Arts

Dublin comedy trio set to overdose on craic

Sean Finegan, Conor McKenna and Sean Flanagan are Foil, Arms and Hog.

Sean Finegan, Conor McKenna and Sean Flanagan are Foil, Arms and Hog.

“Can’t wait, really excited about it.” Sean Finegan of Foil, Arms & Hog says he and his mates are chomping at the bit to bring their sketch comedy show Craic-ling to Australia.

“Dying to get out there just to see how the material goes down with a crowd that has been asking us to come for a long time. We’re very excited.”

The comedy trio have only performed in Australian once before, at the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 2017.

“We did the fringe there for a month. We were gigging four times a night. Nobody knew us and we lost a fortune but had a brilliant time. That’s the last time we were in Australia. We arrived in the middle of a 40-degree heatwave and it melted us but didn’t deter us from coming back.”

FInegan is one third of Foil, Arms & Hog alongside Sean Flanagan and Conor McKenna. The trio write, shoot and edit a new sketch every week to release on Facebook and YouTube.

It’s a formula that has given the trio a massive online following and, one suspects, a steady income. For example, their brilliant take on Brexit, with Britain and Europe portrayed as a divorcing couple has clocked up more than 450,000 views.

In the stage show Craic-ling the trio conducts a class on how to hold a baby, sings a Gregorian chant about life as a monk and re-enacts the assassination of a classically trained actor. Chortle.co.uk described the show as “an effervescent hour of fast-paced gags, fizzing with energy, invention and great lines”.

How would Finegan describe the show for the uninitiated?

“It’s sketch comedy. People think certain things when they hear sketch comedy. In Ireland, there’s no sketch comedy scene whatsoever so when we started out; we started doing stand-up sets. There was no opportunity for any lights or sound, it just had to be funny. It’s very quick, off the bat. We would go sketch to sketch and we started to interact with the audience. It’s kind of like a blend between stand-up and sketch comedy as most people think of it. There’s no overarching theme. Instead of a random series of jokes, we do a random series of sketches, whatever we think are funny.

“People think it’s going to be similar to the online videos but it’s nothing like that. The stuff on stage is way whackier, weirder, much more out there.”

Finegan says they have no idea how the gags will go down, Down Under.

“We have one sketch where three guys join a monastery, become monks and they become really bored really quickly.

“Buckfast is an alcoholic drink made by monks and they find that. I don’t know. How familiar are people in Australia with monasteries? Should we be worried?”

How do the trio decides which material is for their online fans (they have 900,000 followers on Facebook) and what will go on stage?

“The wordier stuff works really well for video. The stuff that works on stage tends to be the bigger world ideas, like crazy stuff you couldn’t film without a Hollywood budget but, with a blank space, the audience can imagine whatever they want.

“The weirder and wilder stuff really bring the crowd into it as well.

“It might take us a week to work on a video for the internet but it would take us two or three months just to write one sketch for stage, it’s just so much more difficult. The standard is so much higher for stage for what you watch on screen but it’s what we enjoy doing more even though it’s harder, the rewards are so much bigger.”

The trio first came together in 2008 while they were still students at University College Dublin. The name evolved from their respective nicknames. Sean Finegan was the comedy ‘foil’. Conor McKenna was ‘all arms and legs’ and Sean Flanagan ostensibly hogged the limelight.

Finegan says he hopes to see a big Irish turnout at the Aussie shows.

“We did a gig in London. It was a really big gig for us in the Hammersmith Apollo and a load of Irish living in London came out and it was almost like this reunion party. It turned into this mad Irish night out. It’s like you’re playing in the World Cup and you’ve got a great travelling support.”

The last time they were in Australia, an elderly Irishman at one of their Adelaide shows was so taken with them, he tried to give them money after the gig.

“He had been living in Australia his whole life and after the show he came up to us and put a pile of money into our hands and he says, ‘Thank you so much for reminding me of home; you’ve taken me back’. We were like, ‘What? This is ridiculous for a silly comedy show’.

“It’s comedy, there’s no messages involved with it but to create something emotional in someone was really nice.”

Foil Arms & Hog kick off their Australian tour in Melbourne on April 9 before performing three shows in Sydney from April 23. The first two Sydney shows are already sold out.

Singer Meg Mac cherishes Irish heritage

Meg Mac is a star on the rise with a national tour in April.

Meg Mac is a star on the rise with a national tour in April.

Irish Australian artist Meg Mac announced herself as a talent to watch out for when her song Known Better was selected for Triple J’s Unearthed progamme in 2013.

Accolades were soon coming her way. She was named Unearthed Artist of the Year while Marie Claire Australia chose her as an Artist to Watch and she received a nomination for Rolling Stone Australia’s Best New Talent award.

The ARIA Music Awards in 2015 saw her up for Best Female Artist and Breakthrough Artist while she was yet to even release her debut album. When her debut Low Blows landed in 2017, it went straight into the ARIA Chart at No 2 and won critical acclaim.

Now Meg has returned with GIve Me My Name Back, the first single from a new EP set for release in April when she also tours around Australia. The song is described as a ‘rallying cry, imploring girls to stand up, speak up and assert themselves’ and is about reclaiming identity, dignity and self-worth.

“It kind of means something different to everyone,” Mac told the Irish Echo.

“I’ve been getting literally hundreds of messages from people telling me what the song means to them and it’s completely different from what it means to me. Everyone can relate to what it feels like to lose who you are or your identity or feel like you’re not your full self anymore and that’s what I wrote it about but being able to see how it is relating to people is really amazing.”

The Irish Australian, who was born Megan Sullivan McInerney, has been writing material for her new EP and the next album to follow. She says she is now conscious of the pressure of producing a good follow up record.

“I think the first time you make something, that pressure isn’t there and then ever since then the pressure’s been there so I kinda just have to ignore all the pressure because if you focus too much on it you’re not going to make meaningful music,” she said.

Her powerful voice often sees her compared to Adele and Amy Winehouse but her earliest and strongest influences come from her Irish background. She was born in Sydney to parents from Donegal (Ballyshannon and Letterkenny) and Cork (Adrigole).

“Mum was always singing Irish songs. I realise now I know them and can sing along just from hearing them as a kid,” she recalls.

Meg Mac was born in Sydney to Irish parents from Donegal and Cork.

Meg Mac was born in Sydney to Irish parents from Donegal and Cork.

“My mum’s dad played accordion, bagpipes and violin, but my mum still has his button accordion and she often gets that out but she usually ends up getting really emotional and has to put it away. And he’s like in the folds of the accordion, he’s handwritten all the names of his favourite songs in all the folds. I never met him because he died before I was born.

“And my dad loves The Pogues and the Fureys, he’s always playing them so it was always around. My sister did Irish dancing.

“I think it is a strong influence. When my mum would sing a lot, she was just singing without any accompaniment. I’ve always loved being able to sing without music, you can just sing the song. When I’m writing as well, I love to be able to sing just the song and have a song be able stand up on its own, have a melody strong enough and pretty enough to seem like all those songs my mum would sing. Often, I’ll just write away from the piano, just singing.”

You will more than one member of the McInerney family on her records as sister Hannah often joins Meg on backing vocals.

“It’s easy, she knows how to sing with me. If I’m at home and I’m writing and I want harmonies, I’ll just call out to my sisters and they’ll come in and then straightaway I can hear what I wanna hear. It’s easy. And you can tell them that it sounds wrong or they’re doing it wrong and they’re not gonna be offended.”

The 28-year-old has fond memories of visiting her family in Ireland.

“Yeah, I’ve been a few times. I still have family there although I haven’t been in a few years.

“I always remember driving all the winding roads and having to stop for sheep to come across the road and then into my auntie’s house and she’s like, ‘go and dig out potatoes’. I’d never done that before: Go outside, pick the potatoes that we were going to eat for dinner. The most important memories are of my cousins, my grandparents. Living so far away, didn’t get to see them that much.

“It’s that weird thing where it feels like home but it’s not actually your home. That’s where both my mum and dad are from and I’m Australian but really I’m not Australian so it feels familiar. Whenever I meet Irish people, it feels like family.”

Meg Mac tours Australia April and May. For information visit www.megmac.com.au

Get set for tsunami of Irish music

Luka Bloom returns to Australia after a four-year absence.

Luka Bloom returns to Australia after a four-year absence.

Fans of Irish music might need to brace for a ticket-buying frenzy as a virtual invasion of artists prepare to travel Down Under over coming months

The East Coast Blues and Roots Festival in Byron Bay over Easter has a distinct Irish accent next year with Hozier and Imelda May both headlining.

Hozier is now a genuine superstar who has built up a massive following around the world since his breakthrough hit Take Me To Church in 2013.

Damien Rice makes a welcome return to Australia.

Damien Rice makes a welcome return to Australia.

Dubliner Imelda May looks very different to when she first toured Australia in 2011. Now, having abandoned her rockabilly look and sound, she has established herself as a brilliant soul and jazz singer.

Also on the bill at Byron Bay are Canadian based Irish singer Irish Mythen, honorary Irishman David Gray and Irish-American Celtic funk band Flogging Molly.

Ahead of that, in February, the uber-talented Damien Rice returns for his first Aussie tour in a decade.

Playing intimate venues like the City Recital Hall in Sydney Rice is slated to “take audiences on a familiar yet unique musical journey – presenting much-loved classics, with the tease of new music on the horizon”.

In March, Gavin James returns after a very successful tour in 2016.

The Port Fairy Folk Festival and Blue Mountains Folk Festival also boast some awesome Irish talent with Luka Bloom returning to Australia for his first tour in five years. Also performing at those festivals in the remarkable Wallis Bird. Born left-handed, she lost the four fingers and thumb of her left hand in a lawnmower accident and had four sewn back on. She got used to playing a right-handed guitar upside-down, which explains her unconventional style.

Hozier plays the East Coast Blues and Roots Festival.

Hozier plays the East Coast Blues and Roots Festival.

Also hitting the festival circuit will be Daoiri Farrell. The former electrician, who decided to become a musician after seeing Christy Moore perform, has been described by some of the biggest names in Irish folk music as one of most important singers to come out of Ireland in recent years.

Sharon Shannon also returns to Australia in February for a shows in Perth, Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne. Also in Australia that month will be crooner Daniel O’Donnell.

Dublin’s Kodaline also return to Oz for the first time since their sold-out 2014 tour. The indie pop quartet have gigs lined up in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth after a St Patrick’s Day show in Melbourne.

Fans of Irish pop can look forward to a reformed Boyzone touring in March and April. Before that, Irish girl group B*Witched will arrive for shows from the end of January.

Celtic Tenors also arrive in May for a national tour.

Unique Irish dance show set to charm audiences

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CRAIC TEAM: The cast of Irish Celtic features some of the world’s best Irish dancers

A UNIQUE Irish dance show is set to get feet tapping in Melbourne and Sydney, with the acclaimed show Irish Celtic set to make its Australian debut.

Set in a traditional Irish pub, the show brings the warm welcome and raucous entertainment for which Ireland is known to a theatre stage to make for a night out like no other. Coming direct from successful tours of Germany and France, Irish Celtic boasts the talents of the finest performers from the best Irish dance companies as the show is choreographed by Jim Murrihy, an original cast member of Lord of the Dance and Feet of Flames.

The performances are married to the musical direction of Anthony Davis whose soundtrack will remind audiences of classic films such as Titanic, Braveheart and The Last of the Mohicans and all is brought together by artistic director Toby Gough, international award-winning director of Lady Salsa which played on London’s West End for two years.

Choreographer Jim Murrihy told The Irish Echo they are excited to be bringing the show to Australia. “It’s an area we haven’t been to yet and hopefully it’s the start of many years of touring around Australia and New Zealand and Asia.

"It’s a great show and I think they’ll love it. “Irish music and dancing is accepted worldwide since 1996 when Michael Flatley and Riverdance put Irish dancing and Irish music on the map. “It goes down really well in all those countries.

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Even with the language barrier, I think the music and dancing pull everything together.

“It’s a theme show, set in a pub. We have a narrator who is the owner of the pub, Paddy Flynn, and it’s a simple enough story. He’s passing down keys of the pub to his son Dermot and as the show goes along, he talks about the history of the pub and all the things that used to happen there, anywhere from births to deaths to parties, we talk about the Titanic when people left Ireland to go over to the States many years ago, so he’s telling a story.

“We want the audience to get involved in the show and that’s one of the main things. We want every person to feel like they are in that pub that night that we are portraying.”

The show will electrify fans of Irish dancing who get to see the elite of the craft and what they can do.

“The majority of our dancers are world champion Irish dancers, great performers from Lord of the Dance and Riverdance so we have a very talented cast.

"The dancers are extremely talented, the cream of the crop around at the moment. You will see that in the performance. We do a great number and it’s just the four boys and the sean-nós dancer and it’s just about who can do the best rhythms and taps, who has the highest kicks, the fastest footwork and the audience really likes that.”

When asked how he thinks the show will go down with Australian audiences, Murrihy is reminded of when he came to Australia before as part of Michael Flatley’s production.

“I think it will go down well. In my experience, they have been very receptive to Irish music and Irish dance. Hopefully it will be the same, hopefully they come away smiling and clapping. If they’re cheering and clapping for the first number, then the rest of the show will be fun.

"They just sit back and relax and enjoy the show and become part of the Irish pub. We want them to feel like it’s an Irish pub.

"What we do in Ireland on a social scene witH musicians in a pub, we’re just taking that from an Irish pub and putting it on a theatre stage. “Who can’t relate to a night out in a pub and the things that go on?”

Irish Celtic plays at The Palms at Crown, Melbourne until August 5 and the Capitol Theatre, Sydney from August 7 to 12. For more information, go to www.irishceltic.com.au

From Sydney's beaches to my Longford farm

John Connell is a returned emigrant, writer and award-winning journalist.

John Connell is a returned emigrant, writer and award-winning journalist.

It’s a cool April morning after what has been one of the worst winters in Ireland in living memory. I am sitting down to my computer after morning jobs on the farm and reflecting back on my years as an emigrant. 

Outside my window the gentle waters of Lough Gowna lap and for a brief moment I am transfixed, transported back to Sydney Harbour and gentle days spent there.

I am a farmer and writer now where once I was a journalist and producer in Sydney. I have left that old life behind me but there is a part of me that will forever be Australian.

I came to Australia as a journalism student aged 20 on an exchange program. That move was to define the rest of my life, for six months soon turned into five years and I found myself an accidental Aussie.

I was not alone in that move. Many Irish – indeed, many friends and neighbours – made that same voyage in the years after the recession and worked in the mines and building sites around and throughout the great southern nation.

Sydney was everything Dublin and Longford were not. It was beautiful, and sunny, multicultural and full of opportunities and employment. 

It was in Sydney that I became a writer and a journalist. Putting pen to paper for the first time as a homesick 20-year-old, I wrote my first short story, The Little Black, about a downer cow. The story was to go on to give me my first book deal at the tender age of 23.   It was here too that I met my mentor, the writer David Malouf, who has had a lasting impact on me and helped me become the writer and man I am.

The Australian mentality of the fair go was something new and different to me. Here people judged you not on who you knew, but what you knew and merit was rewarded in a way that Ireland never has quite managed.

I worked for SBS and the ABC before starting my own production company. These were golden years for me; I made friends in both the Australian and the Irish community, including the wonderful and now departed journalist Seumas Phelan. Employment and opportunities, aside Australia was where I met my wife Vivian and so it is forever a joy-filled place for me, a place of grá.

My time in the southern land came to an end a few years ago after a number of health problems forced me home. Those first months in Ireland were not easy ones but they have laid the foundation for my new life here.

Returning to Ireland has been a huge shift. I have lived here now for the last three years and in that time have begun to understand my nation anew. 

There is a beauty and wonder to this place that I see now in ways that I had missed as a child. I had to leave this land in order to appreciate it.

I began farming once again after years as a journalist and the work, while at first hard, proved rewarding. I swapped an office and computer for fields and a tractor. 

I took a great joy in working with my body again and a whole hidden Ireland began to open up to me once more, a world of neighbours and ceilís, of marts and bachelors, local football matches and village fairs.

There were times I missed a nice flat white and a walk by Rushcutters Bay but there is something about bringing a new calf into this world in the middle of a cold Irish winter’s night that no city can ever replicate. 

One has to be active in rural Ireland to feel a part of the community but I have found the rural people of my youth so welcoming and open, for they too have been emigrants and they too know what it is to return.

Australia is where I spent my formative years but Ireland was always calling me home – and it did, eventually.

I’ll forever be an Aussie Irish man, and I’m the better for it.

John Connell, who now lives and works in rural Longford, is a Walkley-winning journalist, farmer and writer. His memoir, The Cow Book, is published this month in Australia by Allen & Unwin.

Brisbane-based Dubliner releases debut album

Mick McHugh has just released his debit album,  A Million Stars.

Mick McHugh has just released his debit album, A Million Stars.

Having shared the stage with artists as illustrious as Amy Shark and Damien Dempsey, Australian-based Dublin singer-songwriter is making a statement of his own with his debut album, A Million Stars.

After a successful crowdfunding campaign, Mick wrote the album with help from none other than Shane Howard of 70's/80's folk/rock group Goanna. Singles Not in Kansas Anymore and Good Good Day have been well received, even receiving industry award nominations.

Mick started recording in early 2016 and explains it may have been a long road but he wanted to make sure he was on the right track.

"I wanted to make sure I did it right," Mick told The Irish Echo.

"It gave me a great opportunity to step it up, to take myself to that next level as an independent artist and compete with the big guns. That was why I took my time to do it. I took the long road to make sure I did every step right."

One of these steps was securing the services of Howard, renowned songwriter of iconic tracks like Solid Rock.

"He is first and foremost a songwriter and he is all about the song, that is what he cares about. He cares about the song. That's why he was brilliant to work with. He was really all about the song.

"He said to me, 'Mick, if you want me to work with you, you have to give me something to chew on'. It had to be something deep. He was writing songs that mean something, songs that have a bit of weight to them and have social commentary.

"I was telling a story of how I turned up to a gig one time and I realise my stuff wasn't going to work here, ya know, because you have your stuff and you know where it works. I turned up and was like, 'Oh man, not in Kansas anymore'.

"I was telling him this story and he clicks his finger, points at me and says, 'that's the song we're going to write'. We went into his man shed with the two guitars and we came out a few hours later with this song and it's done very well for us, finished as a finalist in the Great American Song Contest and it was a semi-finalist in the International Songwriting Contest. It was quite an easy process to work together."

Mick McHugh is a Dubliner but now calls Byron Bay home.

Mick McHugh is a Dubliner but now calls Byron Bay home.

Is it satisfying to get accolades such as these award nominations?

"It is absolutely because it's a long journey and as an independent artist in this point of my career, it's not financial gain so when it gets shortlisted, you know the song is doing its job, that it strikes a chord. It's definitely very satisfying to get the feedback. It's a pat on the back saying, 'Good on ya, man. Keep going'. That's what i means, you're getting it right and it means something to people."

Mick has been honoured to support big Irish acts like The Coronas, Gavin James, Brian Kennedy, Nathan Carter, Bell X1 and Paddy Casey when they have come to Australia.

"When you get to do those gigs, you get to see someone at the peak of their performance so being around those situations is brilliant because you get to see these bands, not just the show but the entire process and that is really beneficial to me going out there then as an independent artist on my own doing the same thing. Then of course you get the exposure to their audience, and you've nothing to lose, you've everything to win. You show people what you do and you're gonna pick up fans, you always do."

The time of Mick's album release coincided with the time he became an Australian citizen after 12 years here. This is a source of pride as it is a country that has been good to him: "I'm an Aussie, mate. Absolutely, very grateful to Australia for the journey it's given me and continues to give me. I've become a full time singer-songwriter.

"I saw the opportunity: 'Because you're emigrating, you have a clean slate. Here's your chance to just pick up the guitar and go for that'.

"Very grateful to Australia that it responded and gave me a chance to grow. I work hard at it, that's the other thing. I was coming out of Dublin going, 'I'm working in restaurants, I'm working in engineering, I'm working in teaching. I'm giving a lot of people a lot of my time. I wonder what would happen if I gave that time to myself?' That was my other inspiration to give this a go, very grateful to Australia the way it's given it back to me. With Australia, if you put the work in, it will come back to you."

Having already launched A Million Stars in his home town of Byron Bay and in the Gold Coast, Mick launches the album in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney this month.

He is also planning on visiting Tasmania, Perth and Adelaide.

"I used to go down to these places regularly but I have stepped off the last three years to focus on making the music so delighted to be stepping out again. Then we have some festivals on the cards. It's just great to be back on the road."

Mick McHugh's A Million Stars is Out Now. Mick McHugh launches the album at The Milk Factory, Brisbane on May 12, Long Play in Melbourne on 18 and 19 May and Moshpit, Sydney on May 26. For more information, visit his website

Australian premiere for orphan girls play

The cast of Highlands Theatre Group's production of  Belfast Girls .

The cast of Highlands Theatre Group's production of Belfast Girls.

Belfast Girls, a play which dramatises the journey of Irish orphan girls to Australia in the mid-19th century, is to have its Australian debut this month.

The play, written by Irish playwright Jaki McCarrick and directed by Stephen Clancy, will be performed by the Highlands Theatre Group (HTG) at the Mittagong Playhouse in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales.

Set in 1850 in the immediate aftermath of the Great Hunger (an gorta mór), the play follows the fortunes of five young women who set sail for a new life in Australia aboard the Inchinnan. Each carried with them their own dark and shocking secrets of the past.

As their journey nears its end, they battle with memories of past deeds and confront the reality of what their futures in this new land, may actually hold for them.

Between 1848 and 1851, more than four thousand young women - many of them orphaned by the famine - left Ireland under the Earl Grey Scheme to boost the female population of the colony.

The HTG is one of only nine amateur theatre groups throughout the world to be given permission to stage the show. 

Writer Jaki McCarrick became interested in the orphan girls story when she found a namesake,  Nora McCarrick, from Easkey, Co Sligo, who had travelled to Australia under the scheme.

"This was a chapter of Irish history I knew nothing about," she said.

"I read what books I could find on the subject, including Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, Thomas Kennelly’s History of Australia, Trevor McClaughlin’s Barefoot and Pregnant? Irish Famine Orphans in Australia, Irish Women and Irish Migration, edited by Patrick O’Sullivan.

"In my reading of these books and articles, I discovered that a particular group of ‘orphans’ were considered to have been especially feisty and colourful, known for their use of obscene language and riotous behaviour. These were known as ‘the Belfast girls’."

The HTG will stage six performance of the play. For more information, and bookings, visit htg.org.au or call Destination Southern Highlands directly on (02) 4871 2888.