Noel Faulkner (Salthill, Galway to London, England)
Noel Faulkner has led what might be described as a ‘colourful’ life! Recently retired, he has fond memories of growing up in Galway but also had a tough time at school as he went undiagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome. He left Galway as a teenager to work on trawlers, and subsequently lived in London and San Francisco during the heady days of swinging sixties and hippy movements where he came across some well-known personalities. With a background in acting and comedy, for the last twenty-six years, Noel has ran a successful comedy club in London and is now planning on ‘cashing in his chips’ to pursue his love of sailing.
Name: Noel Faulkner
Now living in: London, UK
From: Salthill, Galway
Life in Galway
I grew up in Salthill and had the sea for a garden. I used to build a raft out of a double ended cross and four big t-poles with five-gallon disinfectant tins (used by hotels) tied on to the cross-bars. I made a paddle and I would paddle out. One day the paddle broke but luckily, Finbarr Lillis was in his canoe and they towed me in. A man who ran the amusement arcade knew who I was and one of his workers put canvass on an old canoe that we found in Moycullen and built it for me, so there I was canoeing around Galway – I love boats, boats are my thing! I was expelled from school, I had Tourette ’s syndrome, and nobody had diagnosed me at the time. They thought I would grow out of it or that I was doing it on purpose. It was an effort to deal with, I couldn’t learn anything, just nothing, so they could never add it all up together and I ended up being expelled from both ‘The Bish’ and ‘The Jez’. I learned to read and write and count later, I didn’t even have the alphabet; a huge learning disability.
My brothers and sisters, who have also left Galway, still talk about when our Mother would go without meat for us. She washed the clothes in the bath tub, six kids, on her hands and knees. Then, my father got promoted to bank manager and they bought a washing machine – she had to wheel it out and put the hose in the tap and put the other hose in the drain, it wasn’t even plugged in but there she was at fifty years of age and finally she’s got a washing machine. My mother went to school in India, there’s a picture of her in the Galway Museum, her Father was in the Connacht Rangers when she was a baby.
My father should never have been married. Every weekend he went hunting and fishing, never hung out with the kids. He used to stay home Christmas Day, but he would be gone again the next day; a wife and six kids and didn’t want to know. People stayed in the relationships when there was no love and women couldn’t work in those days so they couldn’t leave. Most people of my age came out of families where their house was a house of fear. Ours wasn’t like that, my Father wasn’t an aggressive man and he didn’t care about the church, when he had a few drinks in him he was great fun but, my Mother had a hard time with him. If she wanted a new outfit, you would think we were having an extension put on the house, but if was fine for him to have his suits. My Mother was a beautiful looking woman – if it wasn’t for my Mother I’d be dead. Every time that things went wrong, the love that she gave me, I could feel it and I would think, your Mother wouldn’t want you to do this. I was very, very fortunate. A lot of people will say that they were vegetarians because people were too poor, meat was twice a week. Probably one of the good things the church said was fish on Friday because fish is very healthy. I think that the church did that because the fish mongers weren’t selling enough fish, nothing to do with St. Peter and all that. When I worked on the fishing trawlers, the skippers were complaining to the government about over-fishing. The Irish fishing industry, if we owned it, is worth four billion quid today. Right now, there are factory ships, vacuuming up the ocean.
In 1964, my family moved to Clifden as my father was promoted to the position of Bank Manager there. It was depressing, I was fourteen, life was exciting and then there were no girls. Night life in Clifden started at 7.30pm for the rosary and ended at 8pm! The English girls would come in, the tourists, and you’d dance with her once and then you’d go and dance with her again and say, ‘Would you like a mineral?’ – you couldn’t get beer. She would dance with you again and you’d offer to walk her back to the hotel and you’d get a snog on the way home. I have a lovely mate there from that time that I still visit; we used to go to all the dances.
After I left school, I joined a skipper apprenticeship but there was nobody there to oversee it and make sure that you were learning. They sent us to the Irish Navy for six months and that was good because there was discipline and we learned about navigation. Once you were on the trawlers you were just washing dishes and you were the butt of every joke – it was extremely hard on a young lad. Things were terrible on the boat in Donegal, there was refrigeration for the fish but not for your food and after two days you could taste diesel in the butter. Everybody else could go home to their houses and have a wash, but you stayed on the boat because you were the apprentice and you lived on it. It was horrible, but then I moved to Dublin and the skipper there was much nicer.
The great thing about being at sea was you had a lot of time to read, so I read a lot. I was on the trawlers for about two years and then I went on the merchant Arklow Shipping. This was work on the high seas and I was just seventeen when I went to Amsterdam. I remember a guy was trying to sell us a watch on the street and this woman came along and told him to leave us alone. She asked us where we were from and we had a beer and got talking to this lovely lady and it turns out that she is a lady of the evening. She used to sit in her friend’s bar, chat up men and get them to buy her champagne – the man would get the real champagne but hers would be watered down. That’s how they would get the men to spend as much as possible! She was very sweet, and we thought it was great that we were in Amsterdam and we had already met our first prostitute!
I got off the ships and then I was about eighteen, I came back to Galway and worked as an apprentice photographer in Yann’s Studios. I wanted to get off the boats, on the boats they would say that I wasn’t much of a worker but you’re a bit of a laugh for the crew, I used to entertain everybody. I just had this flair. I always had a flair for theatre because the fit-ups used to come to the park in Salthill; there were canvas tents and a variety show would be put on by people like Charlie McGee. Charlie was a famous Irish folk singer that went off to Australia and did very well, he used to sing ‘Johnny Get Up from the Fire’ on the Walton’s Radio Show. My father acted in the Taibhearch in Galway and all of this sucked me into it. The funny thing is the Tourette’s makes me twitch but when I’m on stage, I don’t twitch. If I were to do a monologue from Shakespeare, I don’t have to think, because the monologue is programmed and I’m not being creative so I don’t twitch.
I hung around Galway and the photography business for a while. Folk singing was big then, so I used to be a folk singer and play the guitar a bit, but I’m quite a lousy guitar player. I played at the Enda Club, which was a fabulous room at the back of The Hotel Enda with rock walls. Paul Simon walked in there one night and the critic for the New York Times walked in after I had sung – all the lads were there playing great stuff and singing great. The critic says, “you’re really good kid, you should go to New York, you would make a fortune!”. I thought that I was the worst guitar player in Galway but what he saw was the comedian because I used to do funny songs that my Father had taught me. This was Robert Shelton, the man who predicted Bob Dylan to be what he was. So, for three months the lads never let me back on stage, they hated me!
London and San Francisco
In the sixties, I went to London. My mates were over there and we lived in a room in Earls Court; ten people in a one-bedroom apartment. I got a job working on the King’s Road in a boutique through a guy I met at a meditation centre. Mick Jagger lived around the corner and we made clothes for him and for his girlfriend Bianca, although she would throw them back at us and say, “You’re lovely boys but these clothes are terrible”. At one point when I was in London, I came back to Ireland and RTÉ were auditioning for dancers for a music show called ‘Girls’ where there was a lead singer and we were the backup dancers. So, I got on tv and we did many shows and commercials, I also worked as a DJ in Dublin. Then, I came back to Galway and worked as a DJ in Kevin Hanlon’s disco and had the shit kicked out of me every second weekend because people thought I fancied myself! The bouncers hated me because in spite of my twitching there were always beautiful women around. Not now, the tide has gone way out and it ain’t coming back in! When I went back to London, I ran a hostel for a couple of Scottish gangsters who had this warehouse with forty beds on each floor. I made quite a good bit of money and went off to Greece at the end of that with twelve hits of LSD and sat on that island, Eos, for about a month. After that, me and a mate hitchhiked across America and ended up in San Diego, which I say is like the moon – very nice but there’s no atmosphere. That’s when I went up to San Francisco – San Francisco was a blast.
In Jack Kerouac’s book, On the Road, he talks about going north from Sausalito and discovering this houseboat community. Now Allan Watts, the great British philosopher lived there, Rip Thorn, Elaine Paige, Shell Silverstein, who was a great author, and loads of beatniks. In fact, a friend of mine died recently at ninety and he was the man who made the first film ever that a joint was smoked in, which won an award at Cannes in the fifties. If you couldn’t pay the rent for your berth it didn’t matter, the whole thing was so laid back. Developers came in to put in a new Marina, but it took them over thirty years to finish that development. They could never sell it because the hippies were all educated and tied them up legally, which they never expected. Sixty houseboats belonging to the hippies got to stay on grandfather clauses at cheap rent on this plush marina where houseboats are a million dollars.
That was mind-blowing, I met people from The Grateful Dead – I met all the back crew. There was Electrical Lou, who was on Tom Wolfes ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’. This was where they all got on a bus and LSD was legal – they drove across America up to Timothy O’Leary’s place in Boston and would pull into these with microphones on the bus to record reactions of the people and then play it back out to them. It’s a fabulous book of madness! There was also a guy called Wavy Gravy, who was a famous hippy clown. All his life he helped children and raised thousands throughout his life. There were just these incredible characters who I lived with and it was like all the bad kids together! In Galway, I was thought of as the bad kid in my neighbourhood and nobody was allowed to play with me. Everybody in this neighbourhood had a history and was a character.
I went to drama school in California with Robin Williams who had been expelled from drama school in New York – How do you get expelled from drama school? So, he came to this college and we did some plays together, and so Robin and I became great mates. Robin used to have to take girls to my little house boat because he lived with his mother and she mentioned this on the Johnny Carson Show in an interview. Of course, the gap widened when Robin went to Hollywood and was hanging out with De Niro! I was very upset to hear that he had died. I have a film at home that we made in class, an 8mm that his girlfriend made, she was a film major, it’s both of us performing mime. The weekend of his death, I showed it to the punters at the club. It’s terrible footage, it’s just badly edited and really pathetic, but here’s Robin as a twenty-six-year-old. We once went to a party dressed as a giant tampon, with Robin on my shoulders. We made it out of cardboard and we had a rope coming out of the end and Marcy, his girlfriend, was dressed as a nurse, holding the rope! I remember another night, I had taken some mushrooms and I’m peaking in the car, I’m not driving of course. Robin knows this and turns around to me and says, ‘Although we look like one of you, we are not from this earth!’. I remember the pain in my stomach and it was almost the point of dying from laughing. You are in a car on mushrooms (and though he hadn’t been discovered yet) with the world’s greatest court jester!
Getting Into Trouble
In the 1970s, I went to see a doctor about my Tourette’s and he told me that he could do a course of treatment, but it would cost about twenty thousand dollars for the whole thing. Where would I get twenty grand in 1978? A friend of a friend was looking for somebody to run a boat load of weed from Columbia to San Francisco – and I’m a sailor. When I was a merchant seaman, we used to smuggle cigarettes from Holland into Liverpool and condoms from England to Dublin and sell them to the dockers, so I had a little experience in this area. We went off out to do it but everything goes wrong. We arrive in Columbia and nothing turns up, but somebody told us about this island in Panama and said go there and ask for a guy called Lincoln. Off the coast of Columbia, we got chased by pirates but luckily the weather was too rough for them to get out to us so we just kept heading out. They had previously murdered a crew on a shrimping boat just for a couple of tonnes of shrimp. That part of the world is scary. Deep water sailors on the merchant ships wouldn’t go ashore at Panama at night time, they would always get home before dark. Anyway, we pull into this island and there’s a guy sitting on the beach – it was this little cove with a perfect golden sand bay and a little island like a cartoon with a palm tree in the middle. The water was crystal clear blue and there were a couple of little shacks on the beach. So, we dropped anchor and this guy came out to us and asked us if we had guns. I was worried because we did have a six shooter on board, but we said that we didn’t have any guns – we weren’t running guns.
We picked up twelve pounds of pot for a hundred dollars and some cans of peaches. We went through the Panama Canal and got it into America, they never sussed it. A year later, one of the Columbians arrives at my houseboat and he wants to put a boat together to do another drug run, so we go out and buy this big steel boat and head out again. I put a mate of mine as skipper and I told the Columbian that I didn’t have a telephone because I live on a houseboat – this is one of the smartest things I have ever said, I did have a telephone but I knew then (and it sounds like I was a professional gangster!) that the police could check your phone bill and know everything about you. We go to Colombia and we spend six weeks at sea bringing it back. Fifteen hundred miles out into the Pacific Ocean and the engine catches fire. A wire on the alternator had shook itself and arced and caused the fire, but we managed to put it out with an extinguisher. We stripped out all the wiring in the cabin and spent a full day re-wiring the alternator and back-up. Thankfully, the engine started because if we had gotten to San Francisco Bay and there was no wind, we were in trouble. We would have been sitting there and the coastguard would have to come and give us a tow, but anyway, we made it and we had four tonnes of weed on board.
Four months later and I’m told that there is a load of weed coming in and people are needed to offload it at the San Francisco Piers. The boat that they were using was called the Potomac, like the river in Washington and the yacht originally belonged to President Roosevelt, and then Elvis. It was a big motor cruiser and not a piece of junk, but this was 1980, so the boat was way out of date. They had a big sign on it, ‘Crippled Children’s Association of America Charity Drive’. I refused the cash offer of ten grand to help them offload. They got busted, there was a snitch working in the group, a guy who had been busted before and they let him loose so he could inform, he was an airline pilot. My name came up because they had previous records but anyway, I didn’t get picked up.
I went off to New York in 1982, so I was what they call ‘on the lam’ for seven years – basically, fleeing to avoid arrest. I was living in New York and working as an actor with Jim Sheridan and the Irish Arts Centre and I was painting houses to make money. Finally, my friends convinced me to turn myself in. I got a five thousand dollar fine, a five-year suspended sentence and five years’ probation, but when I left the country and tried to get back in, I was denied. I dissociated with all of the bad guys that I knew and never went back.
Back to London and The Comedy Café
I came home from New York to bury my father in 1990. A mate of mine in London had taken a lease on a building and put a small comedy club in there and asked me if I would run it. I took it over as the Comedy Café and we got it going great. We became one of the most successful clubs – we came to the point where we had three bars and a restaurant in the one building and we did great until 2008 when the recession kicked in. I’d go on stage if a comic was late, or I’d MC certain nights. I never really put a proper set together but then I didn’t find my voice until I was over fifty, fifty-five, and then the real Noel Faulkner came out. I used to call a lot of people out on stage, like councillors and their policies. If you talk a load of shit to me, I’m going to turn around and tell you in a loud voice, no, I won’t take it. I probably have a lot of anger but I had the crap kicked out of me by the Jesuits, the Christian Brothers and the Franciscans – It was criminal, just a crime against a child and nothing was ever done about it. I know the Catholic Church has done a lot of good and it has tried, but it is a criminal organisation where everything is pushed under the carpet. If you give a pound to the Catholic Church, that money goes to a rich lawyer somewhere to keep those criminals out of jail. The whole thing should be demolished, these are our churches, they don’t belong to Rome, it’s horrible. I think that the whole of Ireland is waking up to it, and it is a pity because there are very good Catholics who really try to do good. If you spend your whole life being devoted to something and you find out that it’s criminal and phoney, what do you do?
The comedy club led me into the management business. I managed Jimmy Carr and Daniel Kitson, who is a very underground comic, but he will be the future poet laureate of Britain because he doesn’t advertise his shows but has a huge following. The rent doubled in 2016, so I walked away but we got twenty-six years out of it, although this have been the most boring part of my life, running comedy!
I’m an armchair Buddhist, I believe in karma, what you put out comes back. Buddhism doesn’t believe in a God, it’s consciousness, try to empower people. You don’t have to go out and build a bridge – just smile at somebody, like a waiter at your table. Whenever I’m on the phone to somebody trying to get something done, I always leave them with a joke. One of my favourites is a guy gets pulled over by a policeman, police officer walks around the car with the sniffer dog, goes up to the driver and says ‘excuse me sir but my dog tells me that you’ve got marijuana in this car’ and the driver says, ‘well officer, you’re the one that’s talking to the dog!’. They laugh, and you know that somebody will pass that joke on to somebody else and make them laugh – that tiny little ripple, pushing out love and compassion.
I don’t have any family left in Galway. I’ve got a sister in Wexford, a sister in Dublin, a brother in Dublin, a sister in America and a brother in Australia. I couldn’t live in Galway all year round, but if you had a crash-pad here, it would be nice to come down for the festivals. There’s something special about the Irish welcome, we love to talk and that’s why the tourists come. It’s beautiful to talk to Irish people because they just have a better understanding of literature, theatre and arts. There’s no higher literature in a way than comedy, which is a contradiction because great literature has lots of words and comedy is the elimination of words, getting the message across and the punchline. The bars here in Galway, most of them are just beautiful, clean and great service, that’s the gold dust. The streets are so dirty though, it wouldn’t take much to get them cleaned up. It’s the culture that brings you back to Ireland. It’s a great place to visit and to live but a terrible place to do business. My family hate me when I say this. I’m sure are a lot of great business people with great integrity, but there’s so much manana, it’s very much like Mexico! In another way, that’s also great, because if you look sideways in London you are under arrest, things are more relaxed here and it’s fabulous.
We’re in the selfish selfie generation and it’s like, you’re not even that beautiful any of you. And Orwell said it, he said they’ll be so busy or self-engrossed that they won’t be able to look up from their screens to see the revolution. And Gil-Scott Heron said the revolution will not be televised. This generation, we’re in big trouble. A guy bumped into me today, on his phone. I don’t know where we’re heading. My telephone number when I was a kid was 37, Clifden – 3, 7! The internet is amazing, but you can’t bullshit anymore because there’s always somebody in the pub now who will go online and prove you wrong!
I think karma has a lot to do with a good life, you can make your life better but you must have a very positive attitude. You must try to think good of people, show compassion, you must show compassion also for the Donald Trump’s of the world and that’s hard because there’s such evil and sickness but that’s where you need the compassion. What you put out, it comes back. I think that’s why I didn’t end up in a proper relationship, I think I broke too many hearts. As they say, if you knew then what you know now – I should have settled down. As my sister would say, ‘You wouldn’t want to rush into anything now Noel!’. Everybody wants love, but where most people go wrong I think is you have an idea of how your love life is going to be and you end up living with an idea and it will never be fulfilled. I’ve never been married, two girls turned me down, they were very wise women! I’m friends with six or seven ex-girlfriends whom I still see, and they go sailing with me. I just want to find somebody but she will have to be petite to fit in the sail boat!
I’m planning to soon publish my autobiography entitled, ‘Shake Rattle and Noel’. I had a stand-up show of the same name and it mentions all the things that I’ve been talking about. When I’m on stage I can move around when I’m talking, so the twitching doesn’t trip me up. In fact, some people say, you need to twitch a bit more because it looks like you’re making this up now! There’s a huge anger from being screwed over as a child and it never leaves. I mean, if you were a good kid you didn’t get beat up, but I was practically illiterate. That’s why you become so righteous and you go, no, I’m a big boy now and I’m not backing down. I have no regrets, but I would love to have learned to speak French and I would have liked to learn to play the piano. I was never money mad, I could have opened ten comedy clubs but I’d be dead. The roof leaks a bit but hey, the rent is paid and I can eat what I want! My goal in life was never to have to get out of bed before eleven o’clock in the morning and to kiss as many pretty girls as possible and I achieved that. It’s wonderful to get to the Autumn of your years and go ‘Hey, my life’s a book and it’s a good one!’.