The Scholar Gypsies – When Tommy Tiernan met Joe Brolly….

Conversations with yourself are not usually encouraged as part of a healthy and balanced approach to mental wellness. I must admit though I’ve always enjoyed talking to myself. Comforting might be a better word. Eckart Tolle would tut-tut at this notion and point to a chronic manifestation of an ego establishing a narrative of the ‘I’; where my ‘I’ is always right. And of course your ‘I’ is always wrong.



As a compromise I try to restrict this smattering of internal chattering to my aging Volkswagen Passat, although I can’t guarantee it hasn’t occurred queuing for cigerettes at my local Corrib Oil as well.  In fairness to me, I like to stick to life’s mega big questions in these internal dialogues.

You know……questions like….

‘ Has any Footballer knocked more mileage out of one scraggly point in an All Ireland Final than Joe Brolly and Why ? ‘

I know what your thinking. Excellent question. What else would a man be pondering on the drive home from work while navigating the bogs and lower slopes of the Party mountains?

Joe Brolly’s media platform, despite his obvious genius, stems from an athletic pursuit long past. Whatever the reason for it, I must confess, the country are fortunate that he got it. So I was pleasantly surprised to see him as a guest on a recent episode of the Tommy Tiernan show.

Hmmmmm…..This should be interesting I thought to myself. The fact that it was good rather than great is what got the thought juices flowing on the back roads of the R330.  Independent observers from the old Stokes, Kennedy and Crowley might say I was in fact talking to myself on the subject. Out loud. In response one of me might say stick to covering the shagging Lotto lads.

When you strip away everything, Tommy Tiernan and Joe Brolly are essentially modern day Irish philosophers. Unfortunately philosophers are no closer to making minimum wage in 2020 than they were in 400 B.C. – so as a result one is a comedian and the other is a barrister. Both are excellent writers. Both are extremely funny. A recipe for a great Interview with plenty to talk about.

The problem was, however, one that might be equated to a meeting of Plato with his old student Aristotle 15 years after the latter graduated. Philosophers both of course – but perhaps one wary of the particular strands of tradition that the other had created and pursued. Obviously the format of having a 15 or 20 minute conversation between two thinkers of this nature is not ideal. Like good jazz musicians they both need time to explore a riff that might not go anywhere in particular.

Tommy seems to appreciate more that there is no light without darkness and that the brighter the light he produces as a comic the darker the pitch of black he must examine to produce it. Joe Brolly doesn’t always speak like a man that has fully felt that kind of darkness. That is not to say he hasn’t – he just tends to skirt over it. I say this fully recognizing the uniqueness of a man that has a career defending the defenseless as a barrister or donating a kidney to a friend and latterly inviting a homelessness man into his home to help him get back successfully on his feet. How many of us would do that?

Not many.

The curiosity of Brolly is he talks on a variety of subjects, like a man that kicked 1-8 in an All-Ireland and Tommy, in this conversation, was too kind to point out that Brolly’s more than a point out. I suppose what we’re talking about is a measure of confidence really. Tiernan eases into his and Brolly’s is there from the get go. It’s quite shocking initially I would imagine. It’s also refreshing as it’s so unusual in men of my age generally. I had the feeling by the end of the Interview they were both sufficiently warmed up, to sit down and have a right chat and maybe even a right challenge of ideas. Now that would be a conversation fascinating to observe.

Watching Brolly, reminds me of a conversation I had years ago, I was out feasting on pints with a guy I used to work with and I remembering commenting on how confident he was about himself, not as a rebuke but rather as a kind of wonderment. I’ve never forgotten how he answered my question.

” There are no shortage of people in my world that doubt everything I do or say.  They will doubt me for free. So why would I waste any energy on it- they don’t need any additional assistance from me “

As I was watching Brolly and Tiernan dance their peculiar dance I had a vague memory of a poem we did in college many moons ago –  The Scholar Gypsy – I must confess I had to look it up, to figure out why, I needed to look it up. It’s much longer than I remember. And of course poetry is never easy to understand at the best of times never mind reading 19th Century English verse. I found the relevant passage soon enough though.

And near me on the grass lies Glanvil’s book—
Come, let me read the oft-read tale again!
The story of the Oxford scholar poor,
Of pregnant parts and quick inventive brain,
Who, tired of knocking at preferment’s door,
One summer-morn forsook
His friends, and went to learn the gipsy-lore,
And roam’d the world with that wild brotherhood,
And came, as most men deem’d, to little good,
But came to Oxford and his friends no more.
But once, years after, in the country-lanes,
Two scholars, whom at college erst he knew,
Met him, and of his way of life enquired;
Whereat he answer’d, that the gipsy-crew,
His mates, had arts to rule as they desired
The workings of men’s brains,
And they can bind them to what thoughts they will.
“And I,” he said, “the secret of their art,
When fully learn’d, will to the world impart;
But it needs heaven-sent moments for this skill.”


In essence, it’s the story of the scholar taking the path less travelled, far away from the banality and restrictions of modern life and convention. By living and learning the ways of the gypsy crews he transcends life and mortality. Some might call it freedom. Anyway I feel that both Tiernan and Brolly are cut from this same kind of cloth. A philosopher’s path and musings. Of course, this path never really has an end or a stable, final conclusion. The explorations and examinations are ongoing; the reward for them is the journey and the transcendence is how that journey resonates in each of us thru the days, months and years. Era to era.

As much as we like to think that the problems of the now are new and unique, they’re an age old tradition, indeed a rite of passage for every generation. The problems of modernity are faced by everyone in every age. Because anyone that has ever sucked oxygen has only ever existed in their present moment and that moment has always worried about the moments just ahead.

The role of the philosopher in all of this, is one that no generation can afford to cast aside too hastily, regardless of whether today’s philosopher wears the robes of an unfairly ex-communicated, RTE and GAA pundit or is the country’s favorite comedian. The philosopher does every age a great service. Tommy Tiernan and Joe Brolly just happen to be two of my generation that I identify with. Hopefully you have yours.  And just what is it that they do you might ask?

Simple really. They think. They explore ideas and paths without much attention to boundary or consequence. Society’s temptation is the urge to reel them in.

Fortunately, Tommy Tiernan and Joe Brolly don’t just think – They think out loud. They share their ideas out loud. It is probably not a co-incidence that both have followed careers and side pursuits that rely heavily on this element of performing out loud. The importance of them isn’t whether everything they say is factual, statistical or even remotely believable. Their importance is far more valuable in any society.

They have the ability to make us think too.

In a world that seems increasingly designed to eliminate or restrict free thinking that’s not a genius that should be exposed too harshly to the rigors of a Google or indeed an RTE fact checker.

The opposite. It should be protected from them.








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