“I never thought I’d hear the day when Brendan would be equated with Shakespeare but it’s been said many’s the time. And it’s true.”
Eilish O’Carroll, the actress best known for her role as Winnie McGoogan in Mrs Brown’s Boys, isn’t just sticking up for her brother and the show’s creator, Brendan O’Carroll.
She’s talking about the discrepancy between the enormous popularity of the show with the public and the scorn heaped on it by critics. Mrs Brown’s Boys’ populist appeal is exactly what theatre has always been about, O’Carroll believes.
“It’s exactly in the Shakespearian tradition. The critics hate it, but I don’t care what the critics say; I care what the public say. They speak with their feet, and they’re coming to see our shows and they’re laughing.”
And speak with their feet they certainly do; a ratings-topping BBC sitcom based on the earlier stage show and Brendan O’Carroll’s Trilogy of Brown family books, The Mammy, The Chisellers and The Granny, as well as Mrs Brown’s Boys: D’Movie have cemented the sweary, smutty mad-cap world of the fictional Brown family in popular consciousness and won ratings, if not critical acclaim, for O’Carroll and his cast of real-life friends and family members.
The second youngest in a family of ten raised in Finglas with a carpenter father and a mother who was a Labour TD, O’Carroll is proud of her working class roots and has no time for snobbery about what she sees as good, old-fashioned entertainment.
“There are people out there who’ve never been in a theatre in their lives who have now been introduced to the theatre because of Mrs Brown,” she says. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s the only accolade I want; to introduce people to something new.”
O’Carroll’s career as an actress only took off with the success of Mrs Brown’s Boys and a move back to Ireland in 1999 after years of being a housewife and raising her two sons in the UK.
“Life got in the way,” she says of her yearning to perform. “It wasn’t until after my first marriage, when I was 28, that I actually joined a drama group in the UK and exercised that need to be the centre of attention and to perform. I was living there for at least twelve years and I loved the drama group, but it wasn’t until 1999 that I stood on a stage as a professional and I’ve been working ever since.”
O’Carroll has been a late bloomer in more ways than one, discovering that she was gay at the age of 50, having been married to two men and enduring a first marriage that was violent. Her realisation about her sexuality came as a surprise and took her some time to come to terms with.
“I’d never met a lesbian up until I discovered my own sexuality, it simply wasn’t a part of my straight world,” she says.
Brendan’s decision to film a short Yes-Vote promotional video, in character as Agnes Brown, during the lead-up to the same-sex marriage referendum was a political move very much in keeping with their upbringing by a mother who was “passionate about politics and passionate about change and women’s rights and children’s rights,” O’Carroll says.
“She wasn’t afraid to stand up and be counted. But Brendan’s video wasn’t support just for me; it was just something he felt strongly about.”
If she had grown up in an era like post-marriage referendum Ireland, does she think she would have come out as a young woman?
“That’s hard to answer. When I first discovered that I was gay I thought oh my god, this can’t be happening to me, because it wasn’t something where I’d had the inclination as a teenager and ignored it; I knew that much.”
“I often wonder if my mother had been alive when I was going through that journey whether it would have been as difficult for me, because she was a very pragmatic woman; I know she would have said, ‘ah sweetheart, what a pity that you didn’t discover that when you were twenty’.”
Despite the Yes result, O’Carroll has publicly stated since that she feels no need to marry her partner of 15 years, Marion O’Sullivan.
Currently in rehearsals for a musical comedy, Elvis is my Daddy, and with an early musical career singing with a band called The Pentagon in the sixties in Dublin, O’Carroll is delighted to resurrect her interest in music for her latest project.
“I always wanted to do it all,” she says, “I think that came from being a young child in a very large family and trying to get mammy’s attention and outshine everybody else; I always had that competitive spirit and loved performing.”
The glammed-up lead role in Elvis is my Daddy, Lana Lavelle, is a far cry from the housecoat and curlers of the character that brought O’Carroll to the public eye in Mrs Brown’s Boys, yet the role was written specifically for her.
“The writer, John Murphy, is a very good friend of mine. He came down to Cork and we read the treatment together and I said, ‘where do you see the aging diva in me?’”
The plot of the musical comedy sees O’Carroll, as aging songstress Lana Lavelle, resurrect her singing career on a tour, reluctantly accompanied by her daughters (Fair City actresses Clelia Murphy and Elaine Hearty) as backing vocalists, with rumours of a one-time fling with The King himself shadowing her.
Although she’s lived in West Cork for the last 15 years, pragmatism has recently won out over her love of country living and O’Carroll has put her cottage in Toe Head, close to Skibbereen, on the market. She’ll move to a new home in Dublin 3 in the coming months.
“I don’t want to leave, but I’m charging up and down to Dublin and spending a fortune on hotels and the rest of it,” she says. “I will never retire – you can write that down, I never intend to retire – but there’ll come a time when I’m less busy. With my sensible head on I know I don’t need to be isolated when I get older.”
And what about the future of Mrs Brown’s Boys?
“There are Christmas specials being recorded in October and a live recording in July but I don’t know about future series. People think that because Brendan’s my brother that I’m on top of all these things but I’m really not; he doesn’t mean to keep people in the dark but I will know at the same time as everybody else. He’s just had twelve-week tour of Australia and he has to write the specials so I think a season is a tall order… but he could surprise me.”