From becoming a number one chart sensation at the age of 45 to the shocking revelation that he had Parkinson’s Disease in 2011, Richie Kavanagh has always lived a life less ordinary. Shea Tomkins met up with The Pothole Man at his County Carlow home
Ever since he was a little chap, there was only one person in the world that Richie Kavanagh dreamed of meeting.
Growing up in the late fifties in the picturesque townland of Fenagh, nestled at the foot of Mount Leinster, young Richie was thrilled when the local shopkeeper Tommy Hogan decided to bring Hollywood to Garryhill by converting his old disused cowhouse into a cinema.
Every Sunday, he would ramble down with his tanner (the old six pence) to see Mother Riley, Laurel and Hardy and Norman Wisdom on the big screen. The wacky antics of Norman Wisdom, in particular, would inspire young Richie to go and write his own comedy sketches in later life.
Since he was a boy, he always said that if there was anyone’s hand he would like to shake, it would be Norman Wisdom’s. Fast forward fifty years and his son James and his girlfriend, Aoife, set about making that dream a reality by writing to Norman and telling him that, “There’s a fella here that would love to meet you.”
Eight years ago, they got a response. Norman wrote back saying that he would meet them, and enquired, “What age is the child?”
“He thought I was a child,” says Richie with a laugh as we chat in the living room of his cosy family home in Fenagh, which is the last house on the road in the parish of Myshall, a stone’s throw from Bagenalstown, in County Carlow.
“He said I’ll meet you at 10 o’clock for tea and biscuits at my house in the Isle of Man. So we arrived at five to ten, and walked up to the door at precisely 10 o’clock. Norman answered the door and introduced himself in a big voice as ‘Mister Grimsdale’, then he started falling around the place and going cracked.
“We were with him for about an hour. He was a fierce nice man. He told us his life story. He said that only for the army he would never have been an entertainer. He was on the streets in London and a man who sold hot dogs told him that he should join the army. Norman replied that he was too small, so the man said, ‘Sure even if you only joined the army band’.
“So he joined the band and learned to play all kinds of instruments. Then there was a boxing competition and he was too small to be a boxer – there wasn’t a weight to suit him. So he got into the ring in front of the lads and started boxing himself, miming, and pretending he had knocked himself out.
“One evening an old major came in who owned a few theatres in London. ‘You keep doing that,’ he said, ‘you’re very funny. Here’s my card and when you leave the army come and see me.’ That was how he got into the theatre. He was the nicest fella I ever met, and the only person in the whole world that I ever thought I would really like to meet.”
Richie Kavanagh only ever wanted to be a showman. From those early days of going to the cinema and watching his comic heroes to attending the travelling ‘fit-up’ shows when they visited his area, he was inspired by the arts, as well as a motivational teacher at Garryhill primary school.
“We had a school teacher from Wexford called Mrs Ryan, and she was always encouraging us to write plays and sketches and to put on concerts. She also ran a great choir in the school and taught me all about singing in different scales and registers. When it came to going into the recording studio in later life I found I was able to change keys without any problem due to the musical grounding I got at Garryhill.
“When I was seventeen I went to Maynooth where I trained to be a chef. I used to give Cardinal Ó Fiaich his breakfast every morning, and Bishop Casey. I worked at this and that after that, but I got a name for writing plays and sketches and I wrote them for the ICA, the Macra, Scór and Tops of the Town. I also ended up acting in the sketches, doing the part of a traveller.
“When I used to be going to school the travellers used to be up the road in a tent and that’s where I got the Johnny voice from. That used to go down very well at the likes of the John Players Tops shows, where I’d tell a few jokes.
“At the start of the 1980s, I wrote a song about Christy Walsh who was a DJ on CKR (Carlow/Kildare) Radio, and it went down very well. That was the start of me being noticed for my comedy songs on a larger scale.”
Around this time Richie was on the road a lot, visiting 1,700 houses a month collecting for a charity in Dun Laoghaire that helped people with spinal injuries. On one particular day as he was driving along a stretch of rough road, he noticed all the potholes and started to make up a song about them. When he got home to his wife Nancy, he called her and said he had written this song called The Pothole Song. Nancy liked what she heard and told him he should get it recorded.