T’S EARLY March, a week before the opening night of the Abbey Theatre’s new production of Seán O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. One of the show’s own stars, Eileen Walsh, who plays the fiery Bessie Burgess in the play, sits in the rehearsal room reflecting on the resonances between O’Casey’s Dublin of 1916, a city mired in poverty and desperation, and the one that she was struck by since returning from her home in London for the production.
“The amount of sleeping bags on the street totally shocked me,” she says. “Not just the fact that people were sleeping rough, but the actual amount of sleeping bags that had been left in doorways for people to come back to. And then there is the amount of families living in hotels, which is unheard of anywhere else. That’s just shocking. We’re reduced back to a time when too many people were sharing one small room, with no real ability to cook at home or to have some kind of privacy. So we’re not that far away from it. We’re 100 years down the line and we’re not that far from it actually.”
TIME TO ACT
A few weeks later, on Easter Monday, and with the Abbey in the thick of the city’s 1916 centenary celebrations, Walsh steps forward from the cast following the end of the night’s performance and — once again pointing to the resonances between O’Casey’s time and our own — reveals that the cast have agreed to donate their bank holiday pay to the ISPCC and asks members of the audience to consider making a small donation of their own.
The move was triggered, says Walsh, by a couple of incidents that she witnessed in the city involving children in the company of adults clearly struggling with the effects of substance abuse, marginalisation, and poverty. Following a discussion with the Abbey’s artistic director, Fiach Mac Conghail, and the executive of the ISPCC, she spoke with the cast and then said her bit from the stage.
“It resonated with what we’re doing,” she says. “There’s such poverty in O’Casey’s play and there’s this kid, Mollser, who is walking her way to an ignored death. I suppose I had been five weeks away from my own kids as well, and I just thought there must be something we could do.”
Performing in O’Casey’s play, a furious snapshot of life from the sidelines of the Easter Rising, felt “very important” the weekend of the centenary. “I think everyone is up to their eyeballs in 1916 by now,” she says. “But, actually, that weekend was the peak of it, and it felt very passionate to do it on those nights.”
Moreover, doing the show on Easter Monday and using it to try to do something that had “a positive impact” felt more proactive than simply getting caught up in the myriad centenary ‘celebrations’, the television shows, and the wreath-laying.
“We need to respect those that did die and the families that were left behind,” says Walsh. “So it’s important to lay down wreaths too. But it’s also important for us to realise the passion and the need for change that spurred that event.”
Sold out for many weeks now, the Abbey’s production has been a big success. It wraps up at the venue later this week before taking off on a national tour.
The first stop, Cork Opera House, will be a poignant one for Walsh. It will be her first time performing in her home-town since her father passed away last year.
“He would have loved this play,” she says. “I know he would have been proud of it. He’d have loved the laughs in it. And he was also a great man for the old fundraising, so that night in the Abbey I know he was on my shoulder.”
As Walsh describes him, her father was a lover of life, a man who — for many years after undergoing a heart bypass — could never pass wet cement on a Cork street without succumbing to the childlike temptation to etch his initials in it.
Walsh’s parents were always a source of support to her and to her sister Catherine as each of the siblings steadily carved out distinguished acting careers. Eileen says she spared them some of the more “controversial” plays and films she has appeared in — we’re thinking the Mark O’Rowe plays Terminus and Crestfall might fall under that category — but otherwise they always came out to see her. “Anything that involved a red carpet, my father just thought that was the best thing.”
While in Cork for The Plough, Walsh will be nipping off during the day to deliver her part in a new Irish movie, Maze, about the escape of 38 IRA prisoners from the Maze prison in 1983. The film sees her playing the wife of Tom Vaughn-Lawlor’s prisoner and it will be shot in the recently decommissioned Cork Prison. The part follows the success of her short film, How Was Your Day. The latter, directed by Damien O’Donnell (East is East), recently won best narrative at the prestigious SXSW festival in Texas. Notably, the film also features Janet Moran, who play’s Eileen’s current sparring partner, Mrs Gogan, in The Plough and the Stars.
“I love her,” Walsh effusively declares. “Oh my God, the craic is mighty. She’s wonderful. And I guess because of the whole ‘Waking the Feminists’ thing, and Janet being very much part of that, I was so excited about the idea of her doing it and doing it at the Abbey, and the two of us playing two such strong motherf**kers. It’s brilliant. They’re shameless women, who are not apologetic. And it’s wonderful to get to do that right now in the Abbey.”
WHAT A CATASTROPHE
Of course, Walsh has also been enjoying a riotous partnership with another Irish actor, Sharon Horgan, in Channel 4 sitcom Catastrophe.
Walsh got the latter part after a successful ‘chemistry meet’ with Horgan. As the term suggests, the latter is industry jargon for assessing how compatible two performers are. “You’ve got to see if you gel,” explains Walsh. “If you’re playing the best friend, you want it to be someone that you can have craic with, that you don’t have to work too hard with. And we can have the craic,” she says assuredly.
While Walsh has never failed to distinguish herself onscreen, delivering scintillating turns in The Magdalene Sisters and in the TV adaptation of Eugene O’Brien’s play Eden, it is nevertheless in theatre that she has established a reputation as one of the great Irish actors of her generation.
It was the enormous success of Corcadorca’s production of Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs in 1996 that announced Walsh’s arrival, and, later this summer, to mark the 25th anniversary of Corcadorca’s foundation, she will do a radio interview alongside her partner in Disco Pigs, Cillian Murphy. Corcadorca founder Pat Kiernan and playwright Enda Walsh “remain very important to both Cillian and I”, she says, “and there would be a hope to get the team together again at some point.”
In the meantime, The Plough will plough on, touring Ireland before taking off for dates in the US. Everywhere it goes, you suspect, Walsh will leave her mark.
- The Plough and the Stars runs at the Abbey until Saturday; then goes to Cork Opera House, Apr 26-30; the National Opera House, Wexford, May 4-7; Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick May 10-14; and Town Hall Theatre, Galway, May 24-28.