New York’s ‘Bard of Gridlock’ set to pull up in Donegal

A New York cabbie-turned-comedian is bringing his stage show to Donegal for the first time.

John McDonagh, whose mother Cassie Monaghan was born in Pettigo, has taken the experiences and characters he has encountered during 40 years behind the wheel and created ‘Off the Meter’.

In his unique, pithy manner, he explores everything from the plight of the New York City homeless to his own political activism to the crazy demands of his Upper East Side patrons.


In his one-man musings he also reflects on the time he took Stephen Fry to a Mafia club in Queens and how he once taught Top Gear star Richard Hammond how to drive a yellow taxi.

“I was born in New York but when I was very young my parents moved back to Donegal,” said the playwright dubbed ‘The Bard of Gridlock’ by the New York Times.

“My mum was from Pettigo and my dad, Joe McDonagh, was from Aghyaran in Tyrone.

“I went to Lettercran school for a few years before we moved back to America when my dad got a job there. My mum raised the six of us.”

After graduating from high school John followed a path well worn by Irish immigrants – he joined the army for a time before taking the test to become a civil service worker.

Plans change

But things did not go quite according to tradition.


“As a son of Irish immigrants my career path was supposed to be graduate high school, do my time in the service, come back, take the sanitation, NYPD and Fire Department tests.

“But at this stage the city was bankrupt and they were laying off cops and firemen. College? We didn’t even talk about it at home. My mother and father left school in the sixth grade to work on the farm. The goal was to get a good union job. But that wasn’t an option either.

“So what does a child of immigrants do next? I went and got my hack licence with the plan of driving a cab for a few years. Of course life took over and I ended up doing it for 40 years.”

Fame came knocking in 2008 when it was announced that actor and writer Stephen Fry would be touring the USA in his own London black taxi.

For the New York leg of the six-part ‘Stephen Fry in America’ series the producers decided that it would be fun to have the British star drive a yellow cab.

Enter stage left John McDonagh who took him to a social club in Middle Village, Queens, an area with strong connections to the mob.

Fry was shown the bullet-holes in the door from a gun attack on the club three months before his visit. He heard how one customer had been shot in the head.

“I spent the day with him and escorted him around New York. My brother was working on a construction site in Times Square and I took Stephen to the top of a sky scraper there on the workers’ lift.

“We had lunch together and then we went to ‘The Club’ which is near my home in Queens. I had to tell Stephen not to directly ask the guys there if they had been in the Mafia because nobody admits to anything.

“I introduced him to an 83-year-old who was the oldest guy to be arrested in New York as a bookmaker a few years ago. I also introduced him to ‘Mikey Bigtime’ who became known as ‘Mikey Primetime’ after he got a part in The Sopranos.”

Political activist

When not navigating the Big Apple’s streets John McDonagh is a high profile political activist who campaigned against the Iraq war and was a founder member of ‘Cabbies against Bush’.

In 2013 he was invited by Salman Rushdie to read a poem at the PEN World Voices Literary Festival when Rushdie was President of PEN.

It was only five years ago though that he started to tell his tales to friends in the famous Rocky O’Sullivan’s Irish bar.

Things grew from there and he was accepted into the New York Fringe Festival. His natural story-telling ability then caught the eye of Ciarán O’Reilly, Director of the Irish Reportory Theatre, the award-winning Off-Broadway home for Irish and Irish-American drama.

“I did three months at the Reportory and the show sold out for the entire three months,” according to McDonagh.

Later this month Off the Meter makes its Irish debut in the Sean O’Casey Theatre, Dublin, where it will run for two nights – September 29 and 30.

From there it moves to the Abbey Arts Centre in Ballyshannon on October 8 where it will form part of the Donegal Bay and Bluestacks Festival.

“I’ve been travelling back and forth to Donegal for years but this will be my third attempt to bring the show over because of Covid.

“I have two daughters flying in and we are all staying at Harvey’s Point for a few nights before I return to New York. I don’t know how it will go, I could be run out of Donegal altogether, we’ll have to wait and see.

“But I do think it will resonate with audiences here because people like Stephen Fry and Richard Hammond are well known, better known than they would be back home.

“My relations are all coming to the Abbey to see me, I have cousins coming from Castlederg, from Fermanagh, all over.

“For that reason I’ll probably be more nervous performing in Donegal than in Dublin. I don’t really care how Dublin sees me but when I have the family in front of me and they’re all saying ‘Hey look, the big Yank is back’, I’ll want to impress them and show them what I’ve been doing for 40 years.”

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