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Tim McGarry: 'Our home set on fire, family friends murdered, riots ...the Troubles were the soundtrack to my life and they scarred me'

As he puts the finishing touches to his new show, the Belfast comedian tells Leona O'Neill how his family was almost killed in a sectarian arson attack, why he backs integrated education and of his sorrow that his father never saw him appear on television

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Tim McGarry

Tim McGarry

Tim McGarry in Belfast’s Botanic Park

Tim McGarry in Belfast’s Botanic Park

Tim McGarry in Belfast’s Botanic Park

Tim McGarry in Belfast’s Botanic Park

Tim with the cast of Give My Head Peace

Tim with the cast of Give My Head Peace

Tim McGarry in Belfast’s Botanic Park

Tim McGarry in Belfast’s Botanic Park

The Hole in the Wall Gang (from left), Damon Quinn, Nuala McKeever, Tim, Michael McDowell and Martin Reid, in 1991

The Hole in the Wall Gang (from left), Damon Quinn, Nuala McKeever, Tim, Michael McDowell and Martin Reid, in 1991

Tim McGarry

Northern Irish comedian Tim McGarry has been poking fun at paramilitaries, the Troubles and our tensions for several decades. But the north Belfast funny man, who knows only too well the impact of sectarian hatred, having had to flee for his life from his family home as a teenager after loyalists set it ablaze, says laughter is healthy.

He is also hoping to bring us more of those healthy laughs and is currently writing the script for the hugely popular Give My Head Peace - Live! show, which will grace the stage at the Grand Opera House in March.

Tim, who's 54 and therefore "just old enough "just old enough to remember when Gerry Adams wasn't actually in the Ra", lives in Belfast with his wife and two sons, who he prefers not to name, and has never strayed far from his childhood base.

"I grew up in the Fortwilliam Park area," he says. "It is a nice part of the world. I went to Park Lodge CBS and was treated very well. I had a really idyllic childhood. I went to St Malachy's College at the bottom of the Antrim Road from 1975 to 1982. I remember St Malachy's as a really good school. It was all boys and all Catholic. Girls and Protestants were missing, which I very much regret, but apart from that it was excellent.

"The principal was a guy called Canon Patrick Walsh. He was a bit of a stickler. He kept the school open no matter what was happening outside. I remember the day Bobby Sands died. We were all trooped up past the riots at the top of the New Lodge Road and into school. It remained open even though there was mayhem happening just around the corner."

Like so many people, Tim's childhood was pock-marked by the Troubles.

"My first memories of the Troubles are of Ian Paisley shouting on the television and my mother getting annoyed," he says. "I remember doing my homework in primary six and the lights going out during the UWC strike in 1974. I was a teenager during the hunger strikes and I was at university during the Anglo-Irish Agreement uproar. The Troubles kind of scarred me in that way. They were the soundtrack to my life. They didn't dominate everything, but they were always there in the background.

"My mother and father knew a few people who were murdered. They knew the judges Billy Doyle and Rory Conaghan, who were killed.

"When I was at university, I knew the lecturer Edgar Graham, who was murdered at the law facility. I was studying law at the time. I was also good friends with Paul Travers, whose sister Mary was murdered."

One cold February night in 1981, the Troubles came to the McGarry house when the family were almost burned alive in their beds by loyalists.

"Our house was the target of a sectarian attack in 1981," Tim says. "I was 16 years old. We had a nice big house in Fortwilliam Park, and These guys came in and set fire to it.

"They cut the telephone wires, so we couldn't call for help. There were six of us in the house. It was attempted murder. We were very, very lucky to survive.

"My cousin came home late from a date. She lived across the road from us and saw flames coming from our living room. She phoned the fire brigade and saved us all.

"My parents woke to the sound of glass shattering because of the heat. It was awful, just total panic. My father tried to phone the fire brigade to help us, but the line was dead.

"He and my mother ran into our bedrooms to wake us all up. The panic of waking up to your mother screaming, not being able to breathe, not being able to see, was awful.

"I ran towards a window that hadn't been opened in 20 years and tried to open it. You don't think - you're panicking. We eventually stuck our heads out a window.

"My dad jumped from the second-floor window to the ground and broke his ankle.

"Miraculously, the fire brigade appeared from nowhere, thanks to my cousin. They were superb. They got us all out.

"We were very lucky, because my sister was at the top of the house and had actually collapsed due to the smoke.

"It was Friday the thirteenth of February, 1981, but it didn't register because it happened on the very same night as the Stardust nightclub disaster in Dublin.

"I remember waking up in hospital, covered from head to toe in thick black smoke, and hearing about this terrible fire in Dublin where 48 people had been killed. Our fire became a minor story on the news and was forgotten, but we have a paranoid fear of fire in our family since. It left a mark on me."

Despite the Troubles coming so close to home, Tim has managed to make thousands of people laugh at the ridiculousness of the conflict and at themselves.

Not long after the ordeal at his family home, the beginnings of the Hole in the Wall Gang started to emerge.

Alongside friends Damon Quinn and Michael McDowell, he began with school plays, developing into sketches at university and, eventually, radio shows. The rest is history.

"The Hole in the Wall Gang was born because me, Damon - who plays Cal - and Michael - who is Billy the Peeler - came together by accident. Damon used to write plays at school and university and got us to be in them. They were funny and from them the three of us kind of evolved into writing sketches for charity, for Oxfam and Amnesty International. And it kind of evolved from there.

"There hadn't really been much comedy from Northern Ireland since the Jimmy Young days until we started knocking about.

"We were big fans of Monty Python and we did a bad version of that. We started talking about what was relevant to people and to us, and the audiences really reacted to that in a positive way."

Tim feels it would be cheesy to say the Hole In the Wall Gang changed the image of Northern Ireland, but it had an effect.

"Comedy is important," he stresses. "There was very black comedy in the pubs and clubs, but there was nothing on the radio or television that was humorous about the Troubles.

"All the dramas were very, very serious, with people with twitches, bombs going off and all that nonsense.

"That's when we started taking the hand out of things like the Patriot Games and all of that, because you need to laugh - you need to laugh at your own situation.

"Laughter is healthy. It shows a distinct and healthy lack of respect for those who are carrying out these type of things - the paramilitaries and the politicians.

"Rather than take them so seriously, just point at them and go, 'Would you look at them - they're ridiculous'.

"When we first started doing comedy about the Troubles, there was a huge reaction from across the board. I think that was because of a weariness that people had in the mid to late 1980s.

"People had had 15 to 20 years of this nonsense and were thinking nothing was going to ever change. Then finally we could laugh at things. I think that's good and healthy.

"I'm not sure we deserve a Nobel Peace Prize - although I'll take it if there's one going - but we performed a useful function. We helped lighten things up.

"Give My Head Peace in particular helped show that the other side were human as well. What we found was that the loyalists liked Uncle Andy and the republicans liked the republican characters. They would recognise themselves in our comedy. Picking on the other side and laughing at them is very easy, but you have to be able to laugh at yourself."

Not a day goes by without someone shouting at Tim in the street.

"Every day, without fail, someone shouts 'Da' at me," he says. "I get shouted at for being rude to my on-screen wife, Olivia Nash. She's not even my proper wife, but they shout at me to be nice to that poor woman and ask me why I never let her out. They shout that I'm horrible to her."

Tim and his comedy gang have been poking fun at paramilitaries for decades, but they have never poked back.

"Thankfully, there has been none of that," he says. "When Give My Head Peace became successful, there were those who didn't like it, who actually hated it. That's okay, because it's not North Korea and everyone doesn't have to like our show.

"I think for politicians, for example, to come out and say they didn't like it would make them look a bit po-faced, so no one really bothered us too much and we didn't get much jip.

"We heard that they were watching us in the prisons. We met Ian Paisley one time in a lift and he told us to be kind to him. Martin McGuinness used to watch us as well.

"We never set out to design it that there were two jokes about Catholics and then two about Protestants. It was never artificially designed. But it has been regarded as fair, balanced and even-handed by the public. That is important."

Throughout his career, Tim has stuck to just one guideline.

“We only really had one rule when we were in the Hole In The Wall Gang with regards our situation,” he says, “and that was you can’t make a joke about specific incidents where someone has been killed or injured.

“You never go into the specifics, but you can talk about the justification for it, the mindset behind it, and the people who support it and who object to it.

“Opinions aren’t off-limits, but there is no joke to be had in incidents where someone was killed.

“Apart from that, we can attack sectarianism and the intransigence of our political parties. That’s all up for grabs.”

For Tim, if you can’t laugh about the situation in Northern Ireland, you might as well cry.

“My late father had a very dry sense of humour,” he says. “I think I inherited that. He always said that it was important to have a sense of your own ridiculousness. He said to basically remember that we are all ridiculous and stupid-looking, no matter what you are doing in life. He was a very wise man.

“My dad was a surgeon in the Mater Hospital in Belfast. He was kept very busy during the Troubles. He had a dry wit. I was a child of the Python era and of The Young Ones. My dad also greatly loved comedy.

“He passed away in 1991. He was a bad advertisement for the medical profession because he smoked 60-a-day and loved a whiskey. Sadly, he got cancer shortly after he retired in 1991 and died that December.

“He never saw me on the television. He was there just as we recorded our first radio show, Perforated Ulster, which went out in October, just as he got sick.

“He had seen me do a couple of stage shows and heard me on Talkback when we got our big break with the late great David Dunseith. It’s sad that he never saw me on TV, though. I think he would have enjoyed it, enjoyed the humour and would have been plenty sarcastic. My mother always said that I just shouted too much on TV. She didn’t like it, but my da would have enjoyed it and I would hope that he would be proud of me.”

Tim has performed at conferences for all the main political parties, bar Sinn Fein, and doubts he will ever run out of things to make fun of.

“I remember when the IRA ceasefire first happened in 1994,” he says. “A guy nudged me and said, ‘Well that’s you finished now’, as in our careers were over. I thought to myself, ‘I think we’ll be alright for a year or two yet’. And here we are in 2019, still going. How could you not laugh at RHI, Stormont and the Irish Language Act and all that?”

On a more serious note, Tim feels that our society would be a more harmonious one if integrated education was embraced.

“I am a very strong advocate of integrated education,” he says. “I say this year after year. We are still a very divided society. We still vote down sectarian lines, we read sectarian newspapers, we watch sports which are divided along sectarian lines, and we live in areas that are separated.

“That needs to be sorted out or it is never going to change. It could take generations, but I think that integrated education is the way forward.

“We need to educate young people together, so that Protestants and Catholics can see what each other are like and have an argument about the border without ever getting upset about it and shooting each other.”

Tim is currently locked away, perfecting the scripts for the upcoming Give My Head Peace — Live show.

“We are really flying at the moment,” he says. “We are just about writing the thing, because we like to keep it nice and topical and up to date, so we’ll have Brexit as much as possible and we’ll have very silly plots, which is fun.

“Uncle Andy is not in this tour. He is laying in bed in order to get a PIP claim. His DLA has been cut and he’s pretending to be sick for a year, so he can’t make it.

“But really, Marty Reid, who plays Uncle Andy, is touring and has loads of other stuff on, so he can’t make it. But we’ll have Big Mervyn, Pastor Begbie, Da, Cal, Ma, Dympna, Billy the Peeler and others.

“It’ll be great craic. We have an absolute ball. I can promise you that there will be very silly plots and a couple of songs. There’s a bit of stand-up in the middle with bang up to the minute satire... Brexit, Paisley Jnr and RHI, the Irish Language Act and the Shinners. It will all be thrown into the mix. It’s a good night out and a good laugh guaranteed.”

Give My Head Peace — Live is at the Grand Opera House from Sunday, March 10, to Saturday, March 16. For tickets, visit www.goh.co.uk

Belfast Telegraph