Tim McGarry remains best known to Northern Irish audiences as the republican half-wit Da from Give My Head Peace, the doltish flat-cap wearing cretin who wants to replace Gerry Adams and gives his wife the runaround and engages in all manner of hare-brained schemes with loyalist Uncle Andy and jailbird-turned-clergyman Pastor Begbie.
McGarry himself is a sharp-witted moderate who has been writing for the Hole in the Wall gang for over two decades now, sending up the worst of Northern Ireland’s sectarian stereotypes with incisive observations and imaginative flair. He and his co-writers have given Ulster a popular sitcom that holds a mirror to the worst of our bigotries and prejudices that we might see them for the ludicrous stupidity they constitute.
Tim and his cohorts have most recently been sending up everyone from Donald Trump to secretary of state James Brokenshire, the continued frustrating impasse at Stormont, Michelle O’Neill, Arlene Foster and Kim Jong Un - among many others, on their Radio Ulster Show A Perforated Ulster.
Now McGarry is starring alongside fellow comics Neil Delamere, Colin Murphy, Jake O’Kane and other guests on panel show The Blame Game - wonderfully titled given how great we are at the blame game, perennially blaming the ‘other side’ here in Northern Ireland.
So who does McGarry blame for the continued stalemate on the hill?
“You want me to tell the good readers of the News Letter who I really blame for the stalemate at Stormont? Under no circumstances! That remains between me and the polling booth.
“I blame everybody. It’s a bit of a dog’s dinner. But I have a lot of sympathy for politicians because they’ve always been very good to me and have allowed us to satirise them a lot in our comedy.
“We were doing jokes about the Troubles with the Hole in the Wall Gang in 1994 when the first IRA ceasefire happened and people said to us ‘That’s you boys out of work, that’s it all over now, there’ll be no more jokes about the Troubles’ and here we are 23 years later.”
Elitist culture vultures might sneer at the Whole in the Wall Gang’s easy stereotypes and sometimes asinine political humour but the fact remains that Give My Head Peace has remained massively popular since its inception and has always managed to do something rather powerful: to expose the sectarian hatred and bigotry in all its mindless ridiculousness and to get people laughing at the cultural and political absurdities that still divide us in the era of the post-Troubles hangover.
“Nobody joined the IRA and then left because the Hole in the Wall Gang made a joke but at the same time I think we did capture the mood and we do capture the mood of sectarianism being stupid and pointless and backward and dragging this place back. Being able to hold people up to ridicule is a very powerful weapon.
“Now people say the sectarian society is still there, we still have the sectarian stereotypes and we still have walls and comedy isn’t going to fully change all this. But, comedy helps. It helps expose the absurdity of so much of the immorality of what goes on here in Northern Ireland.
“Initially in the late 80s you were a bit frightened to start talking about the IRA the police and the British Government or whoever. Once you did it though you released that there was this huge release and audiences did want to hear this sort of material. There hadn’t really been much comedy about the Troubles since Jimmy Young died in 1974. There was nothing between then and ourselves and Paddy Kielty.”
Tim McGarry grew up in north Belfast and read law at Queen’s University, where he would meet fellow comedy sketch writers Damon Quinn and Michael McDowell. While his comedy career got off the ground, McGarry worked as a legal officer for the Equal Opportunities Commission and was an expert on maternity and sexual discrimination rights. But after the Hole in the Wall gang secured a weekly slot on David Dunseith’s BBC Radio Ulster show in 1996, the group fully committed to comedy.
Tim didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a comedian but he grew up appreciating a good laugh.
“I was a child of the early 70s,” confides Tim. “And I grew up with things like Fawlty Towers, John Cleese, Monty Python, Not the Nine O’Clock News and the Young Ones.
“My da introduced me to comedy because he loved people like Tommy Cooper and Morecambe and Wise. I was always into doing voices and jokes at school but I was never the class clown or anything. It wasn’t until I met Damon and Michael at university that I became involved in comedy sketch writing. The feeling of being able to write something that makes strangers laugh is amazing. You realise there’s a kind of power there.”
The stage version of Give My Head Peace will be returning in March.
“We’re bringing Give My Head Peace back on the road and it always sells out,” says Tim. “We’ve also been commissioned to do three more episodes for television. We struck lucky with Give My Head Peace because we created characters that had a grain of truth in them and these characters really resonate with people even though they represent a lot of sectarian attitudes that sadly still proliferate. We struck a chord with people because we were honest.” And McGarry hints that things might be more difficult for Da in the next show. “He now he has to deal with a lot of women assuming positions of power - Arlene Foster, Michelle O’Neill - and he’s never been a feminist of the year candidate.”