In an exclusive extract from his new autobiography in The Irish Times the comedian recalls his early years
This guy just put his foot on my forehead and gently pushed me out the door, then closed it. I found out later his name was Willie Adams, my mother’s lover. Shortly afterwards, she left us.
I can’t remember who found us alone in the house after my mother left. Maybe a neighbour. Anyhow, someone took us to a children’s home. I remember sitting with Florence [his sister] in the foyer. It was all wooden panels and echoes, and I didn’t like it much. I was glad when my father’s sisters Mona and Margaret showed up and took us out of there.
My father wanted us to be brought up as Catholics. His mother Flora had grown up in a Catholic family, but she married Neil MacLean (from clan MacLean of Duart) who was a Protestant from the Isle of Mull off the west coast of Scotland. When they had children, it became a tug o’ war. Flora even tried to have them baptised as Catholics behind her husband’s back, but her scheme failed.
The Billy Connolly we all know at an apprentices’ strike in John Brown’s shipyard in Clydebank and in relaxed mode at home when he lived in Vale of Leven.
Sectarianism was much more alive then. People nowadays don’t care all that much but, back then, if Catholic people married Protestants their family would never speak to them again. And if a Protestant got married in a Catholic church their parents wouldn’t come to the wedding. It was a tribal war.
And it was a shame, because sooner or later the young married couple would have a child and the grandparents would be desperate to see it – but because of the upset over the wedding, the rift could never be mended.
The Irish . . . from whence I sprang – were very much under the thumb of the Catholic Church. They were all “God bless you” and had come to Scotland as very poor, potato famine immigrants.
They were frowned upon. Glasgow was a very successful city. It looked upon itself as the second city of the British Empire. It was a great merchant city for tobacco, whisky and exports, and there were shipyards and steelworks. So, the people – while still working class – were comparatively well off. They looked upon themselves as successful, and the Irish as losers. To marry one of them was considered to be marrying below your station.
When my aunts arrived at the children’s home, they were all dressed up in fancy coats and hats and I was in awe of them. Aunt Margaret was my godmother. I was christened in St Patrick’s Church, which is next to the Hilton in Glasgow. When I was told I was going to live with my aunts and my Uncle James, I was delighted. The children’s home scared me. Everything scared me after my mother left. And I’ve gone on being scared my whole life.
What scares me now might surprise you. Games for one thing. When people announce they’re going to play games – especially ‘thinking’ games – I run away. I’m frightened of being found to be stupid. I avoid board games like Monopoly, or the games families play at Christmas.
You won’t catch me playing f*cking guessing games where you have to stick something on your forehead or find your way out of a room with clues – that kind of thing is purgatory for me. Physical games are okay, though. I have fun when there’s a ball and a crowd of dafties.
I love Ireland. There’s something very alive about the people there, something lovely and crazy and intelligent and strange about the whole culture
After my aunts took Florence and me to their small flat on Stewartville Street in Partick, they immediately held a party to launch their new life of having two children. I remember various friends and relatives being led in one at a time to see me lying there in my cot. It seemed to be a jolly affair. I was quite happy being inspected – as long as Florence was handy.
Everybody seemed to like me. I had a sonsy face, as they say in Scotland: “a face that would get you a scone at any door”. Florence and I were put in two different rooms. I shared one with Mona and Margaret, and Florence was in the kitchen. I must have sorely missed my mother, but I don’t really remember that feeling. I do remember peeing the bed and being harshly scolded. And I remember there was a mouse in my room . . .
One question my five-year-old self had was: “Where is my father and is he ever coming back?” I had no memories of his being there when I was a baby, and my aunts never talked about him to me. But he eventually showed up just after my fifth birthday – an enormous guy dragging a huge metal trunk . . .
My father’s name was William Connolly. People had called me Billy until he came home, but then I became ‘Wee Billy’ because he was ‘Big Billy’. He really was big – and broad – with a neck and head like a bull. His collar size was 18½ inches. So, I was forced to be ‘Wee Billy’ my whole life until I became a comedian and Scottish people started calling me ‘The Big Yin’.
Some people in England thought that was to do with ‘yin and yang’, but it just means ‘the big one’ and it’s common in Scotland. If you’re tall and they don’t know your name you’re ‘The Big Yin’, and if you’re not tall you’re the ‘Wee Yin’ . . . I never met my dad’s parents, but I knew his father was an Irish immigrant from Connemara. I went once to visit Connemara with my daughter Cara when I was performing in Dublin. I had a couple of nights off, so we drove up to see it.
Humble beginnings – the Connolly family came from a cottage just like this in Connemara.
Local people knew the place was special to me because I had said on a talk show that my ancestors were from there, and they greeted me warmly. My grandfather came from a village in West Connemara called Ballyconneely – which is very like ‘Billy Connolly’! When I was there a woman came up to me and said “Billy Connolly! You’re the spitting image of yourself”! The place was lovely. Rural. White walls and black roofs. A beautiful place on the edge of the ocean. They get rain there that would take the skin off you.
I love Ireland. There’s something very alive about the people there, something lovely and crazy and intelligent and strange about the whole culture. We’re the same race, the Scots and the Irish. We’re all Celtic people. The Scots came from Ireland – for reasons best known to themselves.
“Come on – I know an even colder place! It rains all the time! It’s amazing! Head for the black cloud!”
The Scots have done that all over the world. During the Highland Clearances in the 18th century, we went to Virginia. It was paradise – the Blue Ridge Mountains and all of that. “Too hot! Further north, lads!” So, they went up to Hudson’s Bay – where it was cold enough to freeze your b*llocks off!
My ancestors left Ireland in the time of the potato famine, but not because of the weather. They were starving. But they arrived in Scotland barefoot with nothing and had nowhere to go and were treated appallingly. Protestants didn’t want them. There used to be signs outside businesses saying: “Worker wanted. Irish need not apply”.
My grandfather came to Glasgow when he was ten years old. It must have been very hard for him. Even my father – when he was old enough to apply for jobs – was greeted by “Apprentices wanted. Boys’ Brigade welcome”. That was a Protestant organisation.
My father was a bright guy. He’d come top of his school, and became an engineer, making machine parts in companies like Singer. When war broke out, he went off to attend to aeroplanes in the Royal Air Force. He contracted malaria while he was in India and was sent up to the hill country to recuperate. The air force trunk he brought back home after the war was full of exciting stuff that gave me a little window into his life abroad . . .
My father loved India, and so do I. I love the landscape, the music, the paintings, the poetry and art, and I love Indian streets.
I began to sing parodies. I turned Roy Rogers’ song A Four-Legged Friend into A Four-Letter Word, and Living Doll by Cliff Richards and the Shadows into Dribblin Doll’. Eventually I would take the p*ss out of well-known American country songs with talking sections, like Ray Peterson’s Tell Laura I Love Her.
And the Irish songwriter Shay Healy wrote smashing parodies for me including The Shitkicker’s Waltz and The Country and Western Supersong – a sick song about a blind orphan. Shay was a great guy. Crazy man. The day he died in April 2021, I sent him an email he would have enjoyed:
Apparently, you died this morning. That was a bit inconvenient of you – leaving without saying goodbye. I’ll never forget how kind you were to me in America when I was out of my depth. When we meet again, we’ll have a good laugh about it. Stay clear of musicals, mohair suits and Morris Minors on fire. Bon voyage my dear friend. It was a pleasure making you laugh, and you left the world in better shape than you found it.
One night in Dublin I was bored in my dressing room, so I went for a walk through the corridors of the theatre and ended up beside the stage. Normally I stood with my manager Steve, who would announce me: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Billy Connolly!” And then I’d walk on.
Well, on this night, Steve wasn’t there.
As I said, I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t believe in the supernatural. I don’t believe in any of that crap, but there was something strange in that theatre that night. Instead of Steve, there was a man sitting at a desk right beside the stage. He was a dapper wee guy, with short hair and a moustache.
I said: “How are you doing?”
He said: “Fine. I don’t always come in.”
I said: “Oh, aye? Fair enough.”.Then I said, “How is it out there?” Meaning the auditorium. “Is it full yet?”
And he said: “It’s fine.”
So I said; “Great, I’ll go on.”
I went onstage to start my show, but the place was only about two-thirds full, and people were still pouring in. Not only that, but a fight had erupted to the left of the stage. About six rows up there was a man in the aisle, trying to hit a man five rows in. “Ya fooking gobshite!” Biff! Boof! This guy was half man, half beetroot, covered in tweed clothes, with fists like hams. Biff! Boff! Bash! … I went over and said, “Hey, hey HEY!! What’s the story here, big man?” and the full story unfolded.
Billy Connolly with his wife Pamela Stephenson, after being knighted by the Duke of Cambridge during an Investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace in London in 2017.
It turned out that Mr Beetroot had bought tickets for my show, and he’d kept them in the glove compartment of his car. He’d been looking forward to the show for weeks . . . but then somebody stole his car. Luckily, he’d jotted down the seat numbers in a wee book. He thought, ‘I know what I’ll do – I’ll get another ticket so I can go inside and batter the shit out of the gobshites who stole my car . . . because they’ll be in my seats!’
So this poor guy was sitting there with his wife, minding his own business, waiting for me to come on, and suddenly: BIFF! BOOF! “Ya bastard!”
As it turned out, the guy who was being set upon had bought the tickets in a pub – from the bastards who had actually stolen the other guy’s car!
I sorted it out, but when I went backstage again the wee guy at the desk had gone. He was nowhere to be seen. I asked about him, and someone said: “Oh, he doesn’t actually exist. He’s just one of the Gaiety Theatre ghosts. There are several of them!”
Apparently, the place is famous for all kinds of visitations, and dancing orbs of light, blah blah blah. I’ve got a simpler theory. I suspect he just f*cked off home for his dinner.