Terry Prone: ‘Shovel friends’ are those who never seek credit for good deeds

Star of much-praised Irish film An Cailín Ciúin, Carrie Crowley reaches out and rescues people without crowing about it on social media
Terry Prone: ‘Shovel friends’ are those who never seek credit for good deeds

Carrie Crowley and Catherine Clinch in a scene from ‘An Cailín Ciúin’.

THE last time I went to a cinema on my own was when I was 13. The arrangement was that I would go after school and my father would join me on his way home from work and find me in the cinema. The movie? Something about St Francis of Assisi. 

To be nothing but honest, the early section of it was something of a disappointment. Francis seemed a nice guy who talked to birds but only of the feathered kind. The problem was that the birds didn’t talk back. Having seen Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Brothers more than once, I was used to birds doing cute things like helping Snow White decorate her apple tart, and the Assisi birds, while they were respectful enough to the local lad, were a bit dull, by comparison.

Things livened up, though, when a man sat down beside me in the dark and firmly clutched my knee. I leaped to my feet, inhaling two lungfuls of air, ready to scream the Fairview Cinema down. “It’s me,” the man said, tugging the belt of my coat. “Your father.” I had forgotten he was due to pitch up.

The first solo run since then came a few days ago, when I went to see the much-praised An Cailín Ciúin. A friend had sent me a copy of the novella — Foster — on which the film is based and I was so enthralled by it that I was eager to see how it transferred to the big screen. 

For long stretches, early on, it is like a grisaille painting — in colour, but just about, all of the hues anaemic, washed out, monochramatic.

And then the foster mother appears and the first close-up of her face lights up the screen. She greets the little girl who has been farmed out to her and her husband, dropping to her hunkers to meet the silent child eye to eye. Her character carries hope and promise. When the damaged youngster, on the first night, wets the bed, the foster mother’s response is so cleverly, kindly creative that the guilt hovering over the child evaporates.

Catherine Clinch stars with Carrie Crowley in An Cailín Ciúin.
Catherine Clinch stars with Carrie Crowley in An Cailín Ciúin.

The performance, mostly in beautiful Irish, by Carrie Crowley, is unerring and understated. The tall, slender shape of her as she carries buckets to the well, her other long hand cradling the child’s. The unmade-up face, filled with the memory of pain and the urge to reduce the pain experienced by little Cait. 

The back-handed wiping away of onion-induced tears. The firmly gentle insistence on finding out what was the devastating secret shared with the kid by an inquisitive gossipy neighbour. The portrayal is so fine, you can’t imagine anybody else ever playing the role, nor can you imagine that this actor ever portrayed anybody else or ever had another life.

Except that she did. For people who watched a lot of TV in the last decade of the 20th century, Carrie Crowley’s name immediately kicks up a recollection of a TV presenter with a big smiling mouth, great dark amused eyes, and a fountain of corkscrew curls. 

In the mid 1990s, she did what she calls “accidental tourism” in RTÉ, presenting a spectacularly staged chat show with aplomb, plus other TV and radio offerings. She was confident, assured, famous, and looked like nobody else.

To be interviewed by her was to see a self-confessed Gay Byrne admirer in action. She had watched him and learned from him, asking questions, listening to the answers, catching what was unspoken. She shared little about herself, allowing guests to stand free of cloying empathy or admiration. 

In a live programme, she was unusual in being demonstrably unafraid of the unexpected. She was technically proficient and a good audio editor. She had the look of a stayer, of someone who would always be around RTÉ, perhaps, if front-of-house ceased to fascinate her, moving into production.

No regrets

Except that the opposite happened. Effectively, she disappeared. She could have kept going in another TV vehicle after the two years of her chat show, but she didn’t. Unimaginably, she seemed to have done all she wanted to do in that genre, been as famous as she wanted to be, and so she more or less disappeared herself. No regrets. No rage. No looking wistfully back at this patch of fame.

Carrie Crowley at the gala screening of the film An Cailín Ciúin, which opened the 20th Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival at Cineworld Dublin. Picture: Brian McEvoy Photography
Carrie Crowley at the gala screening of the film An Cailín Ciúin, which opened the 20th Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival at Cineworld Dublin. Picture: Brian McEvoy Photography

Today, in interviews, she ruefully registers her imprinting on a generation of TV viewers. It lasted three years, she points out, her TV presenter time. Three years out of 57. After it, she happily went back to what she had always seen herself as being — an actress — supplementing her stage and film work by singing. 

“Happily” is the key word, here. You won’t meet many people as fundamentally happy with life as is Carrie Crowley. Not driven. Not hungry for recognition. Just glad to do good work and happy with her life, which includes a husband she met on a bus as they both headed home late one evening.

The obvious balance in the life of the famous lies between the work they do and the publicity they do to market the product. But with Carrie Crowley, there’s a third thread to how she is known, at least among a small cohort. It’s the kindness thread.

As Michael Caine might say, not a lot of people know that Crowley has the instincts of a triage nurse when it comes to people who are experiencing setbacks in their lives or careers. She knows the ones who are making a fuss about nothing and she homes in on the ones in real trouble who can be rescued by the crucial intervention of a disinterested third party.

She doesn’t signal her support on social media. Just reaches out and rescues people. And, having rescued them, claims no subsequent ownership of them, letting them float out of her aegis. It’s a rare trait, that instinct for covert emotional Red Cross service. Mary Harney has it, too. You might indirectly hear about their consequential kindnesses, but never from them.

Someone invented a definition for this kind of supportive availability, positing the notion that if you had a body that needed burying, they’d be the person you’d call, knowing they’d be around in no time, no questions asked, bearing a shovel. 

You could call them ‘shovel friends’. It is not irrelevant, at this time of high global irascibility and vicious dismissal of other humans, to acknowledge the value of that characteristic, particularly in someone famous who has never mentioned it or sought credit for it.

At this point, Carrie Crowley, because of her heartbreakingly honest performance in An Cailín Ciúin, faces a period of unique opportunity and possibility as an actress. She’s surfing a well-earned wave of fame.

I haven’t talked to her in two decades. But if I’d a body that needed burying, she’s the one I would call, confident that — no matter how busy she was — she’d come around later with a shovel.

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