Funny if it’s true?

In an alternative universe, Galway's eighteenth century republican general, Patrick Cullivan.

In an alternative universe, Galway's eighteenth century republican general, Patrick Cullivan.

“We were led to believe that from St Patrick to the Book of Kells was this highpoint of Irish history; that after the Vikings and Normans invaded it was all shite and misery until Packie Bonner saved that goal at Italia ‘90. But there were a few good bits in-between, and even though our good bits were epic failures, comedy can be a great pathway to tackle these deadly serious topics.”

So says fast-talking comedian, musician and historian Paddy Cullivan, who for the past decade has toured Ireland with a number of satirical, thought-provoking and mould-breaking shows on anchor points of Irish History, such as the 1798 Rebellion, 1916 Rising, and 2009 Great Recession.

Galway native Cullivan is perhaps Ireland’s personification of a growing trend in the English-speaking world of History as entertainment.

Or is he?

University of Galway historian Dr John Cunningham points out there is a long record in Galway of staging popular historical productions going back as far as the eighteenth century. “ Shakespeare’s history as farce is always around,” he says. “There are records of historical dramas in Kirwan’s Lane, and the ‘New Theatre’ on Lombard Street opposite St Nicholas’ Church. I suppose what’s different about today, is that there was usually a lot of ‘moral’ to the historical tale.”

The formerly ruined Kirwan’s Lane theatre, now the marvellously renovated Judy Greene’s pottery shop, is an interesting link between past and present. During nineteenth century assizes when Galway’s courts were in session, visiting lawyers would flock to the theatre for light-hearted, satirical entertainment after heavy days litigating. Paddy Cullivan notes Irish republican hero Theobald Wolfe Tone performed in Kirwan’s Lane as a young actor, and it is Cullivan’s The Murder of Wolfetone he is showing at The Crane Bar, Thursday, October 24, as part of the Galway Comedy Festival.

“ Michael Collins or Wolfe Tone – if they were still around - would come to my show and enjoy it,” he says. “I’m not objective. My moral is that there are goodies and baddies. I apply the Star Wars rule: rebels are good, and the evil empire is bad. I think the clue is in the name!”

Cullivan cites Monty Python as the first successful historical entertainers of the modern era. “‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’ was funny, but it also got people thinking – 'who were the Inquisition? What actually did they do?' Comedy has a role in formal and informal education too.”

With qualifications in graphic design and art history, Cullivan tours his 90min shows for audiences of secondary school pupils. “They mostly love the extreme violence, to be honest. I recently played to 600 Loreto College school girls, and if comedy is a route for even just a few of them to develop interest in our past, and question it, that’s a positive outcome for our future.”

Cullivan lauds the BBC’s Horrible Histories series as seminal history with comedy. Based on the 1990s books of Terry Deary, they sketched various historical civilisations for a young audience keen for blood and guts and dark humour. A successful singer and songwriter, Cullivan – who used to front RTE’s The Late Late Show’s house band, despises manufactured Boy Bands, yet loves Horrible Histories’ use of the trope to explain ‘The Four Georges’; England’s kings George I to IV. “That’s how to get kids to remember dry stuff – with a bit of madness”.

Although academic Cunningham and comic Cullivan come from vastly different perspectives, both share the opinion that however History is portrayed entertainingly, it must be based on evidence, accuracy, an honesty of opinion, and no sugar-coating.

“I’ve no truck with things like Drunk History for example,” says Cullivan, referring to the web and TV show where inebriated comedians recount historical stories. “Gossip and a dangerous, ‘funny version’ of history is not History. We should be able to entertain while still being accurate. Truth really is stranger than fiction.”

Cunningham cites the birth of ‘counter-factual histories’ twenty-five years ago by historians such as Britain’s Niall Ferguson and UCD’s Diarmuid Ferriter as feeding into historical entertainment, posing questions such as: what if Hitler did win WWII?

Cullivan is taking it one step further with his I Can’t Believe It’s Not Ireland show in The Crane, Wednesday, October 25, where he humorously explores a future United Ireland. Expect to be challenged.

“Unity between Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter is still the most positive idea in Irish history. One for all. The same could perhaps be said today for Israel and Palestine.”

See for more tour dates. Tickets €20 from Hardiman & Beyond: The Arts & Culture of Galway since 1820 edited by John Cunningham and Ciaran McDonagh [Arden] was released in May priced €47.


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