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Irish comedians Ardal O’Hanlon, Patrick Kielty and Tommy Tiernan to have audience with Pope Francis

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Did ya hear the one about the three Irish comedians walking into the Vatican? It’s not a joke, with Ardal O’Hanlon, Patrick Kielty and Tommy Tiernan all set to meet Pope Francis on his home turf this Friday, June 14th.

To be clear, it’s not just the three of them meeting the Pope. A gaggle of other comic folk – including Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien, Chris Rock, Whoopi Goldberg – will also be among the audience of more than 100 international comedians and comic artists meeting Pope Francis, the Holy See press office has announced. We imagine the craic in the Vatican green room (if such a thing exists) – and, indeed, the clash of egos – will be mighty.

The mind may boggle at the thought of the Pope’s interaction with Irish comedians who in more sheltered and narrow-minded days might have been considered to be disrespectful of Catholicism. But in fairness, all three of the comics are known for their intelligence, thoughtfulness and nuance.

Ardal O’Hanlon is long associated with his role as dim eejit Father Dougal McGuire on Father Ted, the still superlative sitcom written by Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews; Father Dougal has no belief in or understanding of Catholicism, and doesn’t even believe in God.

O’Hanlon fronted a documentary this year about the crisis in the priesthood, where he acknowledged “I have renounced my god and my religion, yet I still ask a Catholic priest to come along and baptise my child”, asking “Am I a hypocrite?” In interviews, he has said that at one stage the idea of joining the priesthood “was not some mad dream” but “was a real thing” for him.

Patrick Kielty from Co Down, took over as host of The Late Late Show last September. When he was a teenager in 1988, his father Jack Kielty was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries. His standup often dealt with the intersection of religion and politics in the North; in 2018 he made a documentary about his father’s murder, and in 2021 analysed the North in One Hundred Years of Union. He has called for abolishing segregated education in the North, to end sectarianism and tribalism there.

Tiernan is celebrated for his acclaimed TV interview show on RTÉ and for his role in Derry Girls. In 1997, early in his comedy career, Tiernan was at the centre of a storm about a routine he did on the Late Late, involving the crucifixion. While some complaints saw it as blasphemous, at the time Tiernan said “I don’t have an anti-Catholic agenda at all and I have no idea why people were so upset.”

Religion and God have figured in his stage material over the years. These days Tiernan is open about his strong faith and speaks about going to Mass regularly. In fact he has said he considered becoming a priest, but decided he wanted a large family instead. “I’d probably love to go to Mass every day if I could, actually. It’s funny where you end up. I would consider myself pro-choice and Catholic – so that’s a constant negotiation, between the independence of your mind, the realities of your heart and a man-made organisation [that is] the church. But the experience of being at Mass … I don’t know what it is. I don’t know all the prayers, but I love it. It’s a community thing, I think.”

Among the trio, strong opinions and sometimes serious thought on religion; an actual conversation – rather than a speech and a handshake – with the worldwide head of the Catholic church could be an interesting one.

The audience with the Pope was jointly organised by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Culture and Education and Dicastery for Communication, and more than 100 entertainers will gather at the Apostolic Palace at 8.30am on Friday, the press release said, adding it is intended to “establish a link” between the Catholic Church and comic artists.

The comics are from around the world – with two-thirds of them from Italy. Whether comic talent is stronger in Italy or it’s a geographic convenience is unclear.

Pope Francis has in the past acknowledged the power of comedy to contribute to a more empathetic and sympathetic world. During an encounter with artists in the Sistine Chapel last June he observed that Scripture itself is rich in moments of irony, and said he believed humourists, including actors, artists, cartoonists, and writers, have “the ability to dream up new versions of the world,” and often do so “with irony, which is a wonderful virtue”.

The upcoming meeting, the Vatican’s release noted, aims to “celebrate the beauty of human diversity” and “promote a message of peace, love and solidarity”. It “promises to be a moment of meaningful intercultural dialogue and sharing of joy and hope”.

The press release notes Pope Francis “recognises the significant impact that the art of comedy has on the world of contemporary culture”, referencing the “the humorous talent and the unifying value of laughter, unique reflections on the human condition and the historical situation are offered today.”

Vatican News reports that the statement from the Holy See recalled Pope Francis during an interview with Italian TV channel TV2000 saying that he prays daily in the words of St Thomas More, asking the Lord to grant him a sense of humour.

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