Stage

Owen O'Neill on his childhood talent for hurling

As his show at the Portico of Ards' Comedy Arts Festival approaches, comedy legend Owen O'Neill recalls his first highly eventful visit to the Portaferry area as a child...

Owen O'Neill plays the Portico of Ards in September
Owen O'Neill

IN THE early 1970s, my first trip to Portaferry with my family was a disaster: I was sick from one end of the ferry to the other. Starboard to port and to hull and back. Projectile vomiting was something I did quite well in my early years and for some reason I always started to run when it was happening.

First time it occurred was at my friend Billy Kelly's sixth birthday party. We were in his back garden. I felt it coming on and decided to go for a run, plastering everything in sight. His dad was chasing after me shouting, "Will ye stand still for God's sake".

The journey to Portaferry from Strangford only took 10 minutes. So I didn't really have time to find my sea legs. People were jumping out of the way in all directions. A man with a trolley of golf bags, dressed in checked trousers and a blue tweed jacket, wasn't so lucky. He slipped on my ferry pizza and ended up on his back. My Uncle Tony was with us, he was drunk and shouted "fore" as the poor man was in mid-air.

I was 10-years-old and never got on a ferry ever again. My father had to wait until I was asleep to make the return journey.

We stayed at a guest house at Cloughey bay beach and there I fell in love with a girl called Sharon Farrell. She told me her full name when I asked her and I thought that was her first name, which I pronounced "Sharnfarl"– this made her laugh every time I said it. She told me she was an "only child" – it was the first time I'd heard the expression and didn't quite understand the concept as I came from a family of 14 children.

In the guest house that night, we met the uncle of the owner. A very old man whose name I think was Tommy, or Ronnie? He looked like a gnarled tree and the blackthorn walking stick that he carried seemed to be an extension of one of his limbs.

He asked me did I "hurl", and I thought he meant had I been sick. I assumed the whole town had heard about my episode on the ferry so I said "yes, and I can do it when I'm running".

"Well," he said, "Ye wouldn't be much use now standing still."

He asked me how far could I hit a sliotar. I thought he meant how far could I be sick. I wasn't sure exactly, but thought I would exaggerate and said "about 12 feet".

He frowned at me and said, "If that's the case, you should play for Ballygalget". Everybody laughed, including me, although I had no idea what I was laughing at. I found out years later about the fierce rivalry between Ballycran and Ballygalget hurling teams. I guess he was a Ballycran supporter.

I've only ever been to one hurling match, but what a match. It was the All Ireland final in 1993 between Kilkenny and Galway. I was lucky enough to be given a free ticket by the Bank of Ireland after a corporate gig for them the week before in Dublin.

It was an incredible match. A very tight game up until the last five minutes. Kilkenny eventually won 2-17 to 1-15. A few months later, I was doing a charity gig in the Sheridan Hotel in Dublin and after I came off stage, a very tall athletic looking gentleman grabbed my shoulder and said, "That was a great gig fellah, you were hilarious, well done".

I didn't know who it was but when I went into the dressing room, one of the other comedians asked, "And what did DJ Carey say to you?"

I had to be told that DJ Carey was a Kilkenny legend and probably one of the best hurlers to ever play the game. Happy days.

I'm heading to Portaferry again very soon for the Comedy Arts Festival at Portico. I hope I make it across without incident – I won't eat beforehand, so if you make it to my gig on Saturday September 17, I'll do my best not to hurl.

:: Owen O'Neill: The Whole Nine Yards, a mixture of comedy storytelling and poetry, comes to The Portico of Ards on September 17 as part of the Portico's Comedy Arts Festival which runs from September 16 to 25. Tickets and full information at Porticoards.com.