Alternative Ulster

What's wrong with the Northern Irish scene? Nothing much, says Ciaran Bartlett

They’ve painted over all the graffiti in the tiny dressing room. I can remember scrawling my name up there with four other lads when we were into pop-punk and got booked to open a rock night. ‘Ciarán Bartlett- Vocals, Banter’ it said. It’s gone now. Painted over, fresh names scattered across the once-filled walls, never forgotten.

You see, playing the Empire in Belfast, whether it’s for music or comedy, is a big deal.

I suppose I’m one of a relatively small group that has managed to do both. Some people who have played it a few times might read this and think, ‘What a nonce’, but I’m sure they felt the nerves before going on. It’s impossible not to feel something –ten years of live music shows and two in standup and the Empire still makes my palms sweat.

It’s the reputation of the tough crowd, the possibility of being tossed to the lions competing against your memories of previous success at smaller clubs, battling against your natural comical instincts. I think it’s safe to call it shit-inducing-excitement.

Luckily, after each of my five shows in the Empire, I’ve walked off to cheers and raucous applause and once, even a bit of a standing ovation – not bad for a fat man with a guitar, in any language or scene. What an unbelievable rush; a blood boiling, head sweating, smile forming rush!

How would I know this if there wasn’t a comedy scene here that works, despite what James McLaughlin argued in a previous Correspondence piece?

One thing he got right is there have been too many articles which have over-praised our comedy in Northern Ireland. It isn’t perfect and it is admittedly amateur level in some of the clubs.

However, this is common knowledge. It’s even admitted by the promoters of these clubs. If a line-up is filled with open-mic comedians, it is advertised as such, so complaining about this is a bit like moaning about having a used car when you’ve just bought one from a second-hand car dealer.

Our open-mic nights are vital in getting new acts onto the stage and for established acts to try new stuff in preparation for bigger shows.

There’s a broad range of acts. We have straight-up old fashioned joke tellers, story tellers, musical comedians, magicians, a crop of female comedians, one-liner specialists, alternative comedians, comedians from the Republic, sketch troupes and an improv team – not bad for a scene in Northern Ireland which has struggled seriously to find its feet in terms of having an infrastructure for the arts after the civil war which we rather comically summarise as ‘the Troubles’.

We aren’t all cyborgs doing jokes about bombs and playing up to the oafish image of ‘the eternal Irish Paddy’. We are a diverse group of people who want the time to let our ‘scene’ develop and grow.

Similarly, many of the more successful stand-ups are getting recognition by being asked to appear on or write for local TV and radio. We are branching out into England, Scotland and form an active part of the Dublin scene.

There is one professional club here in Belfast, realistically the only one in Northern Ireland and that’s the Empire (*stands back and waits for rotten tomatoes from promoters at the university). I was happy to see that the first show back after Christmas featured three local lads out of four acts: Micky Bartlett, Sean Hegarty and a certain rotund journalist in a multi-coloured onesie.

None of this couldn’t have happened five years ago.

  • Ciaran Bartlett is a comedian and journalist.

Published: 17 Jan 2012

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