to give people a dig out and I hope that never goes away.”
Cork comedian Chris Kent says he has given his time in aid of many charity events over the years. But it was a recent gathering of comics in support of the family of a friend, comedian Billy Anderson, who had died that made him fully realise its importance.
“Immediately the other comedians got together to fundraise. I was blown away by the love and support of the comedians, and the people who got involved on the night.
“As competitive as it can be, it’s a great community and you really see the good in people who want to try their best to raise money. I couldn’t get over the number of people who helped on the night for Billy.
“A lot of comedians will give their time, and if they can’t they will promote an event through their social media.”
Kent has also been involved in fundraisers for Temple Street Children’s Hospital, and became so interested in the work they do that he visited the hospital to witness it first-hand for himself. “I got to meet the staff and the kids. It’s a great perspective shifter and it’s an honour really to be a part of.” He said it also allows the comedy community to come together, as touring solo rarely allows.
“On a regular bill you might bump into two or three comics. But on a big charity night, there might be 40 of you backstage having a laugh.”