When Tommy Tiernan was a boarder at Garbally College in Galway, there was a time when he would cycle to St Brigid’s Psychiatric Hospital in Ballinasloe and sit and talk for 45 minutes with “auld lads” once or twice a week.
“It was an odd thing to let a 16-year-old boy do,” he muses, recalling how he had volunteered for it as part of the pupils’ outreach programme with the St Vincent de Paul Society.
As Tiernan speaks about the heavy medication administered to the unfortunate patients, he jumps up, hunching over and sucking an imaginary fag as he imitates the tiny focused steps of the 'psychiatric shuffle'.
We’re in Galway’s Pálás Cinema, and Tiernan is chatting after the preview screening of, a compelling two-part documentary by Crossing the Line films which is due to begin broadcasting from Wednesday, December 7, on RTÉ One.
Talking to Limerick satirist BlindBoy Boatclub for the series, Tiernan had wondered if psychiatric hospitals were where creative people “once ended up”. And so, after some effort securing permission, Tiernan is filmed walking through the deserted institution, with its yellow wallpaper peeling, its rusting equipment and tiles carpeted in debris. He recalls how St Brigid’s was one the threats in Connemara and north Galway for anyone who was a bit different, like “being able to write with two hands”.
“It was like something out of a Tarkovsky film,” he says of his return there, after over 35 years. The significance of its very presence didn’t quite hit him at the time. "You can be a marvellously unbalanced teenager in a heroic rebellious way," he laughs.
Being sent to Garbally was Tiernan’s first firm connection with the west, after several summers despatched from home in Navan, Co Meath, to coláiste samhraidh to learn Irish and go wild.
“I was a catastrophe and was sent boarding at Garbally for two years. If I had stayed in Navan, I would have gone to Dublin as that was where the Navan lads went,” he says. “I was a part of the ruffians who came to the west in late 1989...there was a democracy of poverty back then, no one had any status."
He had no university degree, but plenty of drive and ambition, and, with the benefit of hindsight, sensed it was a place which “tolerated failure”.
The magnetic draw of the west is something he explores in more detail in the series. It is yet another departure in a busy career that ranges from theatre to Derry Girls, to his podcast with Hector O’hEochagáin and Laurita Blewitt, and to his highly successful RTÉ series,, due to return in January.
He describesas “fragile and unpredictable”, with a different rhythm to the contemporary highly-marketed image of the Irish west coast. Crossing the Line Films and director Maurice O’Brien had approached him, he says, and it was made, with many challenges, during the pandemic.
“Something happens when you cross the Shannon travelling west, and any time you try and explain what that is you end up stammering and confused," Tiernan says in his introduction, after he has taken to the saddle on a Honda 50.
Exploring the appeal of a “crooked landscape” for writers, artists and musicians, he explains that he finds the “big sky country” revitalising because of the light, and the fact that the west coast is a profoundly colourful place.
On his motorbike ramble, he chats to Cork academic Dr Louis de Paor about the silence of depopulation caused by the Great Famine and emigration, and its particular harsh impact on Irish speakers. He also has an hilarious discussion with Limerick writer Kevin Barry in Sligo’s Kesh Caves.
While visiting Connemara’s Ballynahinch, Tiernan says the ideas of the late writer John Moriarty, author of Dreamtime, have been one of his “constant companions” since he first interviewed him for his “Supertramp” walk around Ireland in 2002.
He remembers how Moriarty had pointed out the curves of the Owenmore river to him. “If you stand behind Ballynahinch, you can see she has hips,” he laughs. “Swaying her way towards the ocean...if a river can be a ride, I think that’s how gorgeous that river is.”
Filming had begun on Kerry’s Skellig Michael, he says where, strolling through the 6th-century monastery, he found a sense of hope.
“As long as there’s something in us that can still respond to a place like this, it suggests that the energy is somewhere still active in us.”
The cacophony of Skellig Michael’s gannets, kittiwakes and puffins, along with a stunning sunset, quenched his irrepressible urge to talk. Nor was there any reference to the Disney Lucas filming of, which has virtually colonised the rock in popular discourse.
“I haven’t watched,” he smiles. “So, no, I didn’t bring out a lightsaber.”
Skellig segues seamlessly to an empty railway station in Tuam, Co Galway, which is part of the “unglamorous west”, he explains. Sawdoctor Leo Moran and Padraig Stevens discuss the impact of the late writer Tom Murphy, who “showed how savage the west of Ireland can be”.
Culture is for 40-year-olds who can afford it, Galway DJ Cóilí Collins, a fluent Irish speaker from Indreabhán best known as 'Shampain', tells him. Yet just because people of his generation can’t afford to buy tickets for Galway arts events, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a responsibility to create one’s own art, Collins explains.
There’s also a visit to the Great Blaskets, where Tiernan suggests his line of work may be not much different to that of the storytellers Peig Sayers and Tomas Ó Criomtháin.
He drinks poitin in Carna, and discusses the missing voices of west — the writers in Irish like Mairtín Ó Cadhain and Mairtín Ó Direaín — with De Paor, and mentions that he feels like an east-coast imposter.
“This strikes me as a very lonely place,” he says to poet Mary O’Malley of the field where they are standing in Aillebrack and Ballinlame.
“It makes you really love New York,” she replies, bursting his bubble.
O’Malley points out how so many Connemara people have ended up in the US, explaining that this beautiful landscape cannot even sustain those from there, and a fishing industry has been decimated in one generation.
“And once you brand wilderness, it’s not wild anymore,” O’Malley adds.
Artist Dorothy Cross and Garry Hynes of Druid Theatre are among his other interviewees. The southernmost Aran island — which he compares to the “slightly mad” youngest of three sisters, with a “spark in her eye” — is where he most feels at home.
Does he still feel an outsider?
“With a work like that, a story has a beginning, middle and end, and I’d say the character came home, but life spills in too many directions along the way,” he says.
“I wasn’t trying to unsettle. It’s a combination of the vague and the specific, and being as honest as you can in each moment, and letting that have whatever effect. Yes, I’m full of theory, but I’m also full of guff and talk.”
- Tommy Tiernan's will air on RTÉ One and RTÉ player on Wednesday, December 7 and Wednesday, December 14 at 9.35pm.