Entertainment

Gene Fitzpatrick: 'I am the only man in Banbridge with two belly buttons'

Joke machine Gene Fitzpatrick is putting a stroke behind him to get back on the road with a stand-up show at the age of 78. The Banbridge comic talks to Noel McAdam about gags, golf, illness and why he never wanted to move to Britain

Gene Fitzpatrick keeps the jokes coming thick and fast. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Gene Fitzpatrick keeps the jokes coming thick and fast. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN Gene Fitzpatrick keeps the jokes coming thick and fast. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

Gene Fitzpatrick can't keep the jokes from coming. He doesn't even try. Like the two women watching the canoe come up the Newtownards Road during the recent floods, and one says, "I didn't know the UDA had a navy."

Now 78, the comedian who was born and still lives in Banbridge is staging a comeback following a debilitating stroke.

It has taken the best part of two-and-a-half years for the man once dubbed 'Ireland's Number One Comedian' to get back to performance level. But even this is a matter for mirth.

"The day of the stroke I said to my wife [Maureen], 'I'm talking funny'. She said you're supposed to – you're a comedian."

Gene is doing a number of charity shows – "I keep it short but then, sure I'm not getting paid," he quips – including one for the Stroke Association in Armagh.

Noel McAdam interviews comedian Gene Fitzpatrick. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Noel McAdam interviews comedian Gene Fitzpatrick. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN Noel McAdam interviews comedian Gene Fitzpatrick. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

The aim is to be on the stage of the Grand Opera House in March as part of a short tour.

He doesn't want to dwell on his ordeal but says the stroke came out of the blue and was caused by a blood clot.

"I had been on the golf course the day before. But I knew it was a serious stroke. I lost my voice. I could not swallow. I lost the power from my whole left side," he said.

"I knew people who had been in and out of hospital the same day or in a few days. I was in for three months. I knew I had to take my time. I was being fed through the nose."

He kept his spirits up by keeping the nurses and other staff – in Craigavon Area Hospital, then Lurgan and finally Daisy Hill in Newry – in stitches.

"It was during the time of Covid so I could only see my wife once a month – every cloud has a silver lining."

Gene Fitzpatrick has been making us laugh for more than 40 years. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Gene Fitzpatrick has been making us laugh for more than 40 years. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN Gene Fitzpatrick has been making us laugh for more than 40 years. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

Actually, he adds, turning serious for a second, he would not have made it through without the devotion and help of Maureen and in particular his son Richard, who became his main carer.

"I never let it get me down. I'm a stubborn so-and-so. With Covid I could see people dying around me nearly every day. I was being fed through a peg in my stomach."

And then – you never have to wait long for the next one-liner – "I am the only man in Banbridge with two belly buttons."

Still in recovery – which involves going to the gym every day – Gene is looking forward rather than reverse but says the stroke was "a real set-back": "It was a damn tough time. There was a time I couldn't get out of the chair. But I could see the nurses were having a tough time too.

"I was determined. I set myself goals. When I got home I said I would be able to get up the stairs by Christmas. And I did.

Comedian Gene Fitzpatrick is returning to the stage after a debilitating stroke. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Comedian Gene Fitzpatrick is returning to the stage after a debilitating stroke. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN Comedian Gene Fitzpatrick is returning to the stage after a debilitating stroke. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

"It was more of an inconvenience than anything else. And very hard on my wife and sons Richard and Nicholas."

Gene spent a lifetime treading the boards to become a local legend. It is more than 40 years since he decided in 1980 he could build a career in comedy, when his album, or LP as they were called then, Live at the Group became a best-seller.

A year later he won the Benson & Hedges Entertainer of the Year award. "It gave me the confidence to believe," he has said.

Yet unlike contemporaries Frank Carson, Roy Walker and Jimmy Cricket he never broke through on a national level. Because, he says, he never really wanted to – and has no regrets.

Gene Fitzpatrick has been making us laugh for more than 40 years. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Gene Fitzpatrick has been making us laugh for more than 40 years. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN Gene Fitzpatrick has been making us laugh for more than 40 years. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

"I was talking to the late Frank Carson's wife one time and she told me, 'Eugene – she called me Eugene – you can either decide to make money and come over here or have a life of peace and quiet'. I made the choice."

At that point Gene's long-serving manager David Hull had put him on a tour of England.

"I told him afterwards, 'I don't want to do it'," Gene recalls. "I only wanted to work in places where I could drive home from. I have never regretted it."

First off he joined a group called Five Star Brandy, based mostly in around Craigavon before going solo.

Over the years he has ticked all the boxes – hundreds of charity events, marriage receptions, cruise ships and church halls, after dinner speeches, compering and concerts.

Dubbed in publicity material back in the day as a "man for all occasions", he was noted for "exceptional crowd control and that rare ability to make everyone feel at home".

He says: "I always kept it clean and never wanted to insult or offend anyone."

Read more:

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But really, no regrets, ever ?

"I realised I had not had a regular work, I was not going to be up for a good pension, although I am alright, I have to say."

Gene worked for Maxol and in a pet foods store before becoming a rep for Boots chemists. And when he had to come off the road at one point, in 1988, with the cabaret only on Friday and Saturday nights he took up selling insurance.

"I hated it – with a vengeance. But it wasn't long before things picked up again."

That was also when he discovered golf "the massive life wake up call".

He accepts people see him as a naturally funny man but still adds that going on stage isn't easy.

Gene Fitzpatrick has been making us laugh for more than 40 years. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Gene Fitzpatrick has been making us laugh for more than 40 years. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN Gene Fitzpatrick has been making us laugh for more than 40 years. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

"Going on stage is a challenge. You don't know whether the people are going to laugh or not and you have got to get them laughing."

Gene's parents, Gerard and Molly, wanted to christen him Dominic but their priest had other ideas: "I went down to the church as Dominic but came back Eugene."

A pupil at first St Patrick's Primary School in Banbridge and then St Colman's College, Newry, he recalls: "From a very early age I was constantly getting in trouble for making cheeky remarks.

"My daddy and others found it very funny that I would be telling jokes I didn't really understand."

He is to join Cricket, Walker, Adrian Walsh and Clubsound anchor and broadcaster George Jones in a one-off show at the Grand Opera House in Belfast next March (22).

And the tour will also take in the McNeill Theatre in Larne (21) and the Riverside Theatre in Coleraine (23).

"Sure that's four months away," he says. "I will be fine. I also intend to get back to the golf by next summer."