Humour and healing: Deirdre O’Kane on how laughter is the best medicine

The actress and comedian wanted to help boost the morale of some of Ireland's youngest patients, by finding Ireland's funniest joke
Humour and healing: Deirdre O’Kane on how laughter is the best medicine

Deirdre O'Kane: "I walked away, and said 'I could do that'." Pic: Michael Chester

Like so much of the arts and live events sector at present, veteran stand-up comedienne and actress Deirdre O’Kane has been using the change of pace brought on by the ongoing Covid-19 crisis to try different things, bring perspective to upcoming projects, and interact in different ways with her audience across social media and other online platforms.

Earlier this month, she had a chance to touch base with fans in the best way she knows how: telling jokes. Deirdre is working with One4all to raise funds for the CMRF Giggle Fund – the main fundraising body for Children’s Health Ireland (CHI) at Crumlin. Deirdre has been on the hunt for the funniest joke in Ireland to give the young patients at CHI Crumlin a dose of the best medicine - a good giggle. 

“What I really love about this, is you’re not actually being asked to give any money. I’ve been involved in doing that a lot between Comic Relief and everything else, but this is different: One4all are giving the money. You could buy the gift card for yourself, to do the shopping, and every time you tap the card, it’ll go to the Giggle Fund.” 

All this week, if you have a One4all voucher handy or are buying one as a gift, 50c from every transaction (plus an extra 50c at participating shops) will be donated to the CMRF Giggle Fund, which helps the staff of CHI Crumlin boost the morale of long-term young patients living with a serious illness - bringing new toys, parties, celebrations for milestones & recovery, and other cool things to the facility’s wards - “the things they really need,” says O’Kane.

 

In judging over 500 entries, though, Deirdre had help from the most discerning crowd of all: her children, who helped O’Kane in refereeing the unfurling punning, wordplay and wisecracking across social media platforms.

“Scrolling! Just scrolling through all the entries, which I enjoyed, immensely. My own kids were a marker, for what they liked, what they didn’t like. In the end, we went for originality, coupled with age, and went with a kid who wrote their own material, which is always very impressive.” 

The Giggle Fund serves an important role for the patients of CHI Crumlin, be they short-term visitors or long-term patients. The organisation is dedicated to keeping kids’ spirits up during difficult times in their lives, and providing space for play, a bit of levity and good humour.

The latter in particular played a role in O’Kane’s own childhood experiences, informing her family relationships, and boosting her understanding of her subsequent work as an actress. 

“We had no obvious comedy around us when I was a young one. Telly would be on at very limited hours for kids, so we didn’t have shows as a yardstick. Comedy didn’t enter my head, I wanted to be an actress, so that’s what I became.

“The only comedy in my life was the comedy in our house. My mother was funny, she was a big personality... a matriarch in a noisy, busy house. I knew there was funny there, and thought other people’s houses were the same!” 

The ‘click-point’ for her own desire to make others laugh as a stand-up comedian didn’t occur until her late twenties, during a brush with the medium amid a dry spell for serious acting.

Proof, she says, that young people don’t always have to have life figured out right away.

“The moment I became aware that comedy existed and could be a career, was one year at the Kilkenny Cat Laughs festival. I went by chance, my boyfriend at the time was making a documentary about it.

“I was an unemployed actress, and he brought me along, 'you can make the tea'. It was a fortuitous weekend, because I went as a punter, and I’d never seen any live stand-up. I got a pass, and spent four days watching more comedy than I’d ever seen, and it completely changed my perspective.

“I walked away and said, ‘I could do that’, and then I was playing the festival a year later. I was 27 before I figured out what I wanted to do - there’s awful pressure on people to have it figured out. You can’t! Follow your instincts, and other things will come along.” 

Recovery from serious or long-term illness can be a fraught time for kids and adults alike, especially at a time when the world outside of hospital or home care can sometimes seem quite heavy at the moment.

During the last decade, O'Kane has experienced the healing power of laughter first-hand. 

“The guts of the last 8-10 years, between my dad and my husband being in hospital, I have a sound understanding of this, but with the weirdness being, I was going on stage, even in the middle of that craziness. My dad was older and was very ill, my husband was very ill, but I still had to go to work, and make people laugh.

“It was exceptionally good for me. I had to concentrate and stop thinking about what I was in, and it was a great escape, which is what I see comedy as. Go home, turn off, watch a film, see if you can distract yourself for 90 minutes, it does work.

“Even if it’s temporary, it’s a relief, like occupational therapy: hearing about other peoples’ s**t, and going ‘aw, look, maybe I can find another bit of resilience’.” 

Resilience will be key for all of us heading forward, as the prevailing circumstances continue into the winter, and present challenges for every section of society. And while O’Kane faces the challenges shared by the arts sector as a whole, she’s ready for new projects and opportunities, too.

“I’m over the rest, now, I want to get back to work (laughs). I’m writing, mostly, I went back to Gogglebox two weeks ago, which is really nice, to get back to a proper job that I enjoy.

“I have shows to finish - my Sky show, that was due to be recorded in April, has been put forward to February, and I still have to finish writing the live show that I was working on. I’ve bits and pieces, irons in fires, enough to keep me going, y’know?”

  • One4all’s Shop4Crumlin week runs until Sunday September 27.
  • During Shop4Crumlin week, if you make a purchase using a One4all Gift Card or Digital Gift Card in any of One4all’s 8,500 retail partners nationwide or online, One4all will donate .50c to the CMRF Giggle Fund, dedicated to bringing joy to CHI Crumlin patients 
  • Penneys, Life Style Sports, Argos, Marks & Spencer and Diesel have partnered with One4all and pledged to donate an additional 50c to the CMRF Giggle Fund for all transactions made in their stores using a One4all Gift Card or Digital Gift Card during Shop4Crumlin week. This will bring the total donation to €1 every time a One4all Gift Card or Digital Gift Card is spent in those five retailers.
  • The more you swipe or tap your One4all, the more they donate to the CMRF Giggle Fund during Shop4Crumlin week For further information on One4all’s 2020 Shop4Crumlin campaign, visit one4all.ie/shop4crumlin.

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