- 11 Sep 19
As a gay traveller stand-up, Martin Beanz Warde is charting new territory. But, he says, some venues won’t book him because of his background. Ahead of his Electric Picnic debut, he talks to Stuart Clark about the prejudices that are also prevalent within his own community; taking on Peter Casey; and the halting site sitcom he’s writing. Portraits: Miguel Ruiz
“W hat do Travellers and cigarettes have in common? They come in packs of 20, the Government warns you against them and they’re banned out of every pub in Ireland.”
Martin Beanz Warde is regaling Hot Press with one of the terribly un-PC but extremely funny gags, which have earned him 30,000-plus Facebook followers and rave reviews from the A-List likes of Tommy Tiernan and Des Bishop.
A member of the travelling community himself, Warde went down a storm recently at All Together Now and is looking forward to further festival frolics at Electric Picnic, more of which anon.
Despite the growing profile, celebrity admirers and invitations to do his standup thing at ATN and EP, Ward believes that he’s missed out on crucial club gigs because of anti-traveller discrimination.
“I don’t want to sound arrogant and/or paranoid, but I’m constantly being told, ‘Sorry, we’re fully booked until 2027’ by venues who a few weeks later will go and give a gig to a comedian whose fanbase isn’t nearly as big as mine. A very well-known promoter, who was trying to get me a venue in the Southeast, was told by an owner, ‘No, that’s not going to happen because he’ll bring a crowd of travellers with him who’ll smash the place up.’ I empathise – to a point – with the fear. Certain members of my community have caused problems for venues across the country, but I’ve been performing stand-up on and off for thirteen years, and never had any trouble other than a drunken heckler. I’ve a ready-made audience and people who are willing to buy tickets, I just can’t get the venues.”
There were times when he came seriously close to throwing in the towel, but Martin has finally found enough enlightened venues to be able to piece together his first nationwide-ish tour.
“Of the 180 people who came to the opening night in Ballina, only three were travellers and they were the least problematical people you’ve ever met. I spent a good fifteen minutes slagging them about marrying their cousins and saying things that travellers would normally find really, really offensive and they laughed their assess off because they knew that it was subversive comedy. I mightn’t be PC or polite, but there is a point to what I do. I shot a video at the end of the gig, which is on my feed, to show that the rowdy element who wouldn’t leave were members of the settled community. I find it very unfair that I’m being held back, but hopefully this tour will prove that a traveller performing on your premises won’t automatically spark a riot.”
The trek has found the 34-year-old performing without a safety net. “The show’s total ad-lib,” he explains. “When I said to my parents, ‘I’m going to do unscripted comedy for my first tour’, my father turned round and said, ‘You’d want to be some gomey feen to be doing that!’ – ‘feen’ being a man, and ‘gomey’ a feckin’ eejit – so that’s what we’ve called the show. It’s testing the waters before I do my first scripted tour, which is going to be called Queen Of The Travellers. There are no other traveller comedians by the way, even in the UK.
“I’ll give you a bit of background as to why I’ve picked the most fucking difficult way to do my first tour,” he expands. “I’ve suffered with anxiety since I was 14. It’s an anticipatory thing that peaks just before I go on stage, and disappears the moment I pick up the microphone. If you stay on the edge of that anxiety, you’re always sharp. It’s a way of utilising what is almost seen as a disability. What anxiety does is teach you to watch for micro expressions or changes of mood or energy in the room. If you think about it, what is anxiety other than the fight response? Your mind is telling your body what to do in a split millisecond. If you don’t land the joke, you feel that you’re under threat. I’ve turned a negative into a positive so, huh, ‘in your face anxiety!’”
As a traveller comic who also happens to be gay, Warde notes that he’s “a minority within a minority within another minority.”
“I don’t know what was tougher; coming out as gay or as a comedian,” he deadpans. “With regards to the former, I always knew I didn’t fancy girls. I had one girlfriend; we kissed, but I was far more interested in the hair products she was using than I was the colour of her bra. The first person I confided in about being gay was another girl who told someone else, so I was sort of dragged out. I was 16 or 17, which is relatively late. People were perplexed and said, ‘You don’t look gay’, to which I replied, ‘Well, do I look like a traveller?’ We all – to lesser and greater degrees – subscribe to stereotypes.
“When, as the traveller community is, you’re a marginalised group with a slavish adherence to religion, those heteronormal traits – boys wear blue, men should be macho etc. etc. – are taken to the extreme. Along with a guy called Eoin Ward, I was the founder of LGBTQ Pavee, the only traveller group of its kind, which is there to make coming out easier for other people than it perhaps was for me.”
While the traveller community is slowly coming to terms with having LGBTQ people in its ranks, Martin says it would be “extremely difficult” for anybody to come out as trans.
“The same, I think, is true of all sections of Irish society. It was until quite recently regarded as a mental health disorder by the World Health Organisation, so we’ve a lot of re-education and catching up to do with regards to people and their true identities. If it’s difficult for a gay man or a lesbian woman, you’ve fuck all chance as a trans traveller of anybody understanding you. It’s disgusting, but like I say, not confined to the traveller community. I know from booking trans acts for gigs that they’re invariably introduced in a tokenistic ‘And here’s a trans comedian…’ way. You get that even at Pride events.”
Detractors claim that with the Warde family settled in Tuam since the 1990s – “Leo from the Saw Doctors is a good friend and neighbour, and Joe Rooney’s from my neck of the woods too,” he says – Martin isn’t a ‘real’ traveller and should therefore stop sniping at those who are from the semi-detached sidelines.
“I was never on a site but we travelled until I was seven or eight,” he recalls. “My parents wanted us to have the proper education that they didn’t, which meant being stable and settled. I’m very proud of my mother who went back and did a diploma with NUIG. Anyway, that was the end of the travelling escapades, but we’re still travellers.”
Warde gives short shrift to those who maintain that travellers are under some sort of cultural obligation to start earning money for themselves and their families as early as possible.
“What’s capturing these travellers and holding them back within education?” he reflects. “It’s a fear of losing culture. My opinion is that culture is an adaptive term, and means nothing unless it has the consensus of all of the people within its community. If you’ve younger travellers going into education or the arts or whatever, those changes then become traditional for that family within the overall culture. It’s a statistically proven fact that you’re less likely to go through education if one of your family members hasn’t done so before you, so we need to set that trend.
“If you want to maintain part of your culture, great, but not at the cost of somebody going through life being illiterate and not having the same opportunities as settled people. The bottom line is we cannot justify having our children not going through education when we have 85% unemployment.”
Sadly, qualifications alone aren’t going to solve the social divide when it comes to employment.
“In a recent survey, 87% of employers said that regardless of their education they wouldn’t hire a traveller,” he says. “That shows that we need to get involved in politics and have more political power and capital. I was an equality officer for the East Galway comhairle ceantair of Sinn Féin when I was 18; not because of mad Republicanism or the brilliant songs from the Wolfe Tones at every fundraiser, but because their track record in that area was pretty good. I wanted to find out more about equality, which is why I went on to study Sociology and Politics.”
A man who admittedly “tends to beat the drum a lot”, Martin also believes that the traveller community has animal welfare issues that need addressing.
“I don’t really support sulky racing, especially when it’s on main roads, but there are other members of my community who say, ‘That’s part of our culture.’ My response to that is, ‘Well, it’s not part of my culture.’” Warde used his apperance on RTÉ’s The Cutting Edge last year to robustly challenge Peter Casey’s comments about travellers.
“I see Peter Casey not as this evil person, but as an ignorant man of old Ireland who had quite a lot of privilege growing up, and certainly has a lot of privilege now,” he reasons. “I didn’t want to lose him in words or call him a racist; I wanted to talk to him about his behaviour and why it can be damaging to people like me. I wanted to speak not just to him and his voters, but also to the members of my community who wanted to blanket boycott him, which I think is damaging. The only way you can challenge people with perceived power is by taking a pot at them at their level and using the same platform as them, which is the media. We ended up then doing a documentary where I sat down and had a pint with Peter who I think was just indulging in a spot of populism to get himself noticed. He threw a load of stuff out there and the traveller comments stuck.”
Today finds Martin in the midst of what he calls “a bit of a social media spat.”
“There’s been a disgusting homophobic reaction to some of my videos from travellers in the UK,” he explains. “They’d be the very same people crying ‘discrimination’ and ‘racism’ if that sort of thing was directed at them, so I’ve just put up a tweet saying, ‘Do you realise how hypocritical it is having this prejudiced attitude towards other marginalised groups? Cop on!’
“I’m pissed off,” he continues, “because I’m getting it from both angles. I’m being oppressed from outside and from within. The traveller community is the same as every other section of Irish society in that we tend to look for a bogeyman that we can offload all our inadequacies on to. It’s far easier to blame somebody else for what’s wrong - or you perceive to be wrong - in your life. Feeling discriminated against doesn’t justify your own racism, sexism, misogyny and homophobia, all of which exist within the travelling community and need to be talked about.”
Asked specifically about the racism issue, Warde states that, “A lot of travellers are getting away with murder when it comes to their attitude towards non-nationals. There have been some absolutely deplorable actions. Something I shared recently on Twitter was a traveller woman saying, ‘They won’t give houses to us but they’re giving them to foreigners.’ I’m like, ‘Don’t blame the people coming from war-torn countries who are in the same, if not worse, position as you. Focus on the state who are allowing this to happen. Ask them about the hundreds of ghost estates that are vacant around the country, or why all those houses were sold to NAMA for peanuts. Re-focus your understandable anger and frustration on those who actually deserve it. It shouldn’t be the ordinary person on the street who has to answer for the state’s actions.’”
Martin’s cyberabusers can count themselves lucky that his 88-year-old nana, Maggie Mangan, isn’t online to give them a digital clip round the ear in retaliation.
“Oh, they wouldn’t stand a chance,” he laughs. “She’s somebody who would have travelled in the wagons and, before she got married, lived under a tarpaulin on the side of the road. She’d have been extremely traditional, going to Lourdes and Knock and Medjugorje. She knits blankets and sells them to raise money for Chernobyl orphans, all that sort of thing. She’s as traditionally Roman Catholic as they come. When I mentioned to her about being in love with men, she just said, ‘It makes no difference who you love, as long as you love yourself the same.’ Compare her to younger travellers who are so homophobic and backward thinking that they let their religion dictate to them who they should accept. If my 88-year-old grannie can avoid being a raging fucking homophobe and have the utmost respect for people who have different ways of living, so can they.”
Warde believes that Repeal has emboldened traveller women to take control of their own lives.
“While a large proportion of the community would have voted ‘No’, it triggered conversations about contraception and traveller women generally taking control of their own bodies. I’m not going to go into how I voted, but I can tell you it was progressive and lead to me being absolutely savaged online. As those women, who know what it’s like to be ostracised by certain types of heteronormative men, become empowered they gain a better understanding of LGBTQ travellers, which suits me and others like me. It’s a symbiotic thing.”
Who do travellers tell jokes about; settled people?
“No, we make fun of ourselves,” he insists. “The tour, Gomey Feen, is literally what you’d hear around the campfire or the bar or the living-room. It’s banter back and forth; you make fun of me, I’ll make fun of you, I’ll make fun of myself, I’ll make fun of everyone. It’s more than just a traveller thing. If you walk into any pub in rural Ireland where you’re known, first thing they’ll do is throw an insult at you, and then ask what you’re drinking. That’s just the way we’re geared up; it’s not meant to be offensive.”
Warde is hoping to capture that spiky sense of humour - and break down barriers in the process - with the sitcom he’s writing.
“It’s called The Site and is a kind of a mixture of Shameless and Father Ted,” he confides. “It’ll be talking about the different characters you come across, and all the issues including lesbianism and homosexuality in general. There’s also a lot of good stuff to highlight.” When not responding to abusive keyboard warriors, Martin uses his Twitter to post the stream of consciousness poems he’s been writing since he was eleven.
“I love the way words interconnect and can have multiple meanings,” he enthuses. “As an eleven-year-old I was a bit of a loner, but the sound and rhyming of poetry provided me with a company of sorts. A lot of people are asking to publish them, but I don’t think I’m at that level so I just throw my poems up on social media for free. I’ll write a ten, fifteen stanza poem in five minutes – totally off the cuff like my comedy – and post it without reading it back because I want it to go up in its raw, capturing the moment form. If there are spelling or grammar mistakes, so be it.”
Martin Warde’s risk-taking isn’t confined to his adlibbed comedy.
“I went over to Rio de Janeiro last March and walked along the favela.
Everybody said, ‘Don’t go in there’ but I did because I wanted to see how another marginalised section of society lives. I did a guided tour first, which was really fantastic and eye opening and then went back on my own. Both times there were guys in the alleyways with AK-47s. It was really stupid and irresponsible, but no one used their AK-47s on me and I took some beautiful pictures and videos, and also picked up some beads used in voodoo for some Brazilian friends of mine here who are into that sort of thing. Voodoo actually being used predominantly for good rather than evil.”
Next up for Martin are the mean streets of Stradbally.
“They’re afraid if they put the traveller on the main stage that they’ll get too fucking settled, so they’ve stuck me into this small little pokey tent for cabaret,” he jokes. “I’m also doing a panel discussion at one o’clock on Saturday in the MindField – the brilliant Dr. Sindy Joyce is there as well – which I’m really looking forward to because you’re bouncing off other people and the humour’s natural. It’ll be the first time ever for Electric Picnic to have a member of the traveller community perform, so they’re really doing their bit for diversity this year.”