Maeve Higgins: An empire state of mind

As Maeve Higgins starts a new column with the Irish Examiner, and her adopted home celebrates Independence Day, she talks to Marjorie Brennan about life in New York, the benefits of a portfolio career and how the cakes will always be nicer in Cork
Maeve Higgins: An empire state of mind

Maeve Higgins, pictured in her hometown of Cobh, Co. Cork. Pic: Clare Keogh

It is the done thing for New Yorkers to decamp to the swanky Hamptons for the summer but for Maeve Higgins, it was her home town of Cobh in Co Cork that beckoned when temperatures began to rise in the Big Apple.

“I can’t stand the summer over there, it is really hot and humid. It is not really a busy time for shows and stuff so I’m back in Cobh staying with my family for the summer,” says Higgins, who has been based in New York for more than seven years. “I’m delighted to be here. The restrictions are easing a bit now and Cobh and Cork city are so gorgeous now, with everyone outside, it makes such a big difference.”

Higgins initially found fame in Ireland as a comedian, in shows such as RTÉ’s Naked Camera, but in recent years she has diversified into acting, podcasting and writing. From next week, she will be contributing a new column in the Forum section of the Irish Examiner, and says she is looking forward to writing for the newspaper she grew up with at home.

“I read the Examiner a lot, and it was the paper we had growing up, obviously. In a US context, I have written a lot about immigration courts, and borders and security for the New York Times — in Ireland, I’m very interested in things like direct provision or the more general migration which we have been only experiencing in the last 20 years or so, and the Examiner has been doing some really good reporting on those subjects.”

Higgins says she will be delving deeper into the complexities of Ireland’s relationship with America.

“It is where I have made my home but I still have a lot of conflicting feelings about it, like a lot of Irish people do. We have this very close relationship with America but at the same time, some days we are like ‘what on earth is going on there?’ Probably the longer I live there, the more questions I have. This column is a great chance to really dig into that and explore some really big questions. What they do in America affects the world because it is such a big, powerful and wealthy country, the decisions they make have a knock-on effect everywhere, including Ireland.”

"It is a fascinating time to be (in America) because there is still that struggle going on."
"It is a fascinating time to be (in America) because there is still that struggle going on."

There will also be room for a more humorous take on topics, for example, the light touch that is applied in the US to things like driving.

“I just got my US licence a few months ago. The test itself lasts eight minutes, it is an automatic car, you push stop or start. I am now qualified to drive on a four-lane freeway in the US. That is so classic of the American experience. It’s like, ‘yeah, you do whatever you want, however dangerous it is’. On the one hand it’s thrilling and independent but on the other hand, it’s like this is probably not the best thing for the community,” she laughs.

While Higgins is enjoying her break at home, she is also looking forward to returning to New York as it emerges from lockdown and begins to recover from the ravages of the pandemic.

“This year has been so weird, for everybody obviously. They had a terrible time in New York and the poor city is only just recovering now. Certainly, the theatre and the performance side, that was hit so badly. Culture — theatre, music and even comedy may not be seen as essential but it does add so much to your life, as an audience member or as a performer. I was really struck by that — that cultural vibrancy really does make it somewhere special.”

Higgins has many irons in the fire when it comes to her career, most recently gaining rave reviews for her performance in the Irish supernatural comedy Extra Ordinary. That versatility stood her in good stead when the pandemic hit and all her performing gigs came to a standstill.

“I was glad of it when the pandemic hit. We live in such a precarious time. Whenever I’m talking to school groups or any younger people, I talk to them about that combination of practicality and also creativity. Acting is really fun and I learned a lot doing Extra Ordinary but I would have to be in three films a year to make a living and that just isn’t going to happen. It’s not like Steven Spielberg is ringing me saying, ‘Maeve, don’t bother writing, come and be in my movie', that’s just not a choice for me.”

Her role model in this regard, is, fittingly, a woman for whom being a New Yorker was less an accident of birth, more a frame of mind.

“Nora Ephron said you should change careers every ten years. That is obviously a very privileged position to be in but she actually did that, she was a reporter, a novelist, a screenwriter, a film director, then a blogger. She had all these different careers — she wrote When Harry Met Sally, like! I do think curiosity is a big part of it and that has served me well. I have been so interested in so many different things and I have been lucky that I could follow them up and really dig into them. Then it’s also a question of practicality because all my live shows went away because of the pandemic. I was lucky I had the writing because lots of people I know who are comedians or actors were at a loss.”

These have been challenging times for America in more ways than one, but while Higgins is still unsure about how things will pan out, she also sees many reasons for hope and optimism.

“It is a fascinating time to be there because there is still that struggle going on. There was a lot of horror over the past four years, especially with racial injustice and the pandemic obviously showed just how unequal it is as a society — if you look at who died in New York versus who did not even get sick, it was poor black and brown people dying. There are also things I find bolstering, for example, the Black Lives Matter protests, the marches and the young people who are not okay with what is happening and who are speaking up and acting. That is incredibly hopeful, they are taking action that could potentially change the course of the country. That is exciting and feels very real in New York at the moment. It is a battle for the country and the future. It does impact us all — Trump pulling out of the Paris Accords, that was devastating. So now Biden is back in again but there is so much work to do there.”

"Now I’m back in Cobh, and everywhere has gorgeous cakes."
"Now I’m back in Cobh, and everywhere has gorgeous cakes."

As Sinatra famously sang of New York, “if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere” and for the most part, it has lived up to the billing for Higgins.

“The things about America that are true are that it does give you a lot of freedom and opportunity. This was the case for me, personally. It has been great for my career, not just the work opportunities but the people I have met over there as well. New York is a transitory kind of place, everybody goes there looking for something, it draws very ambitious people. But to live there, the apartments are pretty manky — even nice apartments, there is something weird about them. Like the washing machine is in the bedroom or something. People don’t believe me when I say that,” she laughs.

“Now I’m back in Cobh, and everywhere has gorgeous cakes, like if you want a scone, there are three options. In New York, it would be like, ‘okay, this place does really good British scones, we have to be there at 8am, and there’s going to be a line’, or else you just get an old bagel off a cart. The lifestyle there, you pay for it. But the rough and tumble is part of it. Things can happen there that really can’t happen anywhere else, and that is the promise of living there and also the trick, because you could be waiting for that forever.”

For now, she is enjoying some time at home with her family, even if sometimes, she feels like a tourist in her home town.

“I am delighted to be here because I have lots of sisters and their kids, who I haven’t had enough time with at all. I can spend time with them now restrictions are easing. My sisters were laughing at me because I am like a tourist, looking at trees and hedges and everything, going ‘ohmigod, it’s soooo beautiful’ in an American accent. They’re like, ‘Jesus Christ, Maeve, that’s just a dead badger’.

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