Comedian Katherine Ryan on her Cork roots

With a father from Cork, it was inevitable that Irish influences would creep into the series about a single mother dealing with school-gate politics and renewed intentions for her ex
Comedian Katherine Ryan on her Cork roots

Katherine Ryan and Katy Byrne in The Duchess on Netflix. 

Katherine Ryan has warm memories of visiting her father’s home town of Cork. She recalls the natural beauty, the strong sense of history. 

It was very different from Sarnia, the petrochemical hub in southern Ontario, where she grew up. But what really stayed with her after one particular trip was the degree to which everyone, or so it appeared to her, was obsessed with Westlife and Boyzone.

“In the early Noughties there was this boom in boybands,” she explains. “We didn’t have the same situation in Canada, at all. We had some – we were exposed to Five a little. But it was only when I visited Cork and then moved to the UK that I thought, ‘oh wow – really this is something else here’.” 

Her father, Finbar, relocated to Canada in the 1970s and started an engineering company. He and Ryan’s mother, Julie, divorced when Ryan was eight. 

While the breakup was fractious she has cherished recollections of childhood holidays in Cork and of coming back to Sarnia – population 80,000 and Ontario’s self-declared “Chemical Valley” – and selling her class-mates on the wonders of Tayto.

Those experiences have shaped her as person and as one of the UK’s most successful stand-ups. They are especially to the fore on The Duchess, her new Netflix series and first foray into writing scripted comedy. Much of the humour and the drama flows from the tension between Ryan’s alter-ego – also named Katherine – and her ex-husband, a former Dublin boyband singer named Shep (Rory Keenan).

“My dad is from Cork. So I obviously grew up with an Irish dad,” she explains over Zoom from her home in West London. “My parents had a tumultuous divorce. In The Duchess, I was almost drawing on my own fantasy of how my parents could have handled themselves had they put aside their differences. Katherine and Shep are able to put aside their differences.”

The premise of The Duchess is pretty wacky but Ryan sells it. Katherine, encouraged by precocious nine-year-old daughter Olive, has decided she wants a second child. She and Shep are antagonist exes. He sleeps on a barge and obsessively wears a sheepskin overcoat, and so is nobody’s idea of a good role-model (the character would appear to be equal-parts inspired by Brian McFadden and a young Colin Farrell). But because their first child worked out so well, Katherine decides they should have another together.

Why make her former partner an Irish boyband singer? “I’ve watched a lot of boyband careers. What is the trajectory? Where do they end up?. How eccentric do they become once it’s over? It’s a unique way to live your life. When we found Rory Keenan we were just over the moon. We did audition different ethnicities and British actors for that job. And then we found Rory, who has this rich background in drama. And he was Irish. It had to be Rory.”

Katherine Ryan and Rory Keenan in The Duchess on Netflix. 
Katherine Ryan and Rory Keenan in The Duchess on Netflix. 

“It’s impossible to be liked by everyone,” she says. “I wish I knew that when I was a teenager. Of course, my preference is that people enjoy it. I don’t think anyone goes to work hoping to disappoint the general public. I would be so thrilled if people laughed and related to it. 

"The reality is that, especially if you are a divisive character – as I am – then there will be people who aggressively hate it or feel confused and attacked by it.” 

Ryan, 36, visited Cork throughout her childhood and holds an Irish passport. These frequent trips across the Atlantic gave her the confidence to up sticks for the UK in her 20s. She moved to Nottingham to help with an expansion by North American restaurant chain Hooters, where specialties include cheeseburgers and waitresses in orange short-shorts. If Benny Hill was a moderately-priced eatery, it would be Hooters.

Hooters Nottingham continues trade to this day (though it is shuttered presently due to Covid – so hold off booking for the time being). But Ryan had soon moved on to her stand-up career.

She became a face to watch on the London comedy scene. Front-and-centre was that whipsmart persona. Through this she channelled her hopes, regrets and frustrations as a young women into brilliantly scorched-earth humour.

The Duchess is in many ways a continuation of that work. The 'Katherine' we meet at the school gates is the same heightened personality she has honed through her stand-up. The difference is that here the comedy is more long-form, without the obligation for a punchline every 30 seconds.

“I feel that’s what I’ve been doing on stage – I’ve played an exaggerated version of myself,” she says. 

“The real challenge has been figuring out a way to be transparent and authentic and tell my central truth without infringing on anyone else’s privacy.”

Those whose privacy she hopes not to intrude upon include her 11 year-old daughter, Violet, and her husband, Bobby Kootstra. Kootstra is a former athlete and old flame from Canada. They reconnected two years ago when she was back in Ontario filming Who Do You Think You Are? for the BBC.

“My friends and family, and my daughter even, trust me to be very forthcoming and to share as much as I can with an audience,” she says. “But not to really reveal too much about their lives. I’ve never been pregnant by a boyband star. That’s one exclusive. I don’t actually shout at the mums at the school gates. It is a fantasy. I’m very comfortable in this exaggerated, glamorous version of myself. I’ve known her for over a decade.” 

 It’s tempting to trace Ryan’s dark instincts as a comedian to her Irish heritage. We like our humour bleak and merciless in this country. Did she inherit some of that growing up?

“Yes, because you can always find lightness in the dark,” she nods. “I love that. The Irish experience is such a rich history of resilience and of trauma . And they find a way to turn that into comedy. Instinctively I’ve always connected with that. I find humour in the darkest places. That’s a mark of strength, I think.”

The Duchess is on Netflix now.

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