Me and my mentor: Celebs on the importance of role models

PJ Gallagher may not be where he is today if it wasn’t for his role model, fellow stand-up Jason Byrne, writes Áilin Quinlan

PJ Gallagher, comedian and Coca-Cola Thank You Fund ambassador, with a picture of his friend and mentor Jason Byrne. Picture: Julien Behal

PJ GALLAGHER is a household name: His TV performances have made him one of Ireland’s best-known comedians and he’s been described by Ryan Tubridy as “an inspiration”.

Yet, says Gallagher, had it not been for the influence of his role model, mentor, and fellow comedian Jason Byrne, he’d probably never have stepped inside the doors of a comedy club.

Role models are an important source of inspiration and guidance for children and young people.

One reason for the success of films like Frozen and The Iron Giant is their emphasis on strong role models — Anna is kind, loving, brave, and resilient, and, more importantly, refuses to give up on her sister Elsa; while Hogarth Hughes’s hard-working and loving single mother is a superb role model for her son.


In fact, research shows that by far the most prominent role models for young people are one or both of their parents.

More than 60% of 12-17-year-olds and 50% of 18-25-year-olds say they have a role model, according to a study commissioned by Coca Cola for the launch of the Coca-Cola Thank You Fund 2017.

The findings show that 54% of young people said their role models are one or both of their parents, 23% said their role model was a celebrity, while 14% said they looked up to a current or former teacher.

Indeed, it does seem, as the German poet, playwright, and theatre director Bertolt Brecht said, “unhappy the land that is in need of heroes”.

Happily for PJ Gallagher, he had one.

Having a positive role model, he believes now, changed the course of his life.

The Dubliner’s friendship with Jason Byrne — the two met while working in a warehouse — was a crucial turning point for the early-school-leaver, now 42 and enjoying a successful career on the stage. “When I was young I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I left school early, at the age of 16, and I worked in a warehouse. Jason Byrne worked there too.”

Byrne was ambitious, Gallagher recalls. His ambition and drive for life were infectious. “He wanted to do stand-up comedy. I didn’t really understand what it was — I didn’t get it.”

When Byrne started booking gigs and suggesting that Gallagher tag along, he did. “I was watching him being 10 steps ahead of me,” he recalls.

Crucially, Byrne would turn around and tell Gallagher he had the ability to do the same thing. “Without Jason’s influence, I probably wouldn’t even have gone into a comedy club.

“It wouldn’t have been an option for me to pursue something like this that I really loved.“

In turn, recalls Gallagher, now married to Elaine Stewart: “I don’t know if anyone would call me a role model but I’m always willing to help people. I did a few shows with Joanne McNally and advised her to look at it as a possible career.”

He later booked her as a support act. “I picked up from Jason that you help someone when you can. Whether I’m a role model to Joanne, I don’t know — she probably wouldn’t call me a role model, but I was trying to do for someone else what Jason did for me.

“I think it’s just about looking out for people around you and trying to be a positive influence if you can.

“Jason Byrne has always been there for me and helped me establish my comedy career. It’s good news that many young people have similar figures in their own lives. We need to support young people so they can live up to their ambitions.”

Around 47% of young people polled said they selected their role model based on that person’s life achievements and success in their field. Some 42% said their role model had provided advice or guidance directly to them, but only 10% chose their role model based on wealth.

Ask writer Colm Tóibín about role models, and he will talk to you about the author John McGahern whom he met for the first time in 1985. McGahern, he recalls, might have been an utter perfectionist about his work, but as a friend he was unassuming, funny, and tremendously good company.

Colm Tóibín: Grateful to McGahern

“He was a role model in the sense that he was a writer who had dedicated his life to the work, without making a fuss about it — I learned a great deal from him,” says Tóibín, whose latest book is The House of Names.

“He was a great believer in good manners and said good manners were often the only thing between us and barbarism. John believed that if you used good manners an awful lot of trouble could be avoided.

“He was very wise about that and very funny about things in general, but he never made you feel he was he was so talented that he didn’t have time to look at you.”

However, says Tóibín, a native of Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, and now in his early 60s, you can also learn from somebody who is the very antithesis of a role model.

“Someone who is not a role model can be just as useful to you because you could learn that you’d never be like that. So it’s ‘whatever they do I’ll do the opposite’”.

Best-selling novelist Cathy Kelly is a great believer in role models. “They are so important to young people growing up — and not just people who are beautiful or famous, because that’s a very simplistic type of role model,” she says.

“I try to teach my children that famous people are great but I like them much more if they do something for other people. I think my sons get tired of that old chestnut.”

Looking back, says the Wicklow-based mother of two teenage sons, she had two great role models, both of them teachers. One in primary school “taught us all sorts of non-curricular things like making us listen to classical music and explaining the story behind it all”, says Kelly, 50.

“She made a classroom of girls think they could do anything. She was definitely a feminist, a terribly ladylike feminist in the ’70s when a feminist was allegedly supposed to look like women burning bras.”

Kelly’s other great role model, was her second-level English teacher, “a woman who was so kind and full of energy and who imbued the classes with fun — not just for the ones who liked English, like me, but the ones who found it tough too. I loved that about her — her kindness to everyone.”

Cathy Kelly: Teachers were role models

However, Kelly says she had to learn “clumsily over the years, to see the difference between cool people and people who made a difference.

“No one person did that for me. But somehow, slowly, it stuck. It took ages. I had never been cool and thought that to be cool was the most fabulous thing you could be. But, eventually, I found that cool had its limits. Doing stuff for other people — now that was something to be proud of,” says Kelly, whose novel Secrets of a Happy Marriage was recently published.

She has mentored other writers and is “the sort of person that people come to for advice, but I can’t say I am anyone’s role model.

“I guess the most I can say on this is that I believe you don’t dim your own candle one little bit if you light someone else’s and that the joy you get from helping other people comes back to you tenfold.”

PJ Gallagher is an ambassador for the Coca-Cola Thank You Fund of €100,000 which is being made available to help fund projects run by non-profit and community group.


“People seldom improve when they have no other model but themselves to copy” — Oliver Goldsmith.

What Goldsmith was referring to here, says Dr Malie Coyne, clinical psychologist and lecturer at NUI Galway, is the importance of finding people who most influence and inspire us in life, namely our role models.

“Given that humans are a deeply social species, from the very beginning of life children look to adults, namely their parents, close family members, and teachers, to provide them with a blueprint for optimal development.

“By middle childhood and adolescence, children may shift their focus to incorporating other role models, such as peers, celebrity and athlete role models.

“The common denominator is often the same: We choose role models to help guide us through life, to help us make important decisions, to help us overcome barriers and to help motivate us to improve aspects of ourselves. Role models are therefore essential for us psychologically as they provide us with a sense of hope and drive to do the best that we can.

“However, what we need to be careful about is our choice of role models, particularly children and young people, who benefit from adult support in distinguishing between good and less good influencers on their lives.

“Hence the importance of parents directing their child’s activities towards positive role models, and distracting them from less suitable role models such as celebrities.

“As a parent, you are your child’s everything. Do not underestimate your power as your child’s role model, even when they reach their teenage years even though they will pretend the opposite.

“Your children are watching you closely and will emulate your self-confidence, your choices and even your attitude towards life. No pressure.”

Top tips:

If you want a good role model, says Dr Coyne, find:

  • Someone who really inspires you
  • Someone who may have overcome an obstacle similar to your own
  • Someone who has a fascinating life story
  • Someone who is honest in their sharing and empowers you to see a brighter path ahead.
  • Choose multiple role models for different areas of your life
  • Try not to put role models on a pedestal. Everyone makes mistakes.
  • Use your role models as a guide only and live your own journey of life.


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