From Naked Camera to Bere Island to New York, Maeve Higgins tells Richard Fitzpatrick why she has to devour life.
Cobh’s Maeve Higgins left Ireland a few years ago, having spent 12 years living in Dublin. First she spent “an unhappy year” in London.
Then she passed a short spell living on Bere Island before fetching up in New York.
They do things differently in that city, as she recounts in her memoir, Off You Go: Away from Home and Loving It. Sort Of. Take the dating game, for example. Here is a three-way exchange she had one evening in a bar in the city’s West Village.
Adult 1: “We should have a drink, would you like to go out?” Adult 2: “Totally, let’s do that. How’s your week looking? I could do Thursday after 7pm.” Adult 3 (Higgins): “What? Oh my God like I can’t believe this what the fuck it’s so simple and this whole time oh Jesus what have I been doing I want to start over how is this possible it’s no big deal just be honest and direct and say what you want but then how has the Irish race even continued on some level these people are so cynical but no no it’s not like what we do is in any way romantic they are right and I am wrong oh what will become of us all?”
It is a marvel to her that adults in New York have a dating mechanism that allows them to assess each other’s attractiveness and suitability. There is no such thing as dating in Ireland, she concludes; people circle each other, usually in pubs, guessing if the other person is interested in them. Questions are left unsaid, not to mind answered: “Is there someone keeping a dinner for you?” “Do you fancy me?” “Are you gay?” It is only the cold or the drink that pushes people together.
Being gay is something Higgins has wondered about herself. She throws it out there at one stage in her book. “I was kind of joking about that,” she says, smiling, before adding, “but I definitely was [thinking], I’m sure I must be gay. I have to be. I just adore women.
“[A lesbian friend] said: ‘Do you want to go down on me?’ I’m like, ‘Well, no. No.’ So I’m not gay but I wish I was. It would be so much easier. I find I’m drawn to gay people and to women. It doesn’t make any sense. Maybe I’ll turn out to be one of those people who turns out gay later on, but it still hasn’t happened. I still like men. It’s annoying.”
Higgins is never afraid to take a pop at herself. Her book is laugh-out-loud in passages. In one section she goes through a list of things she’d rather forget about her life experiences, including a time she stayed with her brother and his girlfriend. She thought they’d gone out so she started snooping around their bedroom. Rummaging in the sock drawer, she noticed her brother’s girlfriend wide-awake on the bed looking horrified at her through the wardrobe mirror.
Anyone familiar with her stand-up will know she’s perceptive, too.
Men catcall women in New York, she’s discovered. It doesn’t happen in Ireland because a bloke would be afraid to find out after wolfing at a girl that he’s “just told his niece to take care of that ass”.
Time away from Ireland has made her discover things about herself also. “I learned I’m quite resilient. I’m always stressing about stuff, thinking that I’m doing everything wrong, but when I write it down and look back I see, Well, I managed that. I was fine. That’s a big thing for me. I’ve always had doubts.
“I can see my Irishness very clearly. In New York, people are very direct. I didn’t think I was indirect, but I am. What is it? Is it because I’m a woman? Is it my family? No, it’s being Irish. I know exactly what other Irish people mean when they’re not saying what they mean. There’s none of that in America. It’s: ‘I feel this way.’ ‘This is how it is.’ Whereas at home, I feel like we have a code. And the Catholic thing – I haven’t been a practicing Catholic since I was a kid. I thought that wasn’t something that affects me at all, but sure I constantly feel guilty and morbid!”
Her career is thriving stateside. She’s guested on Inside Amy Schumer. She co-hosts a monthly live gig with Jon Ronson and she’s a regular on National Geographic Channel’s StarTalk. She can’t say for sure if she’ll return home for good.
“People don’t seem to stay in New York forever although there are all these really cool, old ladies who potter around on their own wearing black polo necks and necklaces and I do look at them thinking, Oh I’d love to be you!”
Off You Go: Away from Home and Loving It. Sort Of by Maeve Higgins is published by Hachette Books Ireland. It costs €14.99.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved