FOR 24-year-old Cork stand-up Ashley Manning, comedy has always been the drug of choice.
“‘Laughter is the best medicine’ is a phrase that has always been quite apt for me,” she says.
When lack of treatment for a 12-year-old child with Graves’ disease — a thyroid problem thought to be caused by an autoimmune reaction — forced young Ashley to take strong medications with extreme side effects, she allayed them by watching Lee Evans’s stand-up routines on TV.
“I found a particular attachment to comedy, I think out of desperation to smile and laugh,” she recalls.
Going to school while on powerful medication was what made her desperate to smile as it turned her into an easy target for bullies.
“The medication affected my mind so much, it made me behave strangely, so I got a lot of bullying and a lot of being left out at things,” she says.
Her early experiences made Ashley, from Clonakilty, lose faith in herself gradually, but years later, comedy helped her restore it.
Watching her daughter finding comfort in a world of laughter for years, Ashley’s father took her to a comedy show in Killarney on her 18th birthday, where comics such as Fred Cooke and Colin Murphy performed.
Fascinated by the show, Ashley says she couldn’t even dream of sharing the stage with the show’s stars one day.
“Just a few weeks ago, I was in a line-up with Fred Cooke as the headliner,” she says.
While studying Applied Physics at the University of Limerick, Ashley began doing stand-up for her friends in college. Pleased with the experience, she became determined to pursue it as a career. even if it meant stepping out of her comfort zone.
“When I did my first stand-up performance in the Róisín Dubh in Galway, I was shaking with nerves,” she recalls.
Ashley says she did not feel as anxious on her way to an operating theatre to get her thyroid gland removed. However, something made her swallow her fear on the stage.
“Stepping off that stage, I felt like I had reclaimed a little part of myself that had been taken from me years earlier,” she says.
Ashley has done around 40 gigs so far, with performances in Dublin, Galway and Cork.
She says Cork’s comedy scene is “very friendly and inclusive of diversity”, but female comics’ fight to get audiences to trust in their abilities is a universal one — a trust Ashley believes a male comic automatically earns by merely walking onto the stage.
“When a man walks on the stage, the audience assumes he’s going to be good. When a woman walks on the stage, there is a subtle assumption that she is probably not going to be good, and it is much harder to prove people wrong than it is to prove them right,” she says.
With the opening of new comedy clubs such as Two Shoes in Cork, Ashley thinks the city’s vibrant comedy scene has the potential to calm the tensions brought on by the upcoming abortion referendum as well.
“Comedy gives you a release of tension, no matter how serious is the topic you’re joking about,” she says.
Off stage, Ashley studies English and Celtic Civilisation in UCC and is also one of the founders of UCC’s Comedy Society: a place that has become a shelter for students with various mental disabilities.
Darragh McMahon is one of those. The 20-year-old student of Computer Science uses comedy to cope with the highs and lows of living with ADHD and mourns the sudden loss of a beloved mother by “venting to the audience”.
“My mother died in July, 2016, and I started doing comedy in October, 2016,” he says. “It gave me this mentality that if I wanted to do something, I should, because I can be dead tomorrow.”
Darragh says that, thanks to ADHD, he is never short of material for his comedy routines as the disorder bombards his brain with various ideas.
He thinks the college society would not exist if it wasn’t for Ashley.
“She did all the work, if it was up to us we would still only be talking about it,” he says.
Andrew Burke, a 19-year-old student of Arts, is another member of the society who has found inner peace through comedy.
“It has gotten to the point where anything bad, unlucky or embarrassing that happens in my life can become a joke that I tell a crowd,” he says.
Ashley and her friends have always wanted the society to be a place for celebrating differences. The society’s president Fionnán McSwiney is a good example of that.
Fionnán uses “the unique sense of humour” that comes with suffering from high-functioning autism to make people laugh while rescuing himself from depression.
“The majority of members suffer from mental disabilities, I myself have dyspraxia, and we are not afraid to mention it on stage and embrace our faults,” Andrew says.
UCC Comedy Society holds various fund-raiser events for charitable mental health organisations such as Pieta House Cork to raise awareness about mental health issues.
All members of the society speak highly of Ashley.
“Ashley Manning is one of the greatest comedians I have ever seen. She is a perfect example of the fact that there are brilliant female comedians in Cork,” Andrew says.
“She has performed all over Ireland and has put her heart and soul into setting up the society.”
Ashley will perform in Dublin and Edinburgh this summer. She is hoping to do a show in the US, one day — taking her Cork humour overseas.
While in Cork, however, she studies, performs and makes sure that no student is feeling excluded in the UCC Comedy Society.