From prisons to coastal Norway, The Panel comedian has performed his stand-up seemingly everywhere, says Jonathan deBurca Butler.
COMEDIAN Neil Delamare has played strange venues. There was an “interesting” gig in Mountjoy prison, and another in a country that was being terrorised by an Islamist organisation called MILF. Before one concert in a pub on the Ulster border, he shared his dressing room with a man in a coffin. Just last week, the 35-year-old was in Huagesund, on the west coast of Norway.
“I found it odd, but immensely enjoyable,” says the Offaly native. “There’s two types of gig when you go abroad. The ex-pat gig and the people-from-there gig. It was mainly people-from-there. Of course, everyone’s English is amazing, but it has to be really amazing to understand humour and I can guarantee you they’ve never heard Midlands English before. Anyway, there were two drunk Irish guys at it and they were annoying people a bit. There was an English comedian on before me, who was quite polite to them, but I had no such inhibitions. So I went up and said: ‘Ladies and gentlemen of Norway, hundreds of years ago you came to our country and raped and pillaged. As revenge for this, every year we send the two biggest pricks we have in Ireland to heckle comedians at your gigs and they’ve outdone themselves tonight’. Big round of applause and that was the end of them”
The historical reference in Delamare’s put-down is revealing. Since his first stand-up gig, in the International Bar, in Dublin, 15 years ago, Delamare has broadened his career. He is well-known as a regular on RTE’s The Panel and on BBC Northern Ireland’s The Blame Game, but Delamare has delved into documentary-making: In 2011, he presented and narrated The Only Viking in the Village, which investigated his Viking roots; and, for St. Patrick’s Day, 2013, he presented There’s Something About Patrick, a feature on our patron saint.
“I’ve always been interested in history,” says Delamare. “And I’ve been very lucky, in that I’ve been able to sit down with the people I work with and identify things we’d like to talk about and make shows about.”
Four more documentaries have been commissioned. Holding Out For a Hero will be broadcast on RTÈ in December, in which Delamare will cast his curious eye over the pirate-queen Grainne Mhaile, Irish rebel, Red Hugh O’Donnell, and those two monoliths of Irish mythology, Cuchulainn and Fionn MacCumhaill.
“These were people who we thought had great stories,” says Delamare. “Not only do you have these interesting characters, but you have them at really interesting and pivotal times in Irish history. The mythological figures were a bit more difficult, but they’re very interesting in how they appear in Irish history. So, if you look at the lads in the Gaelic Revivalist Movement, they needed Irish heroes for Irish boys, because they only had heroes of imperial Britain. Pearse was fascinated by them. So they had a bigger influence than you might think.”
The format for the programmes is a mix of the serious, historical and informative, interspersed with snippets of stand-up.
“We try and make a clear delineation between what I’m saying and messing about in the stand-up part and what the experts are saying,” he says. “It’s a huge amount of work, particularly the stand-up part. Most comedians would probably write about an hour’s worth of material every year or 18 months, but this was an hour of stand-up written about four people and it’s not easy, because you’re not working with the familiar. You can’t do any observational comedy on the Iron Age.”
“But there are gems there,” he says. “So, one thing I love is that at the Battle of Kinsale, the English fought the Irish in December, but the Irish fought the English on January 3, ten days later, because they were using the Julian Calender and we were using the Gregorian calender. Now, if you can’t make comedy out of that...”
Although Delamare is branching out, he remains staunchly loyal to his original craft. Every year, the comedian sets off around the country performing live and this year is no different. His ‘Fresh Prince of Delamare’ tour kicks off in December.
“My first love is always comedy,” he says. “If someone put a gun to my head, I’d always say I want to be on stage and messing around. I love the immediacy of it. I don’t know how you do it [get up on stage]. I suppose, when you start out, you rationalise it and say ‘I’m only going to be up there for five minutes’. I just wanted to do it once and see what it was like. I was a smart aleck in school, but I remember not doing school musicals, and that kind of thing. My brother did them, but I said ‘no way, I’m never getting on stage’. But I suppose there might be a certain freedom with leaving your home town, too.”
Delamare grew up in Edenderry, where he had what he calls “a great upbringing”. His mother, who is from Dublin, moved there with Delamare’s father, who is from Westmeath, due to his father’s work.
“I’m...Offaly by the grace of God,” says Delamare.
“I did a gig once in Montreal, for The Just For Laughs Festival,” he says. “A lady came up to me at the end of the show and she said ‘you talk a lot about your father, what does he do?’ So I had to think about how I was going to explain Bord na Mona. ‘Do you know turf?’ I said to her and she said ‘no’. ‘Do you know bog?’ and she said ‘no’. ‘Ok so,’ I said. ‘He’s a farmer’.”
Like most people of his age, Delamare’s love of comedy started with foreign sit-coms, such as MASH, Cheers and Blackadder, but it was when he saw two Irish comedians presenting a show on the BBC that he really took notice of comedy.
“The Comedy Show on BBC was a great thing,” he says. “Tommy Tiernan and Ardal [O’Hanlon] presented it, so, suddenly, there were these fellas who looked like you and sounded like you doing a job that made you look up. That coincided with me going to college and actually seeing a live stand-up with Dara, [O’Briain], Eddie Bannon and Deirdre O’Kane in the D.C.U. bar and I just thought ‘wow’.
“At the same time, I was gong into town and I just became aware that there was an infrastructure there, if you wanted to do stand-up. You go into a place like the International Comedy Club and you see someone in front of 15 people and it clicks; it’s a ladder and this is the first step.”
Delamare was part of a golden era for Irish comedy performers throughout the 1990s and noughties, and he says it was “a great advantage” to be part of the movement.
“When I started out, there was loads going on. There was an appetite there. People had a few quid in their pocket and they were willing to spend it on something a bit different.
“Today, people take less of a risk, because of the money situation. It’s the same in the UK, but also in the UK they now have those massive arena shows, which have taken some of the market. So it’s a little harder to break through now, I think, than it was when I was starting. I’d like to see more clubs, but Irish comedy is in robust good health,” he says.
Much like Delamare and his career.
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