GAA Football

The Joker... East Belfast is here to stay says comedian Darren Matthews

Comedian Darren Matthews taking part in The East Laffs Comedy Night. Picture Mal McCann.
Andy Watters

He's nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready…

Eminem, Lose Yourself

IT’S been 20 years since he’s swung a hurley in anger.

East Belfast GAC wasn’t even a twinkle in the Gaelfather’s eye back then but, on this August evening Down’s newest club take on St Peter’s, Warrenpoint in the Betsy Gray Cup. The game is in its second half when Darren Matthews gets the nod to go on and butterflies loop-the-loop in his stomach as he runs across to corner-back.

The first ball, the first hit, the first strike… He wants to show something, to add something as Down’s new club – formed just 10 weeks previously – turns a scoffed-at-idea into an on-field reality.

“I just kept the forwards busy until a real hurler arrived,” says Matthews, harshly summing up his debut.

The game ended in a 2-17 to 1-14 defeat but the new kids on the block left the field with credit and, two decades since his last game, Matthews enjoyed every second of the action. Whatever he had, he left on the field but that’s him all over - putting it all out there is what he’s about.

As a comedian, he has written jokes and told them to strangers from Newry to Bangkok and those butterflies are cleared for take-off before he gets up on the stage.

“It’s the same nervousness you feel before a game,” he replies when I ask how he feels before a gig.

“It’s just the worry that you’re going to be shite.”

That openness to a challenge is what attracted him to return to hurling when East Belfast GAC burst out of nowhere. Starting a GAA club in a traditional loyalist heartland? Is that another gag?

Not at all. This time it’s serious and Armagh native Matthews was delighted to be a part of it.

How did he get there? His path to East Belfast has been long and winding, to say the least.

Born in Bessbrook, Matthews played Gaelic Football with his dad Kieran’s native Lissummon and hurled for Camlough’s Craobh Rua until he reached his teens.

He played soccer too but by that stage his other passion, music, began to take over and he joined Warrenpoint Punk band ‘Too Fat for Porn’ as a drummer for gigs at the INF Hall on the sea front.

His first taste of travel came when he set off as a roadie for Belfast outfit The Dangerfields who were supporting Stiff Little Fingers on their 35th anniversary tour of Europe.

“We did 15 countries in 30 days,” Matthews recalls.

“I remember we drove 18 hours to get to Hamburg to find out that the show had been cancelled. We ended up going drinking in the Reeperbahn, which is the red-light district, and the only pub that was open ’til late was a heavy metal bar. At 3am the Reeperbahn shuts so all the girls go down there for a beer after work. It was just me, a boy from Scotland and all the working girls. Lovely ladies.”

He’s had itchy feet since and says his travel has been “mostly random adventures with a bit of work and a bit of having a good time”. He has seen quite a bit of the world over the last decade and the jokes in his head were as handy as the boots in his rucksack.

“I was about 26 when I moved to Australia and joined a team in Perth,” he says.

“It was a great way of meeting new people and getting a bit of work. I did the same when I moved to New Zealand and then Canada.

“I played for the Canterbury Michael Cusack’s in Christchurch (the first GAA team to be sponsored by a strip club) and St Michael’s in Toronto when I lived there.”

The comedy began after his music career ended. It’s 10 years ago since a friend suggested he joined him at an open mic comedy night at the Pavilion Bar in Belfast. A decade on and Matthews is still going strong but his mate quit long ago.

His first line on his first night went: ‘Hi folks, my name is Darren, I’m from Newry and if you don’t know where that is, you probably think it’s called LondonNewry.’

“Yeah, I went straight into sectarianism,” he says, with a chuckle.

“It went down well. That first gig was seven minutes. That’s what you do at the start and I thought coming up with seven minutes of material was going to be the hardest thing I’d ever do but since then I’ve done hour-long shows and headline sets that are 30-40 minutes.”

It’s a mystery to most of us how anyone would enjoy doing that. Surely it must be terrifying to get up on stage in front of a room of strangers and start telling jokes?

“I don’t know if you could describe comedians as self-confident,” says Darren, who's half of the Injury Time podcast with Jordan Robinson.

“They can be a weird wee bunch, like there’s a lot of manic depressives doing comedy.

“I suppose you do need to have confidence to get up there and I probably had the advantage of playing drums for years so I was used to being on stage and using a microphone. I enjoy performing, it’s the best job in the world when it goes well.”

So it always goes well then?

“No,” he says: “And any comedian who tells you they’ve never died on stage is a liar.

“People always have this morbid fascination of: ‘Don’t tell me about when it went well, tell me about when it went shite’.

“But weirdly enough, it’s part of the process. When you’re writing new stuff you’ll go out thinking something is funny and you’ll bomb and then you’ll say something off the cuff and it’ll go down really well – it’ll be funnier then everything you’ve written. It can be heart-breaking!”

Since that first gig at the Pavilion he’s had them laughing in England, Scotland and Australia and on a tour of south Asia which included a stints in Bangkok, Singapore and a residency in Kuala Lumpur. Being on the road and being open to all sorts of adventures, turned out to be a rich source of material.

“That’s how you write comedy,” he says.

“You have to have stuff that happens to you, you have a real-life event and you take the story away and then there’s parts you’ll embellish and parts you forget. You chop and change it around – find the punchline and work backwards. Travelling opens you up to doing a lot of stuff. When you’re abroad, nobody knows who you are so, when somebody says: ‘Let’s go and do this…’ You’re like: ‘Yeah, let’s go’.”

He says he isn’t “pushing hard enough” to make comedy his full-time job and is content, for now at least, to be “just a club comic”. He’s ambitious though and wants to get into the comedy scene on mainland Europe (maybe there’ll be a return to the Reeperbahn?) and also try his hand in the USA.

Before Coronavirus threw a blanket over the world, he ran comedy nights at the Sunflower Comedy Club in Belfast and McCooey’s in Newry.

“It’s nice to get a few quid from what you enjoy doing and it would be nice to get back to that,” he says but these days of course he has that other passion in his life – the caman code.

This year – smartly attired in his East Belfast gear - he opened the show at The East Laffs comedy night and when he got off stage he headed straight for training. Doing stand-up comedy in East Belfast and then going to play for East Belfast must be new ground for the GAA.

“Being a Gael, as you get older you appreciate playing more,” he says.

“When you’re a kid you just do it and enjoy it with your friends but as you get older you realise you aren’t going to be able to play forever so you try and get as much in as you can.

“Am I any good? I would say I’m enthusiastic and physical.

“I tell people: ‘I’m from Armagh, where hurling is like laundering your own diesel – it’s illegal, but we’re still doing it’ and I’ve gone back to playing hurling after 20 years with a brand new club that is totally open for all.

“There are so many people coming to us who have never played before because they’re able to come and say: ‘I’ve never played this but can I come and join?’

“Our club has senior players who had never pucked a sliothar or kicked a ball before and after a couple of months, the progress they’ve made has been phenomenal.”

Like many others, including former Bredagh under age player-turned comedian Vittorio Angeloni, he was attracted by the concept of bringing the GAA into a part of the North that had appeared to be forbidden turf.

“I thought was a brilliant idea,” says Matthews, who organised a comedy fundraiser for the club which also included a set from Shane Todd.

“The area it’s in, the concept of ‘GAA for all’ attracted me because I really believe in the GAA’s ethos in ‘We belong’ because I’ve seen it in operation all around the world. I’ve played with guys who are native-born to the countries I’ve played in.

“The team I played on in Canada was mostly Canadians and I was delighted to see the New York team would up of home grown players that just won the New York championship. That’s phenomenal.

“I believe in that and I also believe that people in East Belfast shouldn’t be denied the chance to play GAA because of some out-dated stereotype about the area – that they’re not allowed to come and play what is now not an Irish sport, it’s a world-wide sport.

“It should be offered to everybody if they want to play.

“People have said before that the GAA has been a cold house for unionists. But I say to everybody: ‘Look, that’s the past, we’re pushing on towards the future’. Linda Ervine is our honorary club president and I said to her: ‘Linda isn’t it going to be brilliant one day when we don’t talk about communities and sides and it’s just about all of us and if we want to play, we’ll play, and if we don’t, we won’t and it’s no big deal’.

“It’s only a big deal because of where we are. Go to the south and there’s people that aren’t catholic, or nationalist, or born in Ireland who are playing and nobody bats an eyelid. But when you bring it to Belfast… Suddenly it’s a big deal.

“But I definitely hope that the club is here to stay. The boys who play for East Belfast just want to play, we’re not interested in anything else - politics has no place in sport. We’re ‘boots-on-the-ground’ lads who just want to play.

“The club has a really broad spectrum. We have a couple of hockey lads who are very handy in the hurling team, the camogs have an American girl who’d never played before and there are guys who travel in from Bangor and Ballyclare.

“We have a fella from East Belfast playing who was a secret GAA fan for years.

“I swapped him my spare hurley for a Northern Ireland top.

“My great-uncle Seamus D’arcy actually played for Chelsea and Northern Ireland. My hurley cost me 20 quid and the top was 40, so who did better in that deal? Not a bad bit of business!

“He’s always been a fan but he was told: ‘That’s not for you, you’re not allowed to do that…’ So he used to travel down to Newry in secret to watch Down play. I told him: ‘The saddest part of that is, you’re a Down fan!”

The gags will keep coming from Darren.

As for his club; they laughed when someone first suggested starting GAA in East Belfast.

Nobody’s laughing now…

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