Seán Hughes - an Irishman at heart

With a gig in the Project this week, comic Seán Hughes reflects on his success in Britain, writes Richard Fitzpatrick.

Seán Hughes - an Irishman at heart

THE comedian Seán Hughes is back in Dublin this week (April 10) for a gig at the Project Arts Centre, and he’s here to talk about penguins, and other matters. Why on earth has he decided to call his show Penguins? “When you’re four years of age,” he says, “you’re pretty much sent out like migrating penguins to deal with life on your own. People tend to use the analogy of sheep, but I think the idea of penguins is a bit more joyful.

“Later on in life you’re told you’re going to like booze. You’re told you’re going to like sex. You’re told all these things, people telling us what we should like, and in that sense we’re very much like penguins.

“But they are the only mention of penguins in the show. I’m not going to bore the pants off people. I did once watch March of the Penguins, but I didn’t really get that much information from it.”

On Christmas Day just gone, Hughes was in Thailand, riding on elephants.

“It is kind of my thing,” he says. “But this is a bit of advice if you’re thinking of going on an elephant trek — don’t go up on the elephant for more than half an hour because it’s extremely physical.

“They’re gentle animals, but you have to put yourself in the position of a jockey — that’s how you have to ride them so their ears can flap. It’s a bit like an endurance test. It’s not like you can just sit back and put your knees up into the air. The group was planning to go for an hour and a half, but I was like, ‘right, I’m getting off now’. You know that way when you’re shaking after physical exercise? That’s what it was like after 30 minutes.”

Hughes’s trek began in England. He was born in London, but his Irish parents decamped to Dublin when he was five years of age. With his Cockney accent, he stuck out like a sore thumb. “Dad’s best joke,” he likes to say, ‘I looked and sounded like Tommy Steele’.”

The family lived initially in Whitehall, before settling in Firhouse (or “Templeogue West” as he calls it to some people). “There was no media so you weren’t getting that much facts, with only a couple of TV stations. Ireland in the 1970s was fairly grim. There weren’t even restaurants. The idea of going to a restaurant didn’t really come into play in the ’70s.”

After he finished school in Rathmines he did a media studies course in Parnell Square, where the future 2FM DJ Nails Mahoney was a sidekick for a spell. The pair, as 18 year olds, once did a double act together on RTÉ’s music show TV Gaga. “We were absolutely appalling, but we thought we were brilliant.”

Bits and pieces followed for Hughes, including appearances on Megamix, a music programme on RTÉ, but it wasn’t long before he took off for London.

Although he was christened John, he changed his name to Seán in London for artistic reasons — there was another John Hughes on Equity’s books.

“If I called myself Tony Marino — that would have been a bit weird. The very fact that it was an Irish name. I don’t want to name drop, but I remember talking to Bono years ago, and he talked about how Paul Hewson is dead. It was my liberation in a sense, that I was able to get rid of a lot of my past by a simple name change, so I’d recommend it to anyone.”

His career soared in London. He became the youngest winner of the Perrier award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1990 at 24 years of age. The gong was followed by two novels, appearances on several TV shows, including the self-titled Seán’s Show, and a long stretch as a team captain on Never Mind the Buzzcocks.

He’s also done his share of acting shifts. Several years ago he did an eight-week run as “Pat the Love Rat” on Coronation Street, an experience which he has made use of on the live comedy circuit. He did a stint on The Last Detective, and acted in one of the Bard’s comedies alongside Helen McCrory and Sienna Miller. “Shakespeare’s comedies are a real misnomer,” he says.

He has been exiled in London for more than half his life. His assessment of Ireland has mellowed, possibly brought on by his own sense of mortality. Last year, he brought his critically acclaimed show, Life Becomes Noises, which dealt with the death of his father from leukaemia, to Ireland. Typically, the show didn’t shirk any hard truths. Hughes spoke candidly about his father’s alcoholism. There were gags, too, of course.

“My father taught me to drink drive,” he says; his dad worked as a driving instructor.

“That show brought back a lot of childhood memories. This new show is a companion piece. It’s a lot more uplifting. It’s not rose-tinted glasses — even though I was born in London, I’m not one of these plastic Paddys, but Irishness is instilled in my soul. I have this tremendous love for Ireland. I can’t quite put my finger on why.

“I’ve lived in England for so long. I like their stoicism and their respectability, and their sense of fair play. Irish people are amazing at PR where people keep saying that we’re really friendly when we’re drunk, and that we’re truth tellers, but it will always be the Irish guy who will be making a dick of himself at the bar. But there’s something about the Irish soul. We are really truthful, but that can be quite hurtful as well at times.”

* Seán Hughes performs his show Penguins at the Project Arts Centre, 7pm, Thursday

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