Ardal O'Hanlon: 'I heard I was dead. A newspaper called my mother about it'

Welcome to‘s The Big Questions, where we ask, well, the big questions (and the smaller ones too), and this week, we’re diving deep with Ardal O’Hanlon.

Best-known for playing lovable eejit Father Dougal Maguire in Channel 4 sitcom Father Ted, Ardal has gone on to star in the likes of Death In Paradise, My Hero and London Irish.

Ardal has also been noted for fantastic cameos in modern Irish comedies on British TV, in particular Derry Girls and new Disney Plus sitcom Extraordinary.

The popular stand-up comedian is currently preparing to return to the stage with a role in Dancing At Lughnasa with the National Theatre alongside fellow Derry Girls stars Siobhán McSweeney and Louisa Harland. chatted with the Monaghan-born star – whose second novel, Brouhaha, is being released in paperback this May – about life in the spotlight, advice for budding actors and dodging rumours about him doing runners from restaurants.

You’ve done drama, theatre, comedy, stand-up – is there any genre you feel particularly close to?

It’s hard to say. I guess, in my DNA, I am very much a stand-up comedian. That’s where I started, it’s what I’ve returned to time and time again, pretty much every five years or so. And throughout the year I will always do stand-up, I will always try things out and do festivals, on-off here and there.

So it is something that I really, really love, but as time has gone on, I’ve actively sought out more challenging acting roles, whether that’s on TV or on stage. It was one of the reasons why I did theatre, I came into theatre quite late in life. And ever since then, I’ve been really curious about, when you do get the opportunities, try to stretch your wings as much as possible and put yourself out and aim for other stuff and see what’s out there. Sometimes you have to go where the one takes you.

Actors are few and far-between where they decide what they’re going to do. You hear about these actors, and you read about them all the time. I don’t know that many of them personally, who are so inundated with offers that they can pick and choose to that extent.

You helped launch Dublin’s comedy scene in the 90s with the city’s first comedy night – how have you seen the industry evolve over the years?

It’s been amazing. I think I think it’s probably a stretch to say the first-ever kind of comedy night. But it was the first of what became known as alternative comedy, and the first kind of regular night and a regular club. It was in the International Bar in Dublin. And it has been amazing watching it since.

In the first few years, it was mostly blokes, people like myself, playing a few years in Dublin and in places like the Comedy Cellar and then in London, and a lot of them became household names like Dara O’Briain and Jason Byrne and Dylan Moore. And then over time it’s changed radically, it’s like comedy has just become so, so open to everybody. Sharon Mannion is running that venue now, and there are an awful lot more female comedians, comedians from different ethnic backgrounds and different sexual orientations. There’s just far more diversity.

It’s a bit more censorious as well, perhaps, although I don’t know if that is strictly true. It’s probably more self-censorship, people are just more aware of sensitivities and so on now than they would have been, like, 30 years ago.

There’s the notion that comedy is a lot more restricted now, is it something you agree with?

In my experience not really, but I do know people who feel that they’ve been kind of sidelined or whatever for stuff they’ve said.

But like, in Ireland we have Tommy Tiernan, he’s very outspoken, very radical. He seems to weather any sort of controversy that he encounters. I think in my own case, I was always pretty careful about what I said anyway. Not out of any puritanism, I just thought of it as a challenge, to try and be as funny and edgy as you can, and skirt as close as possible to the bone without breaking any of my own. Like there are so many things that I just wouldn’t dream of doing.

You’ve been in the spotlight since the 90s. Have you ever heard any rumours about yourself?

I did hear that I was dead. That was going around on Twitter briefly. I think that happens to probably everyone at one stage. Someone from one of the newspapers did ring my mother and asked her about it. She hadn’t heard anything about it, so it caused a bit of alarm.

The other quite funny rumour I heard about myself was that I was going around staying in hotels in the west of Ireland, visiting restaurants and doing runners. So I think someone was passing themselves off as me. And it wasn’t me, okay, I promise!

You’re a professional but you’ve been in some seriously funny shows – have you ever had to redo a scene again and again because you couldn’t keep a straight face?

There’s so many of them, I am a bit of a giggler!

Even in a very serious scene, I find it hard to keep a straight face generally, just that the whole ludicrous notion of me being in anything. Like Father, Ted, I look back on that, and I see myself even in stuff that made the cut, laughing in the background of so many scenes.

You very kindly refer to me as professional but I’m not sure that’s the case to be honest with you. I really enjoy it, I love acting, and I love that grown men and women, we just get to play. And the work is very considered, don’t get me wrong, everyone takes it very seriously most of the time, but it’s inevitable that it’s going to break down.

I did the show My Hero on BBC. There was one kissing scene between myself and my co-star and we just couldn’t stop laughing at the idea that we have to kiss. Like a child! And it literally took days to get the scene done.

Eventually they had to do it almost like a CGI scene that they had to do recently [on Netflix’s You People]. A CGI kiss scene because the actors didn’t want to kiss, but our kiss had to be dealt with separately. It was totally faked, because we couldn’t get it on the night of the recording, we couldn’t get it the next day. We couldn’t get it later in the week when we went back in. We just couldn’t get it. So we had to film it separately, pretending to kiss.

Is there a moment from your career that stands out as something you’re most proud of?

It changes from time to time. I’m very proud that I managed to produce two novels. When I was a kid, I didn’t know about comedy, I didn’t really ever see myself as an actor. I surrounded myself with books when I was a kid. So I suppose if I had any sort of notions about myself, artistically, it would have been to be a writer. And having sort of managed – spaced apart over a span of 25 years – to produce two, I am quite proud of that.

Irish people aren’t supposed to be proud of their achievements I have to admit to being quite chuffed with myself.

Having essentially done it all, even writing novels, is there anything else you’d like to tick off the bucket list in future?

I mean, like everyone else, you’re always slightly dissatisfied. I look around and I’m very envious of other people. I would like to do more film roles, I’d like to do more dramatic roles on TV, there’s so many things that I would still like to do. I think in terms of stand-up, I’m quite satisfied with where I’m at in my career. I’ve said what I could say in terms of standards.

I’m definitely not going to take on any new mediums, we’re trying to get good at we’ve already dabbled in!

You had some appearances in Derry Girls, which has been compared to Father Ted in terms of its sheer popularity and how funny it is. How was it to be a part of it?

It was nice to be a part of it. I’ve worked with Lisa McGee, the writer, previously. She did a show called London Irish years ago that I was in, so I was very aware of her and her talent and her potential.

But Derry Girls just arrived fully formed a few years later, and it just was beautiful: multigenerational, high energy, about a forgotten corner of the world, really. Derry was synonymous with the Troubles. And she just brought this place to life and this generation to life. So it was nice to be part of it.

And I may be completely wrong about this, but I do see it as Lisa was using me as a connection to the history of Irish comedy and British TV. So I was very happy, very happy to do that, and play a tiny part in a historic comedy drama, and particularly that last episode with the Good Friday Agreement, which was a fantastically clever way of smuggling politics into a brash comedy show, which is sometimes the best way to tackle politics.

I know people made the observation that people in Britain in particular learned more about Northern Irish politics in an hour’s comedy than they might have after 20 years of watching the news and reading the papers.

You recently appeared in Disney+ superhero sitcom Extraordinary, it’s a bit of a departure from your usual roles.

It’s absolutely delightful. And by coincidence, Siobhán McSweeney is my wife in it. I think it was it was just really fresh, new Irish writing by an Irish writer as well, Emma Doran, and it just really tickled me. Again, I’m playing a very minor part and all of that – I’m a disembodied voice on the phone! But it’s lovely. And Mairéad, who plays the lead role, she’s just sort of amazing. From my point of view, it was pretty easy. Just, you know, playing a father from the beyond.

Is there anything you would go back and tell your past self just starting off in your career?

I would generally tell people to not take advice from me. I’ve always been very unsure of myself, like I’ve tended to work reasonably hard at most things but sort of to go with the flow to some extent. I’ve not been very assertive, I’ve never been very certain about what it was I wanted to do or what I was able to do. So I’ve tended to sort of drift. Drift sounds a bit more aimless than I mean, but I just go where the work took me.

In terms of advice that I would give my younger self, I don’t know. I suppose the main thing is not to too closely mimic somebody else. Whatever your chosen field is, whether it’s in the arts or anywhere else, you’ve got to figure things out for yourself. I think people do take shortcuts they just kind of copy what other people are doing. You’ve got to try and be your own person, but it’s very difficult to do, and you’ve got to learn and fail and get up again.

You’re launching into rehearsals at the National Theatre for Dancing At Lughnasa. What has it been like so far?

It’s been really brilliant, the first few days of rehearsals are quite engaging. You’re getting to know a lot of new people in most cases, and you’re really investigating the play and what it’s all about. Where does your character fit in, and all those kinds of things.

It’s a real luxury, having a number of weeks in a rehearsal room with a bunch of really intelligent, talented people. It’s the best part of it in many ways. You don’t just talk about the play, you talk about everything and anything. You draw in your own life and you hear wonderful stories and observations from other people. It’s a real indulgence. It’s a wonderful indulgence.

You’ve worked with a couple of the people in the cast already, was it kind of like getting the gang back together?

I had worked with the director (Josie Rourke) before. 10 years ago, I took part in the revival of The Weir, Conor McPherson’s play in the Donmar Warehouse. And then it went down to Wyndham Theatre. So that was a great experience.

I’d never been in any scenes with Sister Michael (Siobhán McSweeney), I wasn’t in Derry Girls that much in fairness, just a couple of cameos. I vaguely knew herself and Louisa (Harland, Derry Girls) from that show. And I knew Justine (Your Bad Self, Conversations With Friends) just from saying hello to her at things. I didn’t really know any of the others.

I don’t do many plays, I’ve only done four or five my entire life. So it has to be a really special play to get me in. I’m not precious, generally as a rule, but theatre is a massive commitment. And it means relocating from home. It would want to be a really good show to invest all that time and effort.

With Dancing At Lughnasa, everything (made it special). I’ve never worked with the National Theatre before, in some respects it’s the Holy Grail for actors. It’s got a great history of putting on brilliant work by Irish writers over the years, and this is just a really important play.

I actually put this very question to the director on the day, like “why are we doing this? Why now?” And she said, quite simply and beautifully, “because it’s a brilliant play.”

It really is an amazing, immersive theatrical experience for people, and it’s set in a very specific time and place – like it’s rural Ireland in 30s, but it is a really a universal play about family life. It’s about sisters. It’s about hope and yearning and memory most. It’s narrated by someone who is reflecting on his life growing up in a household of five women, and then I play this brother who was a priest on missions in Africa, who spent most of his life on the missions, and he comes back and he’s very disoriented. And he upsets the applecart a little bit, his arrival on the scene sort of disrupts their routines and their way of life.

One of your first big roles was in Father Ted, you worked with some absolute juggernauts. Is there anything that you learned from that show that you took with you?

I think you learn from absolutely everybody you work with: the good actors, the bad actors, good comedians, bad comedians, the good directors, bad directors. You just learn from absolutely everybody.

Advice I would give an actor or a comedian is to just keep your eyes open all the time and your ears open all the time. That’s really, really important. Particularly as an actor, listen, listen, listen all the time, to what everyone else is doing.

It’s pretty hard to pick one person, I never really had a mentor type. There was Geoffrey Perkins who was a producer and executive producer at Father Ted for a while. It was amazing. He was the nearest thing I ever had to a mentor, he gave me so much encouragement, so much advice, when I was very unsure of myself. He was a kind of a legendary BBC producer. I think he was he was instrumental in my career.

Because so many actors come through the door when you’re doing a series like [Ted], and like in Death In Paradise you meet hundreds of actors. You literally pick up something from everybody, and the directors as well. It’s ever fascinating. Just watching how everyone has a different approach, different take on things, different ideas, different background, and you basically learn from everybody.
I mean, it’s a great thing about the industry, that everyone keeps learning off each other.

I might bring something different to the table as well, you don’t know!

Dancing At Lughnasa arrives at the Olivier Theatre in London from April 6; tickets are available from

What does Ardal O’Hanlon’s weekend look like?

What does your typical Saturday look like?

Well, at this time of the year it would revolve around the Six Nations board. That might be quite boring to some people but it’s the most exciting time of the year for me. It brings me back to my childhood. I just love that competition for some reason, so I try to try to knock everything else out of the diary when that’s on. And I plonk myself in front of the TV. We’d normally go out for dinner, myself and my wife, or have people in.

My kids have all kind of grown up now, I have three children and two of them live away from home, one in Australia, one in France at the moment. We’ve got one daughter at home, but she does her own thing at the weekends generally speaking. A lot of dog walking involved, maybe a bit of tennis.

As I get older, I kind of tend to treasure the weekends more – I spent most of my adulthood up to the last 10 years working weekends, whether it’s stand-up comedy or filming or, God forbid, doing theatre.

What TV shows are you bingeing over the weekends?

I watched Happy Valley over the course of a couple of nights a few days ago, which I really, really enjoyed. I thought it was great, but I kind of slightly object to the consensus that has formed around it that it’s really gritty and authentic in a way that other shows aren’t – I don’t agree with that.

I think it’s one of the best shows around, I think the writing is amazing. But it has just been thrilling, hilarious entertainment with some good insights but it’s as implausible as every other TV show. Some of the commentary is a little over the top.

And I had a similar impression of that thing I just finished watching last night, which is The Last Of Us. You know, zombie apocalypse scenario, which we’ve seen a million times before, and again the consensus, the commentary, is that it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before. It’s amazing, and, yes, two or three of the episodes were really, really good and well-written. And the world was quite impressive, but it would fall apart eventually. The writing is good and some of the characters are really good, but we’ve seen this story a million times.

We live in this world where it’s the newest thing is the best thing ever. Not necessarily the case, strictly speaking.

What is your go-to brunch order?

I love a little bit of halloumi, me. I mean, I love everything. I really just love eating full stop, so it’s very hard to narrow it down. But if I see a bit of halloumi on a menu, I tend to go for it in the same way as if I see any cauliflower-related activity on a menu, I’ll tend to go for that as well. You know, cauliflower wings!

I’m not vegetarian but if there’s a good vegetarian option I will tend to go for it. I think that’s just another factor related to getting older. I particularly like at this time of the year when I’m actually in theatre and I’m about to launch into six weeks for rehearsals. You want to get match fit for it. So I tend to be very careful about what I eat.

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