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Tuesday, 14 August, 2001, 16:45 GMT 17:45 UK
Celtic comedy coups
Anna Manahan and Des Keogh
Manahan and Keogh: Two of Ireland's finest actors
By BBC News Online's Olive Clancy in Edinburgh

"There are just a lot of Irish comics in general," says Deirdre O'Kane as she sips her latte in the café of the Gilded Balloon where she is performing her first full-length Edinburgh Festival show.

"I mean we definitely outnumber anybody here."

It is not just bravado from the actress, writer and stand-up who looks set to be a face to watch, with a BBC drama just given the go-ahead and a radio show written by Father Ted writer Arthur Matthews in the can.

Just a quick trawl through the Edinburgh line-up bears her out.

Deirdre O'Kane
Crystal Hickey: Hairdresser turned cabaret queen
Tommy Tiernan, Dara O'Briain, Jason Byrne, The Nualas, Tara Flynn are appearing - to name a few.

Meanwhile playing theatre for laughs is a pair of Ireland's finest actors, Des Keogh and Anna Manahan, in The Matchmaker by John B Keane.

This is usual at the Edinburgh festival, and not only because it is fairly easy for Irish performers to make their way to Scotland.

It is several years since somebody forwarded the theory of the "green comedy gene".

There is certainly something behind the currently highly fashionable Irish brand of humour.

"They're very good storytellers, that's a huge part of the success," says O'Kane, whose own on-stage persona, Crystal Hickey, is a woman with a large story.

Crystal is a hairdresser turned old-style entertainer, besotted with the emotions of her own compositions and a big hit in the small towns of Ireland.

She is what O'Kane calls a "monster" of a character, but something about her stops you from hating her.

It is this very combination of humour and darkness that gives the work of John B Keane its enduring appeal.

Deirdre O'Kane
O'Kane is also an actress and comedy writer
He wrote The Field, Sive and The Matchmaker, a book which has been adapted for the stage.

"What appeals to people is the humour, but also there are sad and lonely people in there - people everybody recognises," says Des Keogh, who plays Dicky Mick Dicky O'Connor, the matchmaker of the tale.

From the start of his writing career in the 50s, Keane was one of Ireland's best-loved and most-performed playwrights, but has been derided in the press for being parochial.

The Matchmaker is the story, told in the form of letters to and from prospective clients, of a kindly rural man who spends his time hitching the unmarriageable of Ireland to the unlikely.

It is true that it is at times hard to take this image of rural innocence and ignorance, particularly in the light of how Ireland has changed.


But performed by a pair of such master actors, Keane makes you laugh, even if at times it is in spite of yourself and still packs an emotional punch.

Much has been made of London-Irish theatrical wunderkind Martin McDonagh and the Tarrantino-esque twists he makes on seemingly traditional tales, but Keane got there first.

In The Matchmaker, billed as a comedy, there are women falling over cliffs, bachelor farmers threatening to self-immolate and any number of minor human tragedies.

Just the turn of phrase is enough to make you laugh - this is not the language of the MTV-crazed Celtic Tiger-cubs, but it is nonetheless authentic.

"If you listened to the way he (Keane) talks, you know they roll out of him naturally and I don't think you can say it's a studied thing," says Anna Manahan, who in her 70s has played Keane more than any other professional actress.

So the Irish have the facility with words and the art of storytelling, but it is not all a success story.

"We've never ever produced a successful sit-com," says O'Kane.

People point to Father Ted - but that was made by Channel 4, as were the string of successful sitcoms starring the likes of Dylan Moran, Tommy Tiernan, Ardal O'Hanlon and Sean Hughes.

One final hurdle then, before we declare scientific proof of a green comedy gene.

Anna Manahan and Des Keogh
Hear an extract from The Matchmaker
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