Tuesday 16 January 2018

PJ Gallagher on the lighter side of adoption: 'I was shocked when I found out everybody else wasn't adopted'


Joanne McNally and PJ Gallagher
Joanne McNally and PJ Gallagher

When Joanne McNally first heard she'd be working with PJ Gallagher, she cried. It wasn't that she was unhappy about the prospect of Gallagher joining the cast of director Una McKevitt's comedy play, Singlehood. She was, in fact, disgusted.

"I threw a full-on tantrum," recalls Joanne, "because I didn't like him. I thought he was slapsticky and not funny, and I thought he was gonna lower the tone of the show. Isn't it terrible, like, who the hell am I?"

As it turns out, Joanne had never even watched an episode of Naked Camera. She asked a lot of questions on their first day of rehearsals. Eventually, PJ passed the interrogation. The deal-breaker was obvious.

"I suppose the big moment was when he started talking about being adopted," says Joanne. "He was saying that there was a loneliness attached to being adopted, which I'd never heard anyone say before, but I've always thought."


Probably because Joanne is also adopted. She decided there and then that they should be "best mates". When Singlehood finished its run, McKevitt suggested the trio reunite for a show about PJ and Joanne's shared experiences. Enter 'Separated at Birth'.

It's a topic that PJ (40) has talked about before, what with the renowned comedian, motorcycle racer and Classic Hits 4fm DJ having sought out his biological parents at age 27.

For Joanne, however, this is all still new. She used to work in PR. She's still getting used to the idea of being a comedian. It's only in recent months that she has started to track down her family.

"It's mental," says Joanne. "You think when you track your biological parents that it's kind of the end of something. Actually, it's just the beginning of a minefield of emotions, like, who belongs where? How much contact are we gonna have? What are you to me? How do I feel about you? How do you feel about me?"

Joanne (31) was born in 1980s Roscommon. Her parents were young - her dad did a runner as soon as he found out about the pregnancy. Her birth mother had very little choice.

"They were going out, but they weren't married," explains Joanne, "and a baby wasn't in his plans. Then he legged it to Australia and now, he won't respond to my emails. I've been trying to contact him on Facebook and he's not having any of it.

"My biological mother told her now husband when she met him. She was like, 'I just had a child and handed it up for adoption', because she was like, 'If [Joanne] ever came looking for me, I wanted to make sure that I could meet you'.

"Whereas I'd say yer man told no-one, so he's over in Australia with a whole new family. I found them all on Facebook - they all look like me, all these half siblings who don't know I exist, so I can see why he's not responding."

Growing up, both PJ and Joanne always knew they had another set of parents somewhere else in Ireland.

"Well, I didn't really find out I was adopted," smiles PJ. "I found out everybody else wasn't! Honestly. When you're an eight-year-old and you realise that you're a little bit different to everyone, all you really think about is where the next scoop of ice cream is gonna come from, you know, it was just made so normal in the house.

"My ma always told me, like, 'you have to go and find your mother'. She was really supportive. It's weird because on Mother's Day, she'll call me and tell me to call my mother, so she's got a very open take on the whole thing."

PJ has had 13 years to settle into another family (his biological parents later married and had more children). Joanne started looking into her background at the age of 21.

"I went in because I thought I was ready to do it and then realised I just wasn't," she says. "I was in college and I was failing everything and I was all over the shop, so I was like, 'Oh, if I find my biological parents I can copy what they are doing'. I was looking for a career guidance counsellor, basically."

Joanne asked questions. She found out her mother's name and story. Suddenly, it became too real - hence, the reason she waited another 10 years to arrange a meeting (Joanne met her mother in January).

There is no resentment. Both PJ and Joanne understand why they had to be given up. PJ, too, was born in rural Ireland at a time when a young, unmarried woman giving birth to a child would result in scandal.

"When you think of all the things that have happened to so many other people, both of us are the lucky ones that we can stand up on stage and talk about [adoption] and not have any great tragedy to it," says PJ.

The Dubliner's comedy career began to take off around the same time that he started to get to know his parents.

"It must have been odd for them," he recalls, "the fact that we met and within a couple of years, I was all over the place. They were probably getting used to this new person in their lives and then every Monday night, I was on the TV. I didn't make it easy for them, did I?

"It's easier for us," he continues, "because we have our whole lives to make the decision of if or when something's gonna happen, so by the time you make the move, you're ready for anything, whereas I suppose [the parents] don't. One day, they just get a letter that turns their whole lives upside down."

But again, things have turned out well. Lest we forget, this is the "lighter side of adoption" we're dealing with. What's more, PJ and Joanne have a scary amount in common.

Both of their adoptive fathers died the same year; both their mothers were nurses; both of them are originally from Roscommon, and neither PJ nor Joanne have any cartilage in their noses.

"We wanted the show to end with us realising that we're related," finishes Joanne, "which I'm not prepared to give up on just yet! It's Ireland, you could definitely figure out that we're related…"

Separated at Birth takes place at Vicar Street on May 8

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