Newly married and still a little apprehensive of my in-laws, I was driving us very carefully though the winding, hilly back-roads of Mayo when I observed a jogger.
Jogging had become quite the popular pursuit in metropolitan Ireland of the '80's. Gyms were popping up all over the place in posh Dublin suburbs; a velour tracksuit was the new smoking-jacket. But ... coming down off the mountain ... on a wet-as-winter Irish summer afternoon ... wearing mis-matched polyester and a couple of woolly cardigans to ward off a cold ...with his man-boobs bouncing in the wind... I looked over at my husband; he looked over at me. Together we looked back at those brave little T-shirt bumps.
By the time we got to my mother-in-law's, there were tears streaming down our faces and all in-law-nerves were long gone. Oh, I do love a man who can share a laugh with me. Secret jokes - cued by a sidelong glance, a lingering touch on my knee or just a seemingly innocuous comment - are the cement to our relationship.
Tommy Tiernan's concerts have been that cement on several occasions. Sometimes we've had tickets and seats; more times we've had to stand or squeeze in with barely a view of the stage. One Christmas in our house, we had Tommy's latest DVD for dessert. The seasonally-bedecked table was turned a-kilter, the Bailey's and coffee made ready as Tommy strutted across our new iMac. Our daughter already knew the jokes and seated herself beside our son to nudge him at key moments in Tommy's flow; my honey and I cuddled in side-by-side armchairs abandoning ourselves to his comedic incontinence.
My first mobile phone had snatches of his manic physicality on its video-card, back when his concerts were extraordinary exercises of his body as well as his mind: somersaults, splits, skips interrupted his orality hardly at all. Checking my current phone, there is a quote saved from a stage show in Vicar Street (we had seats, that night: bless broadband!): 'Alcohol is the bit God left out of the Irish.'
There's a song I love called, 'Killing me Softly with his Song'. Well, that's Tommy. Arch-priest of Freud's Witz, he reaches into our psyche and yanks out the otherwise inarticulable. He makes us weep sweet tears of frustration and horror through the laughter. He holds a mirror to our unconscious primitive fears until we clutch our stomachs in convulsions of shrieking laughter.
The first time I heard him talk about his parents having sex, I experienced the classic Oedipal turmoil: shock, embarrassment, revulsion, glee, guilty recognition.
The first time he referred to Travellers* - imitating the accent perfectly! - I felt the same rush to rejection, to judgement. And just as quickly, I found myself laughing, seduced into an identification I had not thought myself capable of: laughing at myself ...
in God's alcohol-deficient Irish.
in the Traveller.
In the Down Syndrome child.
In the Jew.
All are 'grist to his mill', isn't that the cliche? He grinds up the stereotype and spits it back in our faces:
The famine-ridden, church-ridden, drink-ridden Irish.
The treacherous, welfare-cheating, Traveller.
The ineducable Down Syndrome person.
The Holocaust-drum-bashing Jew.
My husband, bless his great and gentle motorbiker heart, takes off on weekends to toy runs and other sponsored fundraising ventures with an assortment of charity focuses. The single consistent feature these past years has been the annual Down Syndrome Ireland bike run: "Rev Up 4 DSI".
I've ridden out with him on this and I can attest personally to the backbreaking joy (!) of the Rev Up trip, 1000 kms around the back roads and small towns of Ireland. Photographing the polished and decorated bikes with the DS children we encountered en route quickly became another fun fundraising opportunity.
In 2007, Tommy rode out with us. The photographs on that day were a revelation.
While the children - not just the boys! - and their parents loved the bikes and were encouraged to pose on them for photographs, some of the children found it difficult to pose. Holding on and looking into the camera and -most of all - smiling for the camera, seemed impossible. And then the parents and children met Tommy. To the adults, he was instantly recognisable, instantly desirable. Every parent knew him and wanted to meet him; it was as if he were an added bonus, another beneficient off-shoot of the Rev Up excitement. But the children didn't know Tommy the comedian, Tommy the celebrity, Tommy the alter-conscience. So what happened that day was remarkable....
Teenagers who were too 'cool' to pose on the bikes, had their photograph taken with Tommy in the pub.
Children who had seemed totally inured to the 'Say Cheese!' command of the photo-lens lit up in Tommy's presence.
Children who felt overwhelmed by the excitement of their celebrity-struck parents discovered the relief of Tommy's unflappable smile.
Children enlivened by gripping the handlebars of a 1300 Yamaha were further seduced by Tommy's audacious grin.
He spent the whole day having his photograph taken and persuading the children to relax into photographic opportunities where we glimpsed the true nature of these people: self-possessed, wry, cheeky, curious, individual each one. He spent hours at each location, on a day he must have presumed would be a day spent easy-riding on his bike, soliciting the most beautiful photographs I have ever seen. These were not false smiles for the camera, from children or comic. He brought out real smiles, he brought out personality and subjectivity in each child. He looked, he saw, he conquered.
Last year, on the national radio talk-show, a controversy arose about Tommy's stage act. He had pointed out that it seemed unreasonable to him that Customs Officers in the airport would never consider strip-searching someone with Down Sydrome. In between giggling convulsions, my cousin concurred. He decided that he would demand to be strip-searched on the way back to the UK after the show. After all, why not? Is he not as entitled to be suspected of drug-dealing as those with less-distinctive features? Or is there something wrong with my cousin, that they wouldn't stop him?
The telephone lines buzzed with oh-so-justified rant and cant. 'How dare Tommy Tiernan...' 'He has insulted all of us...' 'Is this the level of comedy we can expect...'
Meanwhile I pictured my cousin accosting a Customs officer in Dublin airport and a child's smile... Happy Christmas, Tommy, keep holding that mirror!