When you're MacLovin' it
"Sh*t got real" very quickly for Maclean and Ashleen Burke, but they're still a very strong, committed team
When she came home to Greystones for a break in 2000, Ashleen Darbey had been working in London as a nurse for the elderly for 10 years. While a romantic relationship there had broken down, she planned to go back as she was very ambitious around her career and had been working as the manager of a nursing home.
She never made it back as her friends brought her to a Bagatelle concert that changed the course of her life. She was introduced to actor Maclean Burke, best known as Damien in RTE soap Fair City, although she didn't know who he was as she lived away. "He was very funny, and I think he had his eye on me because he kept coming over and doing impressions," she recalls. "I loved him the minute I saw him, to be honest, and we started going out, but I had reservations and couldn't understand why."
Ash was 29 and Mac assured her that he was two years younger. So what attracted him? "Ash was a ride," he says, "and she still is. She's gorgeous-looking and way beyond what I was usually chasing, and we had the best fun. We were so mad about one another, I would text her immediately after a date to ask her what she was doing later and see if she wanted to hang out? We haven't been apart since."
While they had a magical time, to quote the hilarious Ash, "sh*t got very real very quickly," as she discovered she was pregnant within a month of their meeting. She told Mac while they were sitting in her car, and was aghast when the shocked young man confessed that he had told her two fibs. "He confessed that he was only 22," she smiles. "And he didn't have a full driver's licence although he'd been driving my car. We had our gorgeous son Cillian, now 14, and he was followed by Jude, 13, Ava, 11, and Beau, 3. Things were very hairy and stressful, because we had an awful lot on in a very short space of time, but it worked. Life is busy and we don't get a minute but we're happy and blessed. The trivial stuff doesn't matter."
Ash and Mac got married in 2003 and say that his parents and her mum were amazing. "My parents Alice and Des have always been 100pc behind me," says Mac. "Obviously, at the time they thought, 'Oh God,' because I was so young, but they supported us completely."
Now 44, Ash grew up in Greystones. Sadly her father Philip died of meningitis when she was only eight months old and her sister was two years older. Her mum Rita was heartbroken, but was amazing in the face of such adversity and became a Montessori teacher. Ash was always fun-loving, and while she admits to being a tad wild as a teenager, she was never into drink or drugs.
By contrast, Mac, who has a younger and an older sister, was introverted and quiet growing up, and because he was "lanky," he was bullied when he lived in Sallynoggin. His family moved to Greystones when he was 12, and his parents now live in Wexford.
"Once my mam sent me to get a sliced pan, and I came home with only a heel because some lads gave me a good kicking," he recalls. "That's how I got into drama. I was dragged kicking and screaming to classes at Take 2 to give me something to do, and I remember crying to Pamela Hughes and telling her I didn't want to be there. But then it clicked and I started with a beautiful woman, the late Gladys Sheehan from Bray, who really made the best of me."
Mac worked on acting projects all the way through school, including roles in Saving Private Ryan and In the Name of the Father. Now 37, he made his Fair City debut in 1998. and has worked on the popular soap since then. "Playing Damien has been marvellous and the years have passed in the blink of an eye," he says. "You only get booked for a certain amount of weeks per year, so you need to have something else going on. There were times in the beginning when things got slow, and I'd do anything to earn money. I drove vans around, and moved to Wexford at one point, selling windows. It was gas going into people's homes and seeing Fair City calendars on the walls."
Mac will shortly take the title role in Fiona Looney's new play, Are You There Garth, It's Me, Margaret, which also stars Deirdre O'Kane as Margaret. It's centred on last year's cancelled Garth Brooks concerts, and is a tale of cowboys, Mexicans, angry residents, happy residents, the GAA, civil servants, courts, politicians and one woman's hopes and dreams, The cast all play several characters, and Mac says it's a brilliantly hilarious take on the fiasco that consumed the country in 2014.
Having been raised by a very strong woman, Ash thinks you need to give each other space in a relationship. What does she think when she sees Mac acting and does she mind the fact that he has leading ladies? "I'm really proud of him," she says. "He has been kissing a lot of women over the years and I don't give it a thought, although the kids find it a bit iffy. Beau can't get her head around him having a girlfriend on TV. She says, 'No, Mammy is your girlfriend'."
To keep the romance alive, Mac and Ashleen have a little date night at home every week, where they light a candle and have a catch-up. Mac's mum is a medium, and Ash says that Mac has something in him that is beyond intuition. "Mac is ahead of his time," she says. "He knows instinctively if someone else is struggling. He's a very humble fella and the kindest man I've ever met, and he's an amazing, hands-on father."
Now they are coming out the other end of the busy, early parenting years, it is really only now that the delightful pair are getting to know each other as people. How would Mac describe his wife? "Ash is strong, headstrong, very kind, to a fault, and a fantastic mother," he says. "She's also very funny, and is a far nicer person than me to be around. She's hugely honest too - Ash doesn't do bullshit and I just love her dearly."
Are You There, Garth? It's Me, Margaret, runs at the Gaiety Theatre from October 13 to 25. Bookings www.ticketmaster.ie
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