People may wonder why I and other female comedians stayed quiet for so long about our experiences - we didn’t.
I spoke out online about a few promoters in Ireland, nearly three years ago. We told anyone who would listen every time these experiences arose. We spoke to those we thought were friends in the industry, but in hindsight, these people didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardise their career. In some cases, they were friends with the abusers.
Current events have shown that the internet can be a powerful new space to speak out about such issues. At least online you can communicate with those who had previously been out of reach. When you start scrolling through responses and chats you start to understand the scale of people with similar experiences.
It’s not usually well-established performers that are targets of abuse or harassment. When a female act is with an agency, a partner or has high-profile friends, they have someone to talk to who has the influence and power to do something to help, to protect them.
Harassment and sexual assaults are more common experiences for women starting out in comedy, as they are more likely to have no representation, no knowledge of all the promoters to avoid and no protection. This is especially the case for women who have no connections to people higher up in the business. They do not understand the structures in places and are more vulnerable.
My worry and the whole reason I’m speaking up about these promoters in Ireland, is there are a lot of young, hopeful women, people of colour and LGBTQ+ people starting comedy. I personally want to help make it a safer and a more equal environment for new acts. I’d like these people to be given the exact same chance and room to grow as all the straight, white males in this industry. The same space to flourish without fear or oppression.
Here are just a few of my experiences in comedy, in Ireland that will give you some insight into what women have had to put up with in the past.
This promoter, who I spoke about three years ago, thought that booking a female act, meant he was entitled to try have sex with her. When he heard I was getting a lift off a comic straight home after the gig, he said “What? I was going to have sex with you tonight”. Refusal for me meant never getting a gig on that stage or any other stages he had connections with ever again.
This same man was later accused of raping a female comedian. Even though I knew him more than I knew the woman, I believed her straight away - because I knew him.
Everyone knew what he was like. Unfortunately, Ireland has more open secrets than open sandwiches!!
Nobody would doubt what he did for a second. But nobody spoke up as long as he was paying them. Maybe that’s why he had to end up paying acts in triple figures last year, putting some names down for shows without even asking the acts and then go hunting in the UK for acts that hopefully hadn’t heard of him. He also covered his tracks by getting a young male and female student to try and book acts to make it seem like he wasn’t in charge anymore.
Years ago, an act who was close to this promoter at the time, suggested I stay somewhere other than the accommodation he provided for gigs. The reason he gave for his concern was “I don’t want to see you get raped”. Those were his words.
Let that sink in. A man who knew the promoter very well, was worried that he would rape me. He may have seen it happen before, may have heard him talk about taking advantage of girls, or knew what his intentions were for most vulnerable girls in his company.
Thankfully, he never physically harmed me, but unfortunately other girls were not so lucky. Power and an unchecked ego are a dangerous combination for this one man in power.
He told so many female comedians trying to get into comedy, that if they wanted a gig from him, they knew what they had to do and then suggested his preferred sexual act. The fact is this comment is never said to the male comedians. They do not receive this annoyance, this hurdle, this threat while simply asking to do their job.
I was not aware of the lies he was telling new aspiring, female comedians until years later. He told inexperienced acts, what they needed to do, to get gigs and opportunities from him.
A few female comedians revealed to me, that he said “I’ll say the same thing to you as I said to Niamh, if you want a gig from me, you can give me *sexual act”.
This made me furious for many reasons, not least because he never even said that to me. Yet he stole the credibility of my hard work to disillusion new women starting out. He used my name to make me complicit with his intentions, by giving false information without my knowledge. He implied that this was how women in comedy who aren’t famous get gigs.
Straight away he discredited my name and all the things I have accomplished from relentless work. This pissed me off as I have always booked all my own gigs too. He had no impact in anything I ever achieved in comedy. Yet he tried to convince girls that’s how I made it so far and that is what they will have to do if they want gigs – horrendous.
In incidents like this, your only options are to not gig in places with these types of promoters, (which in a small country like Ireland, can leave you with just a handful of clubs) quit comedy altogether (which many did) or move to a country (which I did) where there are enough clubs left to make a living from, when you cut out the ones to avoid.
Dealing with what can only be described as an emotionally manipulative promoter, playing mind games with the acts before they go on stage, would needlessly antagonise any performer.
Apart from just pretending to choke me by putting his hands around my throat, shaking me and saying, “you better be funny” 5 minutes before I went on stage (He has done this to other women) this promoter was following me and pressing himself on top of me, as I paced the floor going through my set. He then threatened to take the gig off me two minutes before I was about to go on stage and had travelled 4 hours to get there. He said, “If you’re going to be nervous, I’m not letting you do the gig”. Clearly on a complete power trip.
He also hid my notebook, (and has done this to many other acts) only to keep asking for my address a few days later to return it - refusing to give it to another act to bring back to me.
I and two other male comics were sat at the bar waiting to get paid. The promoter walks over, puts money in first comics hand, shakes his hand & says great job tonight. Gives the second comic his payment too & shakes his hand saying great stuff tonight.
He puts a penny on the table in front of me before he disappears, saying "and there's yours". Nobody laughed.
He then walks away pulling pints behind the bar. The other comics were shocked, embarrassed for me and didn't know what to do, so they said nothing.
One of the other acts was giving me a lift home. It was already near midnight and we had four more hours driving to go. Understandably he wasn’t keen on waiting around for the promoter to decide when to stop “the joke” of paying everyone, except me. To move things along, I kept calling him to get my payment and he kept ignoring me. This was degrading. I sat back down with the other acts.
Ten minutes later he stood in front of customers at the bar (who were the audience at the show) and shouted, "Right Niamh follow me next door and I’ll pay you".
This was mortifying - suggesting I get paid in something other than money in front of the audience I just performed for. It was childish and infuriating that I had to beg to get paid, while the male acts had no hassle whatsoever.
After being unnecessarily left on-hold for his amusement and possible power trip, I asked "Will you just give me my money please? we have to go home". He shouted louder “If you WANT your payment - come next door with me”. Some of the audience turned around and looked concerned. I needed to get paid, the driver wanted to leave but this promoter in the meantime wasn’t having it and wanted to make a scene.
In private he said how impressed he was with my gig, that the crowd loved me and then he gave me extra money on top of my payment. He made me feel belittled in public, special in private and then a kind of forced gratitude. I didn’t want any of it, I just wanted to be treated the same as the male acts.
The praise could have been done openly along with the male comedians. The payment could have been done at the same time, in the same way as the male comedians.
I could write a thesis about the craziness of just one experience I had with this person, but it’s just too draining and quite upsetting. Only people who knew him would believe it.
I used to joke that the payment for these gigs was all going directly to therapy. This type of unnerving and sociopathic behaviour can be not only draining but distracting. It is not an environment conducive to creativity. You are trying to do your job on stage - a job where your mood and mindset are crucial.
I can only speak directly to my own experience of discrimination and harassment in this business. There are many others out there who have faced barriers to this business because of their race, sexuality, gender identity and other reasons. This kind of discrimination, unsafe environment and abuse is a barrier to women, POC and LGBTQIA+ people who want to pursue a career in this business.
I honestly feel now is a powerful time in the world to speak up for yourself and others. We all deserve to be treated with respect and equality in non-predatory work environments. Surely that's not too much to ask for in any job.
Credit must be given to all those who have spoken up for themselves and others. I would like to give special recognition to all the kind, encouraging and considerate comedians and promoters that do exist in Ireland and continue to run great, inclusive and safe gigs.
There is a collection of amazingly talented and powerful individuals, who recently have set up a group that will implement actions to try and make comedy a safer and more inclusive environment.
If there’s one thing we have all learned in 2020, it’s that we must all strive together in the hope for a more positive and equal future for everyone.