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Jeers of a Clown
You thought Noel V Ginnity was a bland cabaret funnyman, peddling lite entertainment to American tourists and OAPs at the Burlington Hotel. But you were wrong! Wince as the 59-year-old Meathman unleashes an unstoppable torrent of vitroilic bile at virtually every other stand-up comedian in Ireland and a whole lot more besides. Interview: liam fay. Pix: mick quinn.
Liam Fay, 06 Aug 1997
Not for the first time, or indeed the last time, during our interview, Noel V. Ginnity is twitching in a spasm of homicidal rage. A pulse the size of a peach pit is throbbing in his temple. He s grinding the knuckles of one hand so violently into the palm of the other that I can almost hear bones snap. His gnashing teeth look like a car smash on slow motion rewind.
And the subject that s raising Mr. Ginnity s ire to such vertiginous heights? The merry, light-hearted world of comedy, of course.
The new comics today, some of them couldn t get a night s work here in Dublin, he hisses, through gaps in the wall of crunching incisors. They couldn t get a night s work in The International Bar and then they go and win The Perrier Award. I m baffled by this. I am amazed by the content of nothingness that s in their gags. Nothing. NOTHING! It s a diatribe of nonsense.
How come they re so popular then?
Because the young people today are being brainwashed into laughing at this kind of comedy. They re being force-fed it. It s being written about, it s being televised, it s being radioised, everything. So, this is what the young people today are told is funny. I ve seen a lot of these comics on the telly and I m just sitting there going, What in the name of Jaysus?
What does Noel make of a highly successful young stand-up like, say, Ardal O Hanlon?
I think he s DREADFUL, spits Ginnity. Can you tell me one thing he s ever said that s funny. Go to dressing rooms around Dublin and ask people in the business about Noel Ginnity. Each one of them will have a story larger than life for you about me. I don t say this in any pomposity. But that s what has happened. I m a legend in me own lunchtime. I don t hear anybody telling stories about Ardal O Hanlon or building him up. He s lucky with that Father Ted thing. That s all.
Does Noel enjoy Father Ted?
I can t knock success but, on a personal level, I dismiss it, he asserts. I don t think it s funny. Your man, Morgan, is a sharp boy, a very sharp boy. His Scrap Saturday was a revelation. It was different. Father Ted isn t in that league. You asked me about Ardal O Hanlon. I saw him in the Montreal Comedy Festival and he died on his arse. He walked off to the sound of his own feet. I wouldn t recover for three years if that happened me on television.
I don t know WHAT he s on about, says Noel indignantly. I d love to know, I d really love to know. These guys will do ten minutes and, out of that, two minutes might at least shimmer. Can you see them doing an hour and a half? In a club? Huh!
They say they don t like gags. They do observational comedy . Yeah, with observations that are not fucking funny. Observations that don t stand up to being observed. It s great, observations. I make observations but it s not very funny. Here s an observation: You go to the jacks in The Powerscourt Centre and it s 10p now. It used to be a penny to have a crap. Is your crap worth nine pence more than it was? This is the kind of stuff they latch on to. It s not sustaining enough. It s not fucking funny enough.
I read an article in The Sunday Times about a fella called Joe Pasquale, an English comic with a squeaky voice, and there was two pages devoted to him. He told a joke on The Royal Command Performance and the joke was: Hey you, what are you doing in my garden? . That was the joke; it stands on its own, it doesn t lead into anything else.
In this article, Pasquale wondered what brilliant mind thought up this joke. And the brilliant mind was a fella called Michael Redmond, a Dublin head with a big moustache and droopy eyes. He was the first to say it. This guy, Pasquale, was so in awe of this brilliant, brilliant joke that he had to find its originator. In the name of Jaysus, what s going on? Where do I go from here? What point is there me telling real gags if that s what passes for genius these days.
Would Noel rate Brendan O Carroll as a good comic?
I never, ever had to resort to the kind of stuff he does to get a laugh. In saying that, Brendan O Carroll does seem to have some talent. But he never took one job that I should ve done. Nor he won t. And he s probably a millionaire now.
I m not against any of these people. I only wish them well. But if you re interviewing even 10% of them in 30 years time, I ll be baffled. They won t last!
I ve consistently made people laugh for 30 years. And the ones that didn t laugh, I boiled up their water for them. None of those guys that you mentioned could entertain that audience, not in a thousand FUCKING years.
Excuse all the italics and the impromptu block caps but I can think of no other means of conveying the undulating waves of seething fury and exploding wrath that comprise the standard Noel V. Ginnity rant. Ginnity is a raging bull, the single most angry human being I have ever met.
Ferocious barks of truculence and outrage are released from his mouth like mad dogs from a kennel. His stomach seems to be constantly a-churn with pure bile. The jaw-ache of his ceaseless teeth-gnashing is relieved only by the occasional bellowed obscenity or scornful guffaw.
When Ginnity uses the word hate (as he does with astounding regularity), he stresses it with a diabolical rattle from deep in his gullet that I can only compare to the roar that Bill Hicks used to illustrate the sound of some unforgivable reprobate sucking Satan s cock.
It s all an entire cosmos away from Noel V. s cuddly public image as the jolly little imp in the leprechaun suit, the star of the Burlington Hotel s summer season Irish Cabaret, described in the tourist brochures as the irrepressible man of Blarney.
Much of the time, Ginnity s greatest wish is that the whole world had a single throat so that he could slit it open. There s a terrible dark side to me, he admits. I find lots of days a struggle. I m not a manic depressive. But the social things I see weigh me down and manifest themselves in a disturbing way in me head. I get very angry. I could read the paper and get up and (gnashes teeth) want to batter everybody around me.
Some things I just can t comprehend. Where there s people living in dire FUCKING straits with no money and no heating for the winter. This should not be. You can think about Rwanda and you can think about the woman who has no heat. But if you start feeling these things, you re into a different game. I m not saying I feel these things all the time. If I did, I wouldn t be able to get up.
But sometimes, the people nearest to me get a belt of darkness and they can t understand where it s coming from. It could stem from anything. But it might be something else manifesting itself. I dunno. I m not a psychiatrist or a philosopher. I do know that, all my life, I ve been plagued by thinking about things. If you think in life, you re going to have a hard time.
It may appear that resentment and rancour have pooled in Ginnity s psyche like water on a dilapidated tin roof, rusting and corroding away day after day. But there s an undeniable coherence to the contempt he feels for the movers, fakers and liberty-takers who have long ruled this country.
While many of us might agree with his sentiments, most of us would draw the line at shouting at politicians on the street, as Noel has been known to do. There was, for instance, a boisterous altercation with Proinsias de Rossa on a Dzn Laoghaire thoroughfare some time ago ( At least, Proinsias came over and argued back he didn t just ignore me. ).
We have lived in a banana republic and I m not so sure that it s changed, Ginnity declares. There ll be an industrial uprising in this country yet. A workers revolution. It can t go on. The corruption. Governments giving five million to the GAA for fat corporate arses to sit down on seats that I will never see. 15 million to the Zoo to keep the polar bears cold and the monkeys warm.
I don t believe that all this money that s wasted couldn t go to helping people have cataracts off their eyes or bone replacements or hip replacements. There s people living on the fucking PATH on Molesworth Street. Celtic Tiger my arse!
If I d had any leanings to anybody, it would ve been Fianna Fail but I never trusted them. I voted for Labour in 1992, because I thought they d do something. All they did was grab the money themselves when they got in. They became worse than the Fianna Fail crowd.
Stand well back. The stack is about to blow again. Dick Spring and Joan Burton, I have an ABHORRENCE of them. Helicopters to Tralee and 19 million for the government jet. Jaysus Christ, it s crazy stuff. 30 fucking million on T Na G so that 27 people can talk to themselves in Connemara. Michael D. Higgins did NOTHING for the legitimate arts, for the working participants in my business.
This time, I had to get rid of all them so I voted for Bertie Ahern s crowd. But I m already disappointed with his government. Bertie doesn t look too good, does he? He looks like an oul wan selling apples.
Who would Noel like to see elected as President?
We ve the worst selection of people now I ve ever seen, he rasps disdainfully. I m sick. I m ready to get sick all over them. If any of these get in, I think I ll commit hari-kari. It s FUCKING dreadful. Mary Banotti, my Jaysus! Marie Geoghegan-Quinn, what the fuck?
I didn t like Mary Robinson either. I thought she was DREADFUL. They loved her, I HATED her. Going out to Rwanda to gawk at sick people and dying people. And Joan BURTON beside her, gawking as well. What good did it do? None! Oh, I hated all that.
I hate Mary Robinson, with the head-bobbing and the candle in the window. Come up and see me sometime! Bloody fucking Mae West, huh?
And then, Oh, we ll show President Clinton the candle in the window . It s pissing rain and they have a Harvard-educated man looking up at a fucking candle. (Adopts American accent) Oh look, it s a candle . WHAT A LOAD OF BOLLOCKS. It s a crazy fucking country.
There are those who have sought to rationalise Noel V. s aggressive nature as an unfortunate by-product of his diminutive stature. Ginnity himself is way ahead of them but feels that there s nothing remotely unfortunate about it. He positively revels in the justice of the instant reprisal; if you disrespect him, prepare to die.
I m 5 2 so I m not that small, but people are getting bigger all the time in Ireland, he states. And height is something that people feel free to make remarks about, even nowadays. You don t go up and say to a fella, You re a fat little pig! . Or, Your eye is gone crooked! . But people have no compunction about remarking on my height. If anybody says anything like that to me, I ll turn on them. I d say, Would you ever look at yourself, you ugly pig! . I won t take any nonsense from them.
Growing up short was tough, he concedes. He found liberation from the tyranny of towering bullies in the time-honoured fashion, by reducing them to helpless tears of mirth. Being small, I had to fight all the time, he recalls. One way of winning the respect of the big boys was to be funny. I was in their gang because I was their jester. But, yeah, I got a hard time. If you re not 6ft or 5 11 , or if you re anyway out of the normal, too tall or too small, you get hassle. People dismiss this. But it s a real problem.
Ginnity was born in June, 1938, a native of Kells, in north County Meath. The youngest of five children (four boys and a girl), he remembers his childhood as one long struggle. His father was away most of the time, working nationwide at a variety of jobs and latterly as a member of the Gardam. From an early age, the young Noel was filled with (guess what?) loathing for the society that surrounded him.
Kells was definitely a class-structured town, he rails, his eyes flaming at the thought. I HATED that. I was never in the Golf Club in Kells. I was never even up the driveway. I wasn t in the Tennis Club I was in it but I was never a member. Again, I was brought in because I was a jester and, even then, I was only in it three or four times in my life.
I remember the green baize kneelers being brought out for Lord and Lady Headfort when they went to mass. My mother was kneeling down the back with the knees cut off her. I used to go up and kneel on these things and the priest would pull me off them.
We d be out hunting for hares for the coursing and Lord Headfort would put us off his land. He says, Who gave you permission to be here? . I said, Cromwell, the same man who gave it to you . For a young fella in Kells to say to that to his Lordship was no joke.
But I HATED the so-called gentry. Still do. Meath is full of them. What about Henry Mountcharles and his ill-gotten gains? I heard him on Radio Ireland and Eamon Dunphy was half way up his arse. I thought he d have to be pulled down. Good Jaysus!
My first day at school, I knew there was Them and Us. And if you didn t become a Them, you were going to have terrible problems. I had a pencil that first day, and be Jaysus, I had to carry it on me shoulder it was so long. It was cut into tiny pieces in school because the teacher gave everyone a piece of my pencil. Now, if I was a rich kid, she wouldn t have cut my pencil. I knew that. I saw rich guys there with pencils.
I never went back to that school. I went to the convent in Kells instead. But the nun there took my book to mark the punctuation for the other children. Big red marks for stops and dots and commas. Why MY book? I snapped that book back off her, be Jaysus. They all thought I was a horror in Kells but I didn t care. I came out of the womb fighting, with my fists closed.
Noel quit school at 13 and pumped petrol at a local garage for a couple of years. He then became a professional lady s hair-stylist and re-christened himself Antoine ( All the hairdressers adopted French names in those days. ). Following a series of stints at salons in Kells, Enniskillen, London and Dublin, he was appointed manager of a premises in DznLaoghaire.
Inspired by the achievements of his fellow Kellsians and former schoolfriends, the Keavney brothers (the mane men behind the Peter Mark chain), Ginnity eventually opened his own hairdressing business in DznLaoghaire. I worked hard and I was good, Noel/Antoine insists. At the same time, I was doing comedy in the evenings and was getting more and more bookings. After a while, I didn t like the semi-pro tag so I sold up the shop and took to the road full-time.
Noel Ginnity s second name is Talbot. The V is a pseudonym and stands for nothing whatsoever ( When people see it on a poster, they might think it s a boxing match and come in to see the fight, he quips). The trademark initial was born during a show at The Embankment in Tallaght. I was onstage announcing Maeve Mulvaney and, off the mike, I called her Maeve Mulvanity . She said to me, Noel Virginity . The next night, I put Noel V. in the paper and it s been there ever since.
Ginnity has few fond memories of his incessant touring of Britain and Ireland throughout the late 60s and early 70s, during which he reckons he played every dive and dancehall in these islands.
I was the Irish first comic to go around this country and expect people to listen to an hour of talk without a band or a guitar, he attests. There s no question but I made the road for whoever followed. This country was used to the fit-ups. I was more brash, telling stories about going to confession, stuff that was taboo at the time.
I was ahead of the posse with gags abut bishops and dodgy priests, about Charlie Haughey and the Smurfits and the rest of it. That annoyed people. I m throwing this stuff out and there s Fianna Failers out there who d want to have me by the throat. But I stuck with it.
Worst of all though were the gigs in Irish centres and Irish clubs in England. Plying this hideous circuit, Noel V. appeared on bills alongside strippers and trick cyclists. He appeared in halls where men were routinely murdered or maimed for life in brawls, in venues where bloodshed was as commonplace as spilled beer.
You d want the heart of a lion to go onstage in a place like The Crown in Cricklewood. You d be afraid you d get a clatter at any minute. I always held the microphone stand in a position where I could swing it at a bastard if he came for me. By God, I was a gutsy comic. I went out there fighting the bastards.
But those shows would mess up your head. I was never right after doing them. They put a blackness in my soul that s still there.
Did such experiences make you a better comic in the long run? I ask.
Noel V. Ginnity stares at me with cold, expressionless eyes. A person shouldn t have to be crucified to be good, he says, more in sorrow than (for once) in anger.
During his adolescence, Noel Ginnity was a conscientious penitent. Kneeling in the box one Saturday evening, he confessed to his local priest that he was masturbating frequently. The priest responded by telling the young sinner to get rid of his eiderdown.
He said the eiderdown was making me masturbate, scoffs Ginnity. He said the weight of it was making me wank. I had no eiderdown; I had an army coat over the bed. So, I was confronted with two problems. What s an eiderdown? If I asked me mother, she d say, What do you want to know what s an eiderdown for? . What would I say then? Because I told the priest I was wanking ?
Noel V. isn t an atheist but he has a strong aversion to Catholicism, and an even stronger aversion to priests. They burgled my bag of youth, he asserts bitterly. The priests in my time were CRAZY. There was a madness abroad. I remember keeping company with a Protestant girl in Kells and, Jaysus, there was war. You must think Kells is a Hellhole of a place but it wasn t any worse than any place else at the time.
If there s one thing Noel detests more than a man in a collar, it s a man in a collar on a stage. I had no respect for Michael Cleary as a comedian or a singer, he proclaims, with brisk vehemence. I knew Cleary well. He really fancied himself. I used to work around England at that time and I d meet Michael Cleary at Cheltenham with the collar off. Then, he d come back and put on his priest s gear to go onstage. I m beside him pulling on a pair of yellow knickers and a pair of broken red boots and a hat with a flower in it. And he s putting on a priest s collar to go and do the same thing as me. I HATED it!
I was man enough to say to him, Michael, I respect you as a priest but, in my game, no way. You re not in my game. If you take that collar off, you ll die on your arse out there. That s why you re putting it on . He knew how he stood with me.
The Irish were afraid not to laugh at him. The same with The All Priests Show. Oh, he s a lovely little man, they d say. Yeah. The priests are out destroying all the young people in the country. If you re looking for a priest now in Dublin, the best place to look would be a knocking shop in Camden Street. And here they were, pretending to be fucking performers.
Did Noel know Fr. Michael s wife and kids? I met Phyllis in his house and she was a very attractive girl, he nods. In my heart and soul, I believed she was his bird but I didn t care if he was living with three women, to tell you the truth. I didn t like his attitude to my job, that he was getting laughs because he had a collar on. Those boys in The All Priests Show wouldn t live ten minutes without the collars. They re TALENTLESS!. But their little sideline takes work away from pros, especially in America.
They ll do a week in a place where I could be working. There s a few mad Irish nuns in America who want to sing and dance as well. They should be on their knees in cloisters praying. That s what they joined up to do. They don t deserve to be in pubs singing and dancing.
As Noel V. Ginnity s reputation and income swelled enormously during the 70s, so too did his alcohol intake. At the zenith of his wild years, he was downing an average of 26 pints of Guinness a day. Drinking is great until it starts to go bad, he expounds. When it starts to go wrong on ya, it s time to give it up. And it had gone dramatically wrong on me. I d start at 10.30am and have five pints drank by 1pm. I d keep drinking until 7 o clock when I had to go to work. After the show, there d be more pints. Then, back to a late club in Dun Leary til 3am. I d be asleep in the corner for a few hours, all this carry on, so it was easy to get through that much over the course of a day.
I drank everything, I loved brandy and white lemonade. When things were going good, which was nearly always then, I drank bottled Guinness and snipes of champagnes. There was no tomorrow. We thought we were the landed gentry. I d get a tax bill for #94,000 and sure all you could do was drink. You couldn t attempt to start to pay it so you d have another knees-up.
The party came to a crashing halt about 15 years ago. Twisted on booze, Noel walked straight through a plate glass door in a Dzn Laoghaire hotel. He was hospitalised for a year, during which time he was told that his central nervous system was so badly damaged by alcohol that his left leg would have to be amputated. By then, Noel s marriage had broken down. He was totally alone, with a net worth of #600 and one second-hand leprechaun suit.
When you hear a guy telling you you re going to lose your leg, you know you re in trouble, he avows. I had to sign the paper for the anaesthetist myself because there was nobody close to me to do it. I had lost my family. For a fella like me, not to be able to see my two kids was death.
Fortunately, I was able to get myself together. I can do everything in this world now except drink. It s a small cross to bear. I looked after the kids financially and I loved them and they re still my friends. They re in their 20s now and I love them dearly. But I wasn t physically with them and that killed me.
Could Noel ever see himself getting married again? No! he harrumphes. That s for the safety of others more than myself.
In 1976, Noel V. Ginnity was offered a gig that was to become the mainstay of his career. He was invited to become the featured comedian with Doyle s Irish Cabaret which runs from May to October at The Burlington Hotel. For the past 21 years, he has divided his year between this show and lengthy sojourns in the U.S. where he plays the lucrative Irish American market.
When I started doing Doyle s, I was drinking heavily, he recounts. I was in a bad way. At the time, I was barely getting to the gigs in one piece. I saw Doyle s as an easy gig, where I wouldn t have to drive so I d have more time in the pub. But I got the job and I worked it into a decent gig.
Whatever you think of his material, Noel V. Ginnity is the undoubted star of Doyle s Irish Cabaret. He dominates the stage with the swagger of an oral gunslinger, firing off his gags like he s slashing tyres. He rarely heads for the wings without a standing ovation from the audience, which is invariably made up of holidaying Americans, Canadians and Australians.
The show is designed to suit a market, he maintains. There s no point in trying to educate those people. We re there to entertain them, not educate them. They can go to university for education.
At The Burlington, Noel V. Ginnity performs the second half of his set in the leprechaun outfit that has become his showbiz coat-of-arms.
It consists of a green frock coat, matching yellow waistcoat and pantaloons (the latter tucked into black woollen socks stretched knee-high), red shoes and a slouch hat with a daisy in its brim. Noel wears this get-up every working night of every week, eleven months a year. And people wonder why he s such an infuriated man.
Maybe I should never have started wearing that, Noel muses ruefully. Maybe it should never have happened. But I never wanted to be a good suit comic. I come from the old tradition of comics. I m of that stock and that s the way I ll die. Ursula Doyle, who was Jimmy O Dea s wife, gave me a costume that belonged to Jimmy when he was making Darby O Gill & The Little People. I was so proud of that that I wore it. Over the years, people have come to expect it. And I honest to God don t want to disappoint them.
Does Noel really want to be remembered as a leprechaun?
Look, I m prepared to do most things for this country, he retorts, his teeth assuming gnashing position. A few of us here Tony Kenny, Hal Roach, myself are the best ambassadors for this country. I ll play to 100,000 Americans over a period of months and, every night, I m selling them this country. Governments down the years, and Bord Failte, haven t had the guts or the BRAINS to use the likes of us.
I ve done more for Ireland than anyone. The visitors like the leprechaun suit and I don t want to give them another logo that they don t understand, like Bord Failte are doing by getting rid of the shamrock. You have these mad people, the smart arses in Bord Failte, who want to CHANGE the shamrock logo. The brains of Ireland sitting around tables coming up with this (gnashes teeth) nonsense. They spend eight million to change the logo on the Aer Lingus planes! That s my fucking dough! The only place these people can get this money is out of our wage packets, man. This is a banana republic.
Incoming! Incoming! Ireland is nearly on the verge of out-smarting itself. There s certain hotels you go into now and you have to queue up for your breakfast with a plate! You don t see anybody serving you. The tourists used to love meeting the Irish people serving in the hotels. Even if they were making mistakes, if the tea was cold or the rashers weren t hot enough, the tourists loved that. They thought that s what you should get in Ireland. Now, they re getting their breakfast from under a lamp.
You could go into a restaurant in Killarney or Sligo and there might be five Spanish girls serving you. That s crazy! Give the Spanish girls the work alright, why not? But keep them out of where the tourists are. Those tourists should have contact with the IRISH people. We just don t have the best scenery in the world. There s great scenery in Scotland as well. Great scenery in England. What we have here is the people. And, unless they start realising that it s about the people, we re fucking finished.
There s no point in having Spanish and Italian girls talking to these people. They re running out of America because the waiters and waitresses don t understand what they re saying. The first language in America now is Spanish. I m not against Spain or Spanish people but keep them someplace else where they don t have to meet people who come to Ireland for Irish things . . .
Which comedians amuse Noel V. Ginnity?
In all fairness, Liam, I would find it difficult to be turned on by any of them, he claims. All the great ones are dead: Tommy Cooper, Les Dawson, Dick Emery, Benny Hill, all gone and are not being replaced. Ireland had smart comics Harry Bailey, Jack Cruise, Cecil Sheridan, Danny Cummins but no more.
Next November, Noel V. will receive the Variety Artists Trust Award, a gong bestowed by his peers in the entertainment business. He hopes to commence work on an autobiography soon but has no intention of retiring, just yet.
I can t afford to retire, he sighs. After a lifetime of work, I still have to keep going just to survive. It s not right. I don t know if I m better than other comics but I m different. Anyone who ever came to see me got a lot out of me. Whether they liked or disliked me. In their disliking me, I made their blood boil.
I don t find life easy today. Peace of mind is the most difficult thing to acquire. I d like not to be at war with myself. For a while anyway.