Funny girl: Deirdre O’Kane laughing her way through the lockdown

Funny girl: Deirdre O’Kane laughing her way through the lockdown

Suzanne Harrington talks to Deirdre O'Kane about that Normal People sketch, sexism in the Irish comedy scene and the positives of social media.

Deirdre O’Kane is brilliant at a lot of stuff, including raising money for charities.

You’ll have seen her hosting Comic Relief recently, as well as doing a turn as Marianne from Normal People several decades into the future, with Connell played by Paul McDonald - Normal Older People, shot in O’Kane’s kitchen in lockdown by her husband, the film-maker Stephen Bradley.

Dressing gowns and baked beans and lingering glances. It was clever and funny, like O’Kane herself.

“We were trending worldwide on YouTube,” she says.

She sounds delighted – since her return from London in 2016, she and her family had navigated tricky times. Bradley was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer on their return, prompting her to return to comedy after an eight-year break; O’Kane worked non-stop, while Bradley was in hospital and their teenage children adjusted to their new life (“They’ve got Dublin accents now,” she says). He made a full recovery, and has since written a memoir of his experiences.

And Comic Relief raised €5m, from a country whose population is 4.9 million.

Ireland is the most generous country in the EU, and fifth most generous in the world, when it comes to donating to charity. Turns out laughter is the ultimate wallet-opener.

O’Kane has just helped the Care Trust to launch another initiative, Fair Play To You, an online lottery that supports three Irish charities - the Central Remedial Clinic, Rehab and the Mater University Hospital.

The Care Trust has been fundraising in Ireland since the 1950s, and raised €2m last year, but Covid has meant it has had to move its fundraising activities online – prizes will start at €5,000 and go up to €25,000. Give it a whirl.

What is not at all funny within the Irish comedy scene, however, is the recent spate of allegations with an unpleasant whiff of the Weinsteins; abuse of power, toxic culture, sexual misconduct.

It seems Irish comedy is having its own #MeToo moment. Davey Reilly, MC and booker at Dublin’s Comedy Cellar, recently apologised for sexually manipulative behaviour towards another comedian.

Since then, others have come forward to report similar experiences.

Reilly stated how he felt “embarrassed and remorseful” after admitting to “manipulation, hypocrisy, and cowardice, reckless disregard for the health of others”.

The comedian he harassed was a woman, and still up-and-coming; Reilly sent her unsolicited sexual images. He says he’s now in therapy for sex addiction.

It does not sound like an isolated incident, but part of a seam that runs through the industry, prompting comedian Alison Spittle to post, “Irish comedy needs a purge, lads. I stand behind anyone that's telling their story. I'm so sorry you've been let down. It's a disgrace.”

Eleanor Tiernan - once billed on a poster as ‘cousin of Tommy’ - tweeted: “It’s way too easy for unsuitable people to work their way into positions of power over others in the entertainment industry. They will not be missed!”

Stand up comedy, like politics and trading floors, has long been a pit of machismo. Even without sexual misconduct, its intensely lad-centric culture has made it a difficult environment for women; those who have successfully cracked it, like Deirdre O’Kane, remain a minority.

Men get booked more, and paid more. In recent years, more women have become comedic household names – Sharon Horgan, Sarah Millican, Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, Sarah Pascoe, Miranda Hart – but older comedy fans will remember the vitriol reserved for pioneers like Jo Brand.

Or the jaded chestnut that women are just not funny.

O’Kane is unsurprised at the recent revelations. “I have no direct experience of what has been happening,” she says. “But I don’t doubt it, there has been too much innuendo and too many allegations.”

At 52, she has much experience of the stand-up scene, and how to navigate it. “There is a lot of alpha energy required,” she says. “In that respect, it’s very similar to politics – heavily male. Comedy is a tough, macho world, and for a long time, like politics, we didn’t see many women. The balance is slowly tipping – when I was starting out there were even less.

“In hindsight, this made life harder – at the time I was purely focused on the audience and making them laugh, but looking back it would have been so much nicer had then been more women around. I was able for it, but it wasn’t easy.”

There are of course male allies within the scene. 

“I’ve been reading the awful stories from Irish women in comedy, and I’m disgusted,” tweeted stand up and author Colm O’Regan. “I’m so sorry about how you were treated. As an industry we need to do better.” 

Already, comedy clubs across the country are looking at new codes of conduct to counteract systemic and structural sexism, but as stand up Laura O’Mahony points out in a Twitter post, it’s baked in. 

Her list of unacceptable male behaviour includes “casual sexual banter” and “unsolicited advice on the content of my set and how to improve it”.

Until women are co-running the show as well as appearing in it, this dynamic remains persistent.

“It’d be good to see women running more comedy clubs,” says Deirdre O’Kane. 

“What’s great is that women are speaking out about what’s happening, and that will stop it. Irish women are a lot more vocal than before, and this is one of the positives of social media. It’s vocalising and empowering women like never before.”

Because Irish women, it seems, are no longer willing to laugh things off.

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