When Deirdre O’Kane started taking her first tentative steps in the world of comedy back in the mid-Nineties, you could have counted the number of female comedians in Ireland on one hand.
There was literally The Nualas, me, and Anne Gildea, who was also a Nuala,” she says. “All the contemporary comics were men. I didn’t question it then, because it was just life. It was just accepted that there were very few women in comedy.”
There was no mention of misogyny or sexism because, she says, “those words didn’t exist at that time. It was a male profession.” She dealt with that by blending in. She remembers a comedy tour around the country sponsored by Carroll’s cigarettes (“I’m making myself sound absolutely ancient!” she roars with laughter) with Des Bishop, Tommy Tiernan, Barry Murphy, and Joe Rooney.
“All the greats. I was in the thick of it. I love men. I love their company. So I’d be very happy to hang out with them. They knew I was easygoing. But I would have loved some female company. I only realise that now. But there were no female comics – absolutely none.”
The need for the company of fellow female comics was not unrelated to the fact that the audience appeared against her. There would be an audible moan at comedy clubs in Ireland when she was
“I could smell the fear in the audience. I would have to be funny immediately, to put the audience at their ease, to let them know they were in safe hands – because they didn’t like female comedy. They just didn’t want it. The change with female comedians now is drastic. Look at what Joanne McNally is doing. It’s amazing. So different to when I started.”
Audiences were fearful, she says, of the material female comedians dealt with.
“They didn’t want women talking about sex. They didn’t want women talking about… anything. They feared women talking openly about anything personal: their bodies, childbirth. It made them uncomfortable. Women, particularly, were not comfortable with female comics.”
Did you have to adapt your comedy?
“While the men were not judged in any way, I had to make them laugh another way… avoid all that and censor myself.
“I’m not sure I knew I was doing it. It was subconscious. And I never talked about it. It’s only with hindsight that I realise it was actually tough. I had to tap into a male energy, to blend with them and become one of the boys – and I did that. That was my coping mechanism.
“The business opened up to women slowly but surely. My being on TV definitely helped,” she says. “I’ve been told by comics like Aisling Bea that it was seeing me being funny on TV that inspired her, made her think: ‘She’s doing that. Maybe I can do that too.’”
Fast forward three decades, and Deirdre O’Kane is one of the biggest stars in Irish comedy. Her ability to tell a funny story, she says, is down to her mother, Lillian McLaughlin.
She has a strong memory of being aged about 12 and walking home one summer evening in Drogheda, Co Louth, where she grew up – and her mother asking did she have any yarns from the town.
When she said no, her mother admonished her: ‘Have you nothing to say? For the love of God will you come up with a story! Make it up, love!’
“It was sacrilege to bore her,” she says. “I’ve been making up stories ever since.”
Her comedic impulse also came from her late father John. When Deirdre (the second youngest of four girls and one brother) would ring home from the Loreto boarding school in Rathfarnham, Dublin, her father’s phone patter was always the same, no matter how many times she rang at the same time every Sunday night.
“Gráinne? Elizabeth? Deirdre? Emer?”
“How are you, love?”
“I’m great, Dad.”
“That’s great love. I’ll get your mother.”
“And that was the extent of the conversations,” she says now,
I was pretty sheltered from it all, but I knew there was a crisis
Another time, when she was sitting her Leaving Cert, she rang and had the usual conversation with him – until he got to the bit where he always asked how she was. When she replied: “Not good. I had
Geography today,” there was total silence at the Drogheda end of the line.
“I knew he didn’t know what was going on. I could hear him thinking. When I finally told him I was doing the Leaving Cert, he said: ‘Are you really? The very best of luck to you love. I’ll get your mother.’ The madness of that. Think of how far we’ve come.
“Dads were not involved in raising you. You’d see them on a Sunday. I remember him as the man who carved the roast on a Sunday. His job was to bring in the money. My mother’s father was a cattle dealer, and my father was a cattle dealer.”
Did you have a fancy house in Drogheda?
“We did, until it all went up shit’s creek in the 1980s recession. You do a business deal, it falls through. The next thing the market collapses overnight, and you’re in trouble. He had to sell the family house – not immediately but eventually. I was away in boarding school. So, I was pretty sheltered from it all, but I knew there was a crisis. My dad was a great man. Quite eccentric.”
She didn’t realise how eccentric her late father was until she started writing about him for new show, Demented, which opens at Dublin’s 3Olympia Theatre in January. She also realised that she came from quite an unusual background.
“Both of my parents were outsiders. If you’re not of the town – Drogheda – that makes you a little bit different. My mother was a Derry girl and my dad was born in London and reared in Drogheda. So my parents were very much outsiders – but they also came from extremely different backgrounds.”
“My dad wasn’t a West Brit. But he was sort of Anglified. His mother was English. Stephen is a West Brit,” she says of her husband Stephen Bradley who was born in Dublin and went to Harrow public school in England.
My God, Derry people are great storytellers
“Don’t quote him as West Brit. That won’t go down well – I don’t know with who, though! But my dad’s family had money.”
At an early age, he was sent to Clongowes boarding school in Co Kildare. From
the age of 12, Deirdre went to boarding school too.
“Loreto College was considered a posh school at the time. But it was full of culchies. It wasn’t a bit posh. It was quite the
opposite – like me.”
“My mother was a regular Derry girl,” she adds. “She’s a force, a huge personality. And if I go to Derry she will always say: ‘Be sure to tell them who you are.’ I’m like: ‘No one will know who I am!’ But they do. I have over 50 cousins in Derry and the North.
“My God, Derry people are great storytellers. My father’s people go back to Derry. O’Kane is a Derry name.
“And all the Derry women look like Andrea Corr. They all have black hair like me. I’m as common as muck in Derry. When I arrive in Derry everyone looks like me.”
In 1963, her mother and father met and moved to Drogheda. Deirdre came along on March 25, 1968. As a young child, she recalls, that the family spent all summer going up to their granny’s in Derry as well as to her uncle Liam in Craigavon.
“I can remember hearing a bomb when I was staying in Craigavon with my cousins. I remember being a bit taken aback by the noise and asking what it was. My memory is of how casual they were. ‘Ah, that’s just a wee bomb. It’s nothing.’ I was five.
“That’s my only memory of the Troubles. The rest is just craic. It was always craic in Derry. Then when my granny died, when I was 11, we stopped going.”
In the early 1990s Deirdre O’Kane never stopped going to nightclubs in Dublin. You couldn’t keep her out of them.
A young film director Stephen Bradley lived next door to her in Hanbury Lane in the Liberties. He used to say to her: ‘Isn’t it very strange that we never bump into each other when we’re out on the town in Dublin?’
This was especially surprising because, she says: “I partied like the best of them. I was the last to leave every club. And thank God I did it.”
In 1993, they finally bumped into each other in Suesey Street nightclub at four o’clock in the morning.
“The rest is history,” she says. They married in 2000.
That year, her sister-in-law Fiona Bradley was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died on November 25, 2002.
“She was extraordinary to me. She was a gifted doctor and an extraordinary human being. She was very socially conscientious. She started a practice in Ballymun and was one of the doctors in Mountjoy Prison.
“She had once worked in a practice in London where everyone – from the cleaners to the doctors – were paid the same. She lectured in Trinity. She had a brilliant mind and would have been at the forefront of everything, but was tragically robbed of it all at 41.”
In May 2003, Deirdre had a miscarriage. She was five months pregnant.
The day after, she says, was horrible.
“I was physically unwell. You have to go to hospital. You have to deliver. But I’m a very strong person. Stephen was in bits.”
Deirdre forced herself to go back to work. “What was I going to do? Sit around and cry my eyes out for forever? I wanted to get out and live. It is not my instinct to lie down. I wanted to keep going.”
A week after the miscarriage she was back working on a comedy tour.
“I was on the road, touring. It was too soon. I shouldn’t have. When I finished the tour at Christmas, I had a complete health crisis. I was completely burned out. I got vertigo, I couldn’t walk, I was dizzy.”
She went to an acupuncturist, Martina Morahan – mother of TV star Caroline.
“I told her about the miscarriage, and I think I cried for the first time in six months since the miscarriage. She started sticking needles in me and told me there was nothing in my body. ‘You are living on adrenaline,’ she said. ‘There is no nutrition in you. You have nothing left. You are spent.’
“I was so weak. I was just nothing.”
She still wanted to be a mother.
“My perspective was I can always try and have another baby. And I got pregnant with Holly not long after, thank God.”
Holly was born in February 2005. The family briefly moved to LA, before relocating to London in 2006. In 2008, son Daniel was born. Three years later, Deirdre’s father was diagnosed with cancer. In 2015, she, Stephen and the kids returned to live in Dublin. In April the following year, Stephen was diagnosed with cancer.
I wanted to protect everyone – Stephen, my children, our parents
For the next two years she’d wake every morning with a “very real fear” in the pit of her stomach.
She says they were “living on the edge of life and death… but with hope, mostly hope, and clinging to that determinedly.
“I had a feeling of wanting to be stoic, wanting to cover Stephen and take on the role of breadwinner. I wanted to survive this horror, knowing that if I did – if I could go out and tell jokes with this madness in the background – I could do pretty much anything.
“I wanted to protect everyone – Stephen, my children, our parents.”
She can remember a very strong sense of “gratitude” for the medics in Ireland and being inspired to “keep going because the nurses kept going through ridiculous long hours and low pay. And if they could do that, what was my excuse?
“I was overwhelmed at times. But I was so busy I couldn’t stop to think about it.”
She was also too frightened to think about it.
“Stephen went to the edge. It was a very scary place. And it was scary for me too. You don’t know what you’re dealing with. You’re facing your mortality. It doesn’t get more brutal. It is absolutely the edge, you know? And Stephen went there.
“There was one very dark weekend where we really didn’t know if he was going to live or die. That was at the beginning of his diagnosis, when you don’t know what you’re dealing with.
“But after that weekend a doctor said to him: ‘I don’t know if you’re going to be that lucky, but we are going to treat it as curative.’ That’s all he needed to hear to fight.”
But he had a big fight on his hands.
“He was unbelievably ill. He was so thin. It was horrible.”
She sometimes cried in the car en route to the venue for her shows. Her big sister Liz and her pal Deirdre O’Rourke drove her.
“God bless them,” she says. “I never cried when I came offstage. It was the opposite, I felt good. I found the work to be helpful. I had to compartmentalise and switch off for those couple of hours. So it was actually therapeutic to do it.”
Therapeutic notwithstanding, it was a trying time made more difficult by the fact both her father and her husband were both dealing with cancer. What was that like?
“Great craic,” she laughs.
“Zero craic,” she adds. “It was not fun. It was not easy.”
She recalls phoning her father in Drogheda. She said she couldn’t visit him because Stephen was ill, and she had to keep everything going on her own in Dublin. “I had my own crisis.”
Stephen couldn’t work. They had two small children. Deirdre’s dad loaned her money to pay for a part-time childminder.
Her fears were not just about Stephen dying. The more practical and present fears were about the “insane” rent on their house on the North Circular Road, as well as paying for everything for their kids.
“I was in the absolute horrors – because we were all freelancers, so there was no sick pay. Stephen did what he could. At certain times he was able to do the school run or the pick-up or whatever.”
She kept the show on the road by going out and telling jokes.
“It was only by the mercy of God that I had a show written. I also thought that loads of people are in the shit and I had to work. I was unbelievably grateful that I had a show to take on the road to pay the bills or the wheels would have come off.
“I don’t know what I would have done otherwise. I’m sure I’d have found a way, and people would have helped me – but I didn’t want to be in that position. I was scared.”
In early 2018, Stephen was almost through the worst of the cancer.
“He was very lucky. He responded unbelievably well. He had successful surgeries – three or four massive surgeries – with a huge amount of chemo. I considered us to be lucky because everything went in his favour. He got the drugs he needed, which he wouldn’t have gotten in England, where we had returned from living a few years before.
“He pulled through. It was a fantastic feeling. But until the last step – the last chemo, the last radiation, the last operation – you can’t say: ‘You’ve done it.’”
That finally happened in March 2018 when she took part in RTÉ’s Dancing with the Stars. “Stephen literally had his last chemo when I took the stage.”
Her father watched her on the dance competition on the television. “He was very ill, but he rang me up and said I was great. I was very proud.”
Her dad died later that year, on August 1, aged 80. He’d had a long illness. “And when that happens you’ve already done a lot of grieving before they pass,” she says. “I wanted him to die. It needed to end. He’d had enough. He had stomach cancer. They remove your stomach. He never recovered from that operation.
I care less about offending people, within reason
“He was only just alive. He couldn’t have a glass of wine, which he loved. He still played a bit of golf. But I knew when the golf went that would be curtains. And that’s exactly what happened.
“He literally went from nine holes to six holes to three holes to no golf. Within months, he was gone.”
As for her comedy in 2022 – as opposed to 1995 – she is “definitely freer” in what she says.
“I’m a little bolder. a little wilder. I care less about offending people, within reason. I’ve let go of my sensitivity towards people in the telling of a story. It’s the liberation that comes from having lived a lot.”
She thinks the Irish public know her pretty well by now.
“Though they might think I’m ‘always on’ and upbeat. And sadly, I’m not.”
You’re a miserable cow, I joke.
“I’m not miserable,” she protests. “I’m introspective. The introspection is ongoing.”
Deirdre O’Kane brings her stand-up show ‘Demented’ to 3Olympia Theatre on January 21; she will also be touring – visit deirdreokane.net for updates
https://www.independent.ie/life/family/deirdre-okane-i-wanted-him-to-die-it-needed-to-end-hed-had-enough-42136393.html Deirdre O’Kane: ‘I wanted him to die. It needed to end. He’d had enough’