The woman often heralded as the greatest theatre actress of her generation is sitting good- naturedly through a dramatic reconstruction of the sinking of the Titanic in The Titanic Experience museum in Cobh.
Fiona Shaw shudders at the horrible creaking noise as the great ship upends itself in a CGI reconstruction, listens to actors reconstruct first-hand accounts of the sinking, and, afterwards, checks the fate of the passenger whose ticket she’s been given, one Daisy Minihane, 33 years old (“I wish!” says Shaw), who was travelling first class.
She does seem genuinely taken aback to discover that Daisy survived the disaster, but died shortly afterwards of pneumonia.
Shaw is a guest of Fáilte Ireland, on a tour of some of the sites featured in their branding initiative, Ireland’s Ancient East, launched this year.
Ireland’s Ancient East takes in some of the country’s best known historical sites and Shaw is approaching the tour with the same vigour and scholarly curiosity with which she tackles all her creative projects.
There’s no better starting point than Cobh, where Shaw was born and where her father, consultant eye specialist Denis Wilson, is buried. Cobh’s stories are familiar to Shaw; her father was a keen local historian.
“He died five years ago, but he knew everything about Cobh. When he died we had the lunch in The Water’s Edge restaurant here. A huge boat came past when we were sitting down to lunch and everyone just stopped to look at it. Somehow it felt like a last salute to him. You know when you feel that there’s something else present, that you’re experiencing an inanimate visitation? It was strange. My father would have loved it.”
She’s just back from working on a TV project in Winnipeg, a horror series called Candle Cove, and is, she says, “just finished a huge arc of things and preparing for the next round”.
She mentions a string of tantalising projects and then waves them airily away: “That’s not how these things are announced.”
Now 57, Shaw emits an effusive energy. Her time is divided between her house in London’s Primrose Hill, a recently acquired apartment in New York, her peripatetic working life, and family: “I have two brothers in France and my mother is here and I work abroad, so there are times I feel like I don’t know where I am, but I’ll be here for the autumn,” she says.
Like departees from Heartbreak Quay, in Cobh, where successive waves of Irish left for brighter futures, Shaw left following her graduation from UCC to attend RADA in London. “Like a lot of people who went away, I went because the skillset was better,” she says.
“I intended to come back, but very quickly I was in the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company and after that my career was more international.”
Her involvement with various Centenary Year projects has sparked a revival of interest in Irish history for Shaw. As well as presenting Seven Women for RTÉ, in May she was artist in residence for The Kennedy Centre’s Ireland 100 celebrations in Washington, DC.
“It was wonderful because it got me very interested in the revisionism of the century,” she says.
"Really what I took out of is that we are a brand new country; this is a much more exciting Ireland than the one I left.”
Shaw is well-known for her reticence about her personal life and opinions; a question on the Abbey Theatre, this year’s Waking The Feminists movement and the subsequent equality policy drawn up by the theatre’s management is met with an arched eyebrow: “I was approached, but I didn’t want to comment on it. I live in England; it’s not my position to make any statement on it. Of course in the general sense I want gender equality. My whole career has been about that.”
Back to Ireland’s Ancient East, and the other stops on her itinerary: Kilkenny City, Jerpoint Abbey, and Huntington Castle in Carlow, among others.
“There’s a sleepy beauty in them that’s like an invitation to wake them up. I’d call it Ireland’s Waking East; it’s about waking up and discovering what we have to offer. We had a hugely dominating Church that really darkened everything outside religion for a very long time. That takes a lot of recovering from.”
For Shaw, the struggle for recovery is centred around the arts and the kind of cultural products she sees emerging from Ireland in the next 100 years. “You have to embrace history, but you also have to shed it.
“Culturally in terms of the theatre, there’s a limit to what you can learn from Irish writers writing for Irish audiences in Irish theatres; we should start exporting our versions of the world’s stories, not just our version of our stories. I’d be more interested in the Abbey Theatre’s Richard III that’s gone to Tokyo than in The Plough and the Stars. That’s when you become a real cultural centre, and we’re just starting to come to that now. It’s about confidence, really, and the next generation have that.”