A youthful looking Patrick Kielty, basking in bright sunlight, pops up on Zoom. “Are we both doing the bedroom dance?” he inquires. He is sitting in what looks like an attic bedroom, a scrupulously tidy one, and jokes that a Lego or dinosaur-wielding child could burst through the door at any moment.
long with his wife, TV presenter Cat Deeley, and their two sons, Milo and James, Kielty has recently moved into a new house in London, and he is still getting his bearings.
“The kids are off on half-term, and there are very few rooms that you can escape to for a chat when they’re here,” he says, laughing heartily. “Thankfully,” he says, conspiratorially, “Cat’s mum and dad are coming down for a couple of days…” He thanks the heavens for the help that grandparents provide when it comes to boisterous kids.
It’s been a busy year for the 51-year-old comic. He has been traversing Britain for the first leg of his comeback stand-up tour, Borderline. It’s his first time on the comedy circuit for six years, and he has been relishing being back on the road again.
“This is a show that I had in my head for a couple of years,” he says. “It had been mulling around there for a while, and you get comfortable with the idea of doing it [in front of a live audience], but the sooner you get to do it, this blind terror comes. It’s a case of, ‘Jesus, these tickets are sold. What am I going to say?’
“The fear for me this time was bigger than at any stage before, because this is probably the most personal stand-up that I’ve done. When I started out in the Empire in Belfast, I was talking about my world. I was looking on the North and saying, ‘This is what’s going on. It’s other people.’ But I’d never done a show before this where I went on stage and said, ‘This is how I grew up. This is how my life was. This is what my family were like and this is now what’s happening in the bigger politic.’ This is the first time, in stand-up, that I’ve connected the personal and the bigger picture together, so there was much more apprehension.”
His new show finds him exploring some deeply painful experiences, not least the murder of his father, Jack, by the UVF in 1988. Jack, who was a completely innocent victim, was killed in retaliation for an IRA atrocity. He was 44; Kielty was just 17 at the time.
“There is a strange moment in the show when the audience first sense, ‘Oh, he’s going there. He’s been making us laugh and now he’s going there. But, wait. This is okay. He’s okay.’ But I feel that if I’m going to do a show about borders and identity and some of the mistakes that I think we make about who people are, who certain groups are, you have to lay it all out there.
“While it’s a little bit uncomfortable for me to talk about it, it would be much weirder if I did a show about these islands, and how we got here, and what’s gone wrong, if I didn’t mention it.”
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Thirty-four years on and he is still processing his father’s murder. He talks about feeling he had to “get on with it” when he was younger, to put his head down and survive as best he could. Today, looking back, he believes he got some comfort at the time by knowing that, in his homeland, the violent death of his father was by no means unique. Many other people there also know what it is to have a loved one’s life snuffed out by terrorists.
It was a subject he explored in a 2018 documentary for the BBC titled My Dad, the Peace Deal and Me. In some ways, this Bafta-nominated documentary helped lay the groundwork for the Borderline tour. A more recent Beeb film, Patrick Kielty: One Hundred Years of Union, offered a perceptive analysis of Northern Ireland’s troubled centenary and its possible future.
The documentaries were made in the period where he wasn’t doing stand-up. He admits that some of the material he had worked on then didn’t excite him enough to go on the road once more. Furthermore, he was living in Los Angeles at the time, primarily to support Deeley in her broadcasting career.
He met the model-turned-TV star in the mid-2000s, and they married in Rome, at a Franciscan church in St Isidore’s College, in 2012. Although both work in the entertainment industry, he says he doesn’t use Deeley as a sounding board for new material. In fact, he tends to only debut fresh jokes when he is treading the boards, the spotlight on him.
“There’s nobody,” he says, when asked how he road-tests the material at its embryonic stage. “When you’re writing a personal show about how you grew up and how it was bats**t-crazy, looking back on it, and what you’ve come through with your family, your dad, and so on, well, sometimes it’s quite tricky to f**king explain that to anybody.
“What you end up doing are warm-up shows, and you bring a tonne of notes out, and you ask yourself, ‘Is that funny? Is it funny here but not funny at this point?’ That’s part of the dance.”
He has been keen to try new things of late. Last year, he took the lead role in his first film, a bittersweet comedy drama called Ballywalter. Filmed entirely in Northern Ireland and set to be released later this year, it co-stars the ever-busy Dublin actress Seána Kerslake.
“I thought the idea of walking on a movie set with a f**king whole load of people was terrifying. And then you suddenly realise that everybody on that movie is there to hold each other’s hand and to do their best to try to make something collaborative, and you go, ‘Jesus, this is lovely.’” He says he loved the experience and wants to do more acting.
There are other passions, too. Kielty says he is slowly introducing six-year-old Milo and four-year-old James to the joys of Gaelic football. “They’ve got the Down jerseys,” he says, grinning sheepishly. “I play a bit of football with Milo in the garden and he plays soccer on a Friday after school. He came home one day and said he’d picked the ball up, thinking he was playing Gaelic football, and the referee was like, ‘What are you doing?’”
Down GAA means the world to him. He played at minor level for the county and, at 16, was a substitute in the squad that won the All-Ireland final in 1987. He played in goal in the 1988 and 1989 teams but jokingly points out that the Mourne men won nothing in those years.
He grew up in a staunch GAA family and cherishes his playing days. “Being a goalkeeper,” he says, “is very different from being an outfield player. You’re always worried that you’ll mess up.” He says he is still haunted by the memory of an Ulster Championship match when he and one of his defenders both went for an in-dropping ball. It ended up in the back of his net. He is animated when describing what unfolded. “You see how stressed I get?” he says, half-chuckling. “That sort of thing stays with you.”
Comedy proved to be a more bankable passion around the time of his university years, and he quickly made a name for himself on the cut-throat circuit. He soon discovered that it was difficult to divorce the Troubles from his stand-up routine, and his brand of comedy had little trouble working on the other side of the Irish Sea.
Kielty was part of a generation of gifted comics from this island, alongside Tommy Tiernan and Dylan Moran. His conversational brand of humour has been sharp and fiercely intelligent from the off. His gift for telling stories will not surprise anyone who has seen him on stage or on their TV screens.
He believes there is a talented new generation coming through now, and one of them, John Meagher, is supporting him on the Borderline tour. “John’s from Newry and lived in London, and I wanted to give a voice to somebody from where I’m from. And that’s been really great on the English and Scottish dates, because you’d have someone else walking out ahead of me from my part of the world going, ‘Hey, it isn’t just yer man [Kielty] here.’
“John is a very sharp comedian. He’s got a subtlety to his stuff which I didn’t have [in his early days]. I’m excited about the new breed of comedian. I mean, I can see someone at 20 who makes me want to pack up and go home, they’re so good. When we get it right, I think Irish comedians are second to none.”
Kielty has thought long and hard about identity. Growing up, he felt completely Irish — it was the only world he knew. Now he believes that there is some fluidity there. After all, he lives in England, is married to an English woman, and has two American-born sons. His paternal grandmother, he adds, spent most of her life in California, having married an American GI after her first husband, his grandfather, was killed in action in World War II.
“I think I wear my Irishness a little bit lighter,” he says, after pausing for thought. “I’m still very confident in who I am and what I am, but I realise that, like DNA, there are certain parts that certain people feel.
“We’re living in a world now where the idea of nationalism in any country can be worn as a badge of honour,” he adds, “or it can be used to point out the differences between people. I kind of believe we’re in an era that nationalism is the last great religion. People who won’t kneel at an altar will happily stand at a flag.”
He gives a lengthy answer when asked how he would vote if there was a referendum on a united Ireland in the morning. “One of the questions I would ask for me to vote for something like that would be, ‘How inclusive is a modern Ireland going to be?’ The idea of hundreds of thousands of people on the island of Ireland who know they’re British.” He slips into comedian mode. “They don’t need conversion therapy here. They know who they are.
“The stuff that interests me is this: let’s say we got there, we got to a point where there was a significant majority who wanted to take away that border and vote for Irish unity. What does that look like? What does potentially 20-25 unionist TDs in the Dáil look like? In a proportional representation electoral system, there is a really good chance that Ireland could end up being run by a rainbow coalition of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Ulster Unionists, the Green Party… so people have to get their heads around that prospect.”
He believes that many people in the republic don’t give enough thought to a future Ireland where unionists are not only made feel welcome, but where their traditions are tolerated and respected. “I would want someone British to be as comfortable in a new Ireland as I would want a northern nationalist to be in Northern Ireland if that poll didn’t go the way a nationalist wanted.”
Kielty says Brexit has been destabilising for people on both sides of the religious divide. “It’s been such a mess. Look at how the DUP tried to go for a hard Brexit and it’s blown up in their face.
“The European thing was the life raft in the middle that everybody could jump on in Northern Ireland — it was a common ground that we could have. But when you see the stress test that Northern Ireland has been through, you’d expect the poll for unity to be higher than it is.”
When Kielty chats to Weekend, the Oscars controversy is still fresh. How, as a comedian, does he feel about Will Smith walking up on stage and slapping Chris Rock after the comic made a “GI Jane joke” about the shaved head of his wife, Jada, who suffers from alopecia?
“I just find it very weird,” he says. “I did a comedy club in pre-ceasefire Belfast and I never got slapped. I’m coming from a place with a f**king sense of danger there every day and probably saying stuff 10 times worse than what Chris Rock said, and I’m not getting any violence used toward me in a society that was inherently violent.
“I also find it very weird that somebody can get on stage to slap someone, not keep a lid on how they’re feeling, and still get a Best Actor award. I kind of feel that if you are a ‘best actor’, you should be able to sit there and act like that joke is funny.”
Kielty is a comedian who rarely ‘punches down’. Nor does he eviscerate members of the audience like Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle tends to do. “I’m sure, at some point, I’ve made that mistake [punching down], but I’d hope that a lot of the comedy I did in the early days got it right, satirically. I mean, the idea of a comedian with a microphone telling a joke about the IRA who had a gun — that relationship feels right.
“I think I’m more prepared to laugh at myself now, rather than looking at external targets, so to speak.”
He is still his own harshest critic. “Comedians tend to use language like, ‘I slayed them tonight’ or ‘I died’. There’s never an ‘I got a one-all draw’. And for me, I’ve never got to the stage where I think I’ve slayed it. For me, it’s a case of ‘S**t, if I had of done that’ or ‘I missed a wee chance there [for a punchline]’.
“I’ve come to learn that there’s no point being too hard on yourself, but I’ve also learned that the idea that being more confident will get you nowhere either.”
Patrick Kielty’s Borderline tour calls at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace, Bellaghy, Co Derry, tonight and tomorrow. The Irish leg concludes at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on June 26
https://www.independent.ie/style/celebrity/celebrity-features/patrick-kielty-interview-the-fear-for-me-this-time-was-bigger-than-at-any-stage-before-this-is-probably-the-most-personal-stand-up-ive-done-41571674.html Patrick Kielty interview: ‘The fear for me this time was bigger than at any stage before, this is probably the most personal stand-up I’ve done’