Back on the road

Living

Pic: Brian J Ritchie

Comedian, presenter and science lover Dara Ó Briain chats to The Mayo News ahead of his Castlebar performance in January


Interview
Ciara Moynihan

When The Mayo News catches up with comedian Dara Ó Brian on Zoom last Friday morning, he is making a valiant effort to look on the bright side.
He and fellow comedian Michael McIntyre, along with a few other big names, had been all set to jet over to Norway later that day to perform to an audience of 4,000. But these days, nothing is certain. At the eleventh hour, the show has been cancelled. Covid regulations strike again, swift and sudden.
“It’s all been pulled,” he says, speaking from his London home, “and so our pre-Christmas trip to Oslo is over.”
But the Bray man refuses to be too bummed. “I was really looking forward to it, but that said, I had just looked at the weather, and it’s minus 9 degrees this weekend in Oslo, so ya know….  Honestly, we were digging out those old puffy jackets kept at the top of the attic somewhere, so the call came just in time.”
Answering the obligatory ‘How did you get through lockdown?’ question, Dara says he and his family are lucky to have a garden ‘so that kept us going’. Full of faux sincerity he says it’s also been an absolute ‘joy’ and ‘privilege’ to spend so much time with his family.
He admits he’s really missed doing live standup. Unlike other younger techno-savvy comics with no kids, he hasn’t embraced ‘new media’ as a comedic outlet.    
“So there are the young comics who reinvented how you did comedy, and would do TikToks and Zooms and find new ways of doing things, do sketches and characters online, and can all do video editing and all these other mysterious skills – and then there was this line between them and the people who had children, who at the end of six hours of home schooling went ‘I don’t want to reinvent the way comedy is delivered. I’m actually really tired now, and I’d like a glass of wine’.”
His assessment of the whole thing was pretty simple. “I was just very happy putting on a suit and shouting my jokes in a room, and so yeah, can we just go back to that please?”  

New tour
Now he’s back on the road, shouting in big rooms to real people, and he couldn’t be happier. His new ‘So, Where Were We?‘ tour, which stops off in Castlebar’s Royal Theatre on January 29,  is bookended by shows in Dublin’s Vicar Street – the first run of which already took place last month.
Considering Irish audiences had been so starved of live indoor entertainment, what was the atmosphere like in Vicar Street? “It was genuinely unique I think … there was a real sense of ‘Jesus, this is really happening? Wow, we’re actually at a gig’,” he laughs. “And the first line from me was literally ‘Look at all you, actually at a show!’. It was just huge … It was lovely. It was just ‘Here we are! As normal!’. And as soon as I go to some random person in the front row and go ‘Hello!’, it’s then ‘Here we go, we’re off!’.”
Ó Briain’s anecdote sparks memories of a review of a previous Castlebar gig that was carried in The Mayo News back in 2010. Barbara Preston gave the show a five-star review, but was less glowing about some of the front row’s reluctance to engage with the comedian.      
Laughing, Dara says he understands that some audience members can be nervous to talk, but he says in his shows they don’t have to be. He doesn’t like the nasty, rip-people-apart stuff that some comics do, he just wants to have fun and riff off details and stories. “I think when you go to the front row, I think people are trained to think that they’re going to get slagged, or ribbed, whereas really, I’m looking for random stuff. I do it differently to others.”
Ó Brian’s new show hardly mentions Covid because, ‘Jesus, who wants to hear about that?’. That said, he admits that ‘it turns out, it’s impossible not to mention it at all’.
“I mean [the pandemic] is a big shared experience. So the first half is a lot of messing and giddiness, but it is a lot more ‘Oh look what we’ve all just gone through’. And then the second half becomes another thing, a whole other thing.
“Someone said to me after one of the previews, ‘Oh it’s a much more personal show than others you’ve done’, and I went ‘Yes, because nothing has happened, so all I have to work with is myself at the moment, because we haven’t been out of the house for a year and a half…’
“So it’s impossible not to mention ‘it’ – and the universal stuff, like ‘We all got to spend more time with our family, and wasn’t that an ‘unfettered joy’’.”

Mayo GAA
Speaking of shared experiences, few are more shared than watching a big game. Ó Briain is a massive GAA fan – so will he be bringing up the sore point of the Sam Maguire with his Mayo audience?
“Well, my mother is from [South] Mayo. She has attended four All-Ireland finals in the last nine years. None of which she has seen a victory in. I honestly thought this year would be the one, as a lot of us thought it would be the one. I think she’d instantly just die happy, just going ‘That’s grand, fine, I have finally seen it and now my journey has come to an end’.
“So yeah, she is my perennial reminder of ‘Oh come on lads, could you just make an old woman happy?’,” he chuckles in exasperation. “Her and her brother, both of whom are in their 90s – there’s a lovely photo of the two of them meeting at the All-Ireland, which is great in itself – anyway, he comes from one part of the country, she comes from another, and then they meet there – and then they watch Mayo lose again,” he laughs, “it’s become this tradition…!”    
Of course, Ó Brian was photographed a few years back at the TF with a Mayo jersey two days before a final – perhaps he was the kiss of death? “Ha! That’s a good point, but there has actually been a few finals since then, so… but yes I was, and it was a bit like, you know, I shouldn’t really be doing this, this is going to rear up and bite me.
“Wicklow are technically my county. I played schools GAA in Dublin [he went to Coláiste Eoin, a Gaelscoil secondary school in Booterstown] so I should have a connection with Dublin – but they’re so huge and successful, they don’t need another fan… it’s more just interesting to me to watch them. So with the Mayo jersey thing, I wasn’t so much nailing my colours to the mast as politely responding to someone who put a jersey in my hand. But yes, I’d love you to win! Please God, do it.”
As an avowed scientist he has no time for the idea of the Mayo curse. “For an empiricist like me, the worst of it is, you’ll never tell people there was no curse, even though, let’s face it, in the finals in which it ‘occurred’ it was never, like, a bird flew in front of the goalie, or a freak accident, it was always just Mayo got beaten. It was never like a footballer was going in, and a bolt from an airplane flying overhead dropped on his head and that’s how he didn’t score the winning goal. There was never a freakish curse-type element, like a Final Destination horror-movie ending – it was always just, they got beaten on the day.”

Wondrous world
Ó Briain is renowned for his undisguised love for maths and physics, and for the sciences generally (especially anything related to space). Determined to spread the word, he’s the author of three children’s books on science and space that introduce kids (and curious adults who appreciate simple words) to the mysteries of the universe in an accessible and funny way.
“There’s big concepts, but they’re explained for children … They’re great for parents too – I’m often told by adults that they get a lot out of the books, because the kids jump ahead of them and start telling them facts.
“One of the most common things I’m told is [in an exasperated voice] ‘My kids will not stop telling me facts about space now, thanks to your book’, and I’m like ‘Yeah, sorry about that’,” he laughs.
Ó Briain laments the fact that when he was young, the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) were not seen as ‘cool’. His school, he says, was ‘very much culture, culture, culture’. “It was strong on music, strong on literature, all that kind of stuff – which was never me … It wasn’t a great science grounding, it was very much a forgotten thing.
“I think culturally, Ireland did a lot of that. We love celebrating authors and musicians and going on about how many bands we have. We have loads of scientists too, but we don’t tend to go on about them … we have [William Rowan] Hamilton, we have Nobel Prizes and everything, but we don’t go on about it. “So I like to be a champion for it… to normalise it as a passion because sometimes [a love for science] can can sort of be passed off as ‘that’s a weird thing to be into’.”
He’s delighted too that his books – which are aimed at nine to 12 year olds – are loved by boys and girls equally, and he hopes that catching them at this young age means they go into secondary school knowing that they’re into science and wanting to find out more.
For anyone looking to stimulate young minds this Christmas, Dara reckons his first children’s book (‘Beyond the Sky: You and the Universe’) is ‘the best introductory one’, teaching readers all about space and the solar system and important subjects like how astronauts go the the toilet.
His second book ‘Secret Science – The Amazing World Beyond Your Eyes’ is all about the science behind everyday life, like ‘Why do we move around so much in our sleep?’ and ‘Why atoms are responsible for your bad hair day’.
He returns to the space theme for his latest book, ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’, which asks ‘Are there aliens?’.
“It uses that question to go, how does life evolve? What is needed for something to be alive? What are different types of intelligence? How do we find planets?,” Ó Briain explains. “Then there’s a big section on how we have discovered about 5,000 planets in the last seven or eight years – we didn’t have any new planets for ages, [we were] stuck at just eight for hundreds of years. And now there’s all sorts of different ones, big ones and small ones and weird shaped ones, ones with two suns, ones with three suns and all sorts of systems that work in different ways. So yeah, it’s really cool, there’s loads of really cool stuff happening.”
Adults, be warned though, you might need to read along: “I do have a running joke in all the books – ‘Why not ask grown ups about this now’, knowing full well the adults will go ‘Oh God, no… I don’t know…’!” And as we all know, there’s nothing worse than looking stupid in front of a kid.


Dara Ó Briain will perform his ‘So, Where Were We?’ show in the Royal Theatre, Castlebar, on January 29. For tickets (€36), contact the theatre box office on 094 9023111 or visit www.royaltheatrecastlebar.ie.