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Why the coronavirus lockdown is no laughing matter for these Northern Ireland comedians

The ongoing government restrictions have meant the cancellation of many gigs - and lost income - for these four local comics but, as Linda Stewart happily discovers, they are still telling gags online

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Telling it like it is - vote for May.

Telling it like it is - vote for May.

John Linehan is in lockdown with wife Brenda

John Linehan is in lockdown with wife Brenda

Paddy Raff at the Ulster Hall

Paddy Raff at the Ulster Hall

Telling it like it is - vote for May.

John Linehan (68), aka May McFettridge, from north Belfast, is in lockdown with his wife Brenda, daughter Donna (42) and grandson Johnny (21).

He was hospitalised with a TIA - a mini stroke - in February, shortly before Covid-19 arrived in the UK, but had recovered and was looking forward to a packed schedule of appearances.

"Earlier in the year I had a TIA, a mini stroke, in February, just two weeks before this all happened. Everything is good now - I got to hospital on time and got everything checked out. I'm only on more medication every day, so everything is good that way," he says.

"I would be fit enough if I had a heavy cold. I've no heart problems or respiratory problems and I was still playing golf up to last year. But the last thing I would want would be to contract Covid-19.

"Total respect for everyone in the hospital, people in private care - anyone who is a carer or a nurse or a doctor."

John says his schedule for the year ahead featured a lot of weddings, personal appearances, golf games and after-dinner speaking, but everything has gone to the wall: "I've a few weddings in for July, but who knows whether they will happen.

"Normally I'm quite busy in spring with weddings, but I'm afraid to even look at it. Unless they reschedule for next year, it's revenue you're not going to get back."

John was alerted to the looming crisis in early March when gatherings were restricted to less than 100 people, which put a couple of weddings at the start of this month at risk.

"Then it avalanched and everything was just put back. I can only hope and pray the Opera House will be up and running for Christmas because that is the next big thing - 35,000 to 40,000 seats have been sold already. I think if the auditorium was ready it would be a great thing, but I'm sure they'll pull out all the stops and, please God, we go back to normality," he says.

John describes life in lockdown as like Groundhog Day, with every day the same as the last: "I say to Brenda, leave those dishes, I'll do them tomorrow morning - it will give me something to do. Everything is washed, everything is clean. I've read three books in the last week but, oh my goodness, it's like Groundhog Day."

John says he's looking forward to being able to go for a pint of Guinness with his mates after lockdown is lifted and being able to hug his grandchildren.

He laughs that he's never been able to grow a beard before because of his work as May McFettridge, but now was the perfect opportunity. Viewers of a video he made for NI Hospice got to see it in all its glory, although he did shave it off this week.

"I've been growing a beard this last month or so. I had it down to a goatee - if the panto isn't working, I'll get Santa somewhere," he says.

"I made another video for the carers in the private homes, just to give them a wee boost."

‘I’ll never complain again about taking an early flight to a gig’

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William Caulfield as Billy Hulk the Union man for his new Facebook videos

William Caulfield as Billy Hulk the Union man for his new Facebook videos

William Caulfield as Billy Hulk the Union man for his new Facebook videos

William Caulfield (61) is in lockdown at his home in Donaghadee with his dachshund, Willow. He usually spends up to 28 weeks a year on cruise ships as a guest entertainer, but everything has been cancelled up until the end of August.

He first heard about the coronavirus outbreak when he was working on cruise ships in Australia and New Zealand earlier this year.

"As I moved from ship to ship in early February, I was getting my temperature checked, but I felt very safe because everywhere you went there were hand sanitizers and your temperature was being checked," he says. "Everything was grand, as we all thought at that time. Then the word came that the countries were closing their ports and I had to fly home a week earlier than I would have done. I was home a week before we went into lockdown."

William was due to speak at a corporate dinner with the Young Farmers Clubs of Ulster on his arrival home, followed by a busy schedule of cruise ship appearances through spring and summer, as well as staging his Our Jimmy show at the Riverside Theatre at the end of May.

"At this stage, my next gig is supposed to be in New York City at the end of May too, but I can't imagine New York being open," he says.

"I honestly can't see anything happening prior to September. I have lost all those gigs but I'm not alone - we are all in the same situation.

"I will be down in earnings but at least I have my health and if staying at home means my friends and neighbours have their health, I don't have a problem with it." While William was doing a Facebook Live session from his home, someone asked what his characters would be doing in lockdown and that gave him the idea of recording some videos.

"I shaved off my beard and got my costumes out of the storage unit and started to film some videos. I've done six pieces so far and, over the next two or three weeks, I'll release maybe two a week," he says. "They're all to do with coronavirus and what the characters are doing during the lockdown."

William explains he is looking forward to the early starts after lockdown is lifted.

"I'm looking forward to the alarm going off at 4.30am again when I have to go and get a flight. I will never complain again about going on that early flight," he says.

"But I'm looking forward to visiting my family and friends. Imagine meeting someone for a coffee - it's going to be a fabulous thing."

‘We’re building some garden furniture and decking out of pallets’

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Diona Doherty

Diona Doherty

Diona Doherty

Diona Doherty (31) is in lockdown in Craigavon with her husband, fellow comedian Sean Hegarty (36), her three stepsons, James (16), Charlie (13) and Tom (11) and two cats.

She has been performing comedy for 10 years, including writing and performing shows and TV appearances in the likes of Derry Girls and Soft Border Patrol, before moving into stand-up a year-and-a-half ago.

Diona says the family began restricting their movements around St Patrick's Day and kept the boys off school afterwards.

"We decided to take our own action, largely because we're self employed and every job we had booked up until the end of August was cancelled over the course of 72 hours. We lost a third of our annual income over three days," she says.

"We started locking down a week before the start of official lockdown and we were very, very strict about it."

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Diona Doherty and husband Sean Hegarty have recorded some lockdown videos

Diona Doherty and husband Sean Hegarty have recorded some lockdown videos

Diona Doherty and husband Sean Hegarty have recorded some lockdown videos

Diona says they had been commissioned to perform numerous stand-up gigs and she was due to play the lead in a BBC radio play, as well as embarking on a theatre tour with The Real Housewives of Norn Iron.

"They've all paused, because we don't know if theatres will open by autumn/winter - it's been a big hit," she says.

During lockdown, she says, they're been doing a lot of drinking and eating, a bit of homeschooling and going out for a walk every day, adding: "We're building furniture in the back garden out of pallets - we've built ourselves a decking area. We're lucky that a few bits and pieces of work and writing have still stayed in place.

"I was writing a short movie for BBC iPlayer and I'm able to continue that, and we are writing two adult Christmas productions for the Opera House and the Waterfront. I think everybody is hoping the theatres will definitely be opened by then."

Diona and Sean have recorded a few videos at home for social media, including a comedy holiday advert around the house that earned a lot of viewers.

"We did it really quickly round the house and it's that message to stay in," she says.

"Sometimes you go a wee bit mad unless you have a creative outlet. You have to give yourself a bit of a creative outlet - even when it's utter s****."

After lockdown, she says, she's looking forward to a McDonald's and is also excited about getting back in a room with actors to rehearse a show.

"But I'm dreading doing stand-up ever again. You have to be doing it a couple of times a week for it to stick. You lose your rhythm. Unless you do it every day, you'll not remember it," she says.

‘When there’s no pubs open in the south on St Patrick’s Day, you know it’s serious’

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Paddy Raff AKA Nigel entertained guests at the 2019 Belfast Telegraph Property Awards 15 November, Crowne Plaza

Paddy Raff AKA Nigel entertained guests at the 2019 Belfast Telegraph Property Awards 15 November, Crowne Plaza

@Press Eye/Darren Kidd

Paddy Raff AKA Nigel entertained guests at the 2019 Belfast Telegraph Property Awards 15 November, Crowne Plaza

Paddy Raff (35) is in lockdown in Belfast with his wife Kim (36) and two children Ronan (5) and Clara (2). The former wedding band singer began doing stand-up two years ago in March 2018, within a year selling out the Mac Theatre and the Limelight, followed by two sold-out nights at the Ulster Hall last summer.

This spring, he was due to play two full-house gigs at the SSE Arena, one of which went ahead at the start of March and the other postponed to October.

He says he realised how serious things were getting when they visited his mum's caravan in Donegal shortly before St Patrick's Day.

"It was a few days after that first SSE gig, which just about went ahead. It was the last mass gathering in Northern Ireland, which is a strange accolade to have. In fact, I took a picture of everybody behind me - it was an historic picture," Paddy says.

"We were self-isolating from about March 10 in Donegal - we pretty much stayed in the caravan. They were a bit ahead of us with guidance from the government - it was all gloves and masks. We cut our stay short and came home on St Patrick's Day.

"When there are no pubs open in the south on St Patrick's day and no-one's drinking, you know it's serious."

Paddy had upcoming gigs in England and Scotland, but these have been postponed. However he normally does a lot of online comedy anyway.

"I've had more time to write online content. I've probably had my biggest surge in followers since I started, with a lot of videos getting two million views and followers in places like England, America and Australia," he says.

"Coronavirus is a very relatable topic, no matter where you are in the world, and the numbers are going through the roof - I'm getting a lot of interest from people who wouldn't otherwise have seen my stuff.

"Because of the nature of things, I can't go out to film much, but I've done a few videos when I was out on my walk. You realise how much your kids touch things when you're out walking.

"I did one on a family Zoom quiz and that sketch went mega viral. I have a shed at the end of the garden where I'm doing a lot of work writing and filming, and I'm able to use that as space to do all that. My work hasn't been impeded too much by it."

Paddy says his in-laws are in the high risk category and his mum is self-isolating with his sister who is disabled, so he does the shopping for them and leaves it on their doorstep.

After lockdown, he's looking forward to getting back to gigging and is eyeing a third date at the SSE in October.

"I've had a good run over the last couple of years and this time in lockdown has given me more followers. A lot of people are asking where they can come and see me," he says.

"I'm looking forward to getting back out in front of people because I really miss the buzz of performing to a crowd."

Belfast Telegraph