BACK in 2005, a new comedy club arrived in Madrid and Barcelona. The brainchild of Irish promoter Stephen Garland, the idea was to bring top-flight comedians from the Edinburgh Fringe to Spain for the first time. That first outstanding show was a taste of the things that were to come from the ‘Giggling Guiri’.
Legendary Irish comedian Jason Byrne was the debut comic who graced the stages of Spain’s two biggest cities nearly 18 years ago. And perhaps fittingly, this weekend past another pure stand-up comedian, England’s Seann Walsh, was the final act at the club.
‘I’ve got the jackpot of multiple sclerosis,’ Garland explains to The Olive Press about his main reason for finally throwing in the towel after nearly two decades. ‘It’s Primary Progressive, and generally it’s a fast-track to the end.’
Having studied music and media management, Garland arrived in Barcelona back in 2002, and had ‘a bright idea that I would make an Irish festival’.
The multidisciplinary event was designed to be built around Saint Patrick’s Day, but unfortunately for him it coincided with the 11-M terrorist attacks in Madrid. As Spaniards came out onto the street to protest in response to the atrocity, the crowds stayed away from the events.
‘So I went back to the drawing board, to lick my wounds, and the following year I decided to make a comedy club between Barcelona and Madrid,’ he explains.
The result was a consistent run of several years where the award-winning show from the Edinburgh Fringe would pay a visit to the Giggling Guiri. Among the major names that Garland tempted over to Iberia included Eddie Izzard, Michael McIntyre, Stephen K. Amos, Reginald D. Hunter, Arj Barker and even Howard Marks, the notorious Welsh drug smuggler-turned raconteur.
But it was back in 2014 that Garland realised that all was not well with his health. He and his Brazilian wife were taking a break from Spain at the time, and were working in her native country while the World Cup was taking place, with the Olympic Games soon to follow.
‘I could see that I was getting weaker in my legs while I was on the treadmill,’ he explains. ‘Life was getting difficult in Rio – going to doctors all of the time, haemorrhaging money for tests…’
The situation came to a head when, in 2015, Garland landed his ‘favourite comedian ever’ for shows in Malaga, Madrid and Barcelona: Dylan Moran.
Due to a last-minute venue cancellation in Madrid, the gig ended up in a theatre with stairs. Lots and lots of stairs.
‘It was like a kilometre, up and down stairs,’ he explains about that fateful night. ‘It was the craziest, worst gig of my life, because I was in real bother.’
By June 2016, his diagnosis of PPMS was finally confirmed. ‘It was like, there’s no treatment, no cure, suck it up and wait for your body to start imploding – which it was,’ he says.
But fortunately Garland was able to access non-FDA approved treatment in Russia, which has at least managed to stop the progression of the condition.
As well as the health issues, the coronavirus pandemic has also played a part in the decision to call it a day.
‘Those mid-tier shows that were the stock in trade of the Giggling Guiri, like the Fringe shows…,’ he says. ‘The world has moved on, and now the pandemic has pushed everyone to watch their comedy on streaming.’
Another major issue for Garland is the need to promote gigs via social media. ‘I no longer have the patience for all of them!’ he complains. ‘They’re so time consuming.’
Seann Walsh blew the crowd away in Barcelona last Saturday, and then proceeded to do the same in Madrid on the Sunday night, the very last Giggling Guiri show.
Garland took to the stage before the main act and gave an emotional speech, clearly somewhat unsteady on his feet due to his condition.
After Walsh’s show was over, the promoter got back up and said some more words – this time very unsteady on his feet given that, in his words, he was ‘f*cking hammered!’
But no one in the crowd – some of whom were at that very first gig back in 2005 – could blame him. They were all just very grateful for all the laughs these last 18 years.