Eoin Butler: writer, journalist and Mayoman of the Year

Tripping Along The Ledge


Published: Irish Times, March 6 2010

I’m a bit surprised to be referred to as “you people”… Isn’t that kind of condescending?

mat fraser - Copy
Star of Channel 4’s Cast-Offs, his one man show From Freak to Clique comes to Dublin this month.

When you walk out in front of an audience for the first time, how do you break the ice?
Well, obviously, I was born with phocomelia. That’s glaringly obvious and people want to know about it. So I deal with that straight away. You can’t lampoon others if you’re not willing to lampoon yourself. Could you tell us a bit about the Thalidomide scandal for those who don’t remember it.
In the late 1950s, a pill was put on the market to combat pains and aches. It was a sleeping tablet and also, famously, a cure for morning sickness. All governments, the Irish government included, sanctioned without testing it. The scandal then was that it remained on the shelves even after it became apparent that it was causing damage to unborn foetuses. Thousands of children across Europe and Canada, including myself, suffer the consequence of that negligence.

Nonetheless, you’ve become a taekwondo master and worked as rock drummer.
When someone has less ability, people tend to assume they have no ability. But human beings are very resourceful. I played drums in punk, rock and reggae bands for sixteen years. People wonder how I did it. Really, all I had to do was pull the drums in closer to me. Everything else is pretty much the same.

Your one man show is called From Freak to Clique.
Yes, it’s a look at the history of disability and all of the stupid ways we’ve been treated and portrayed down through the years. So I start with the Roman games – where we were brought on as the opening act for the Christians and slaughtered. In medieval times we were shunned, because to associate with us was to bring bad luck upon yourself. But, nonetheless, certain places set aside for us.

In Ireland there was the blind fiddler and the deaf shoemaker. Even child born after its father’s death – who wasn’t disabled, but was certainly economically disadvantaged – was said to ‘heal’ certain diseases…
Exactly, it was a crueller and more ignorant time in a lot of ways, but allowances were made. It wasn’t until Victorian era that our standing in society really sank and we began to be institutionalised. Obviously, today people have a more sophisticated understanding of disability. But the show brings us right up to present day Hollywood – where, statistically, the surest way to win an Oscar is to be a non-disabled actor in a disabled role.

One of your more memorable lines in Cast-Offs – which I may or may not be able to repeat in print – is that “spacking up is the new blacking up…”
(laughs) That was the writer’s phrase. But, yeah, disabled actors have long viewed the portrayal of disabled characters by non-disabled actors – in films like My Left Foot, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Rain Man – as the contemporary equivalent of “blacking up”.

What kind of reaction has the show been getting?
Well, its an edgy show and I certainly got to places other comedians wouldn’t go. But I’ve never lost an audience yet. Certainly not when I’ve been to Ireland. It’s funny, I remember in the 1990s, when I was full of my disability anger, I played Belfast on the same bill as the Hole in the Wall gang. They were doing very edgy material about Uncle Billy and the IRA man. To my amazement, the audience were in stitches laughing. To me, that’s the great thing about you people, your ability to appreciate the humour in things.

I’m a little surprised to be referred to as “you people”. Isn’t that the sort of remark that, had it been made the other way around, might have be deemed offense or condescending?
No, no… I didn’t mean it like that. What I meant by “you people” was… Well, I tour all over the world and different audiences have different national characteristics. You just sense it. The Irish love to laugh. But I didn’t mean to be offensive. My mother’s family are all Irish…

Some of your best friends are too, I’m sure…
(laughs) Yes…

Nomenclature though is a very controversial issue. Some disability activists would even regard the word ‘disability’ itself as pejorative…
Well, I prefer not to use the word handicapped myself because I know where it comes from: cap-in-hand, asking for charity. And I’m not asking for anyone’s charity. I’m an artist, I produce work, I’m a powerful person. Sure, there are words in the show that I would not like to have shouted at me on the street. But in the same way that the gay community have reclaimed the word ‘queer’ as an expression of sexual liberation, I’m happy to apply words like freak and spastic and mutant to myself.

Finally, what’s the message to anyone thinking of coming to see the show?
Don’t be scared. Come on in, the water’s lovely. I can’t promise you won’t be offended. But I can promise you’ll have a good time. And if you don’t? Well, you’ll know who to throw stones at afterwards. I’m not that difficult to spot!

Mat Fraser performs his one man show From Freak to Clique at the Axix: Ballymun on Thursday, March 11th.