Finding the joy in sorrow

CARRIE Crowley cried at one point during this conversation. Not surprisingly, given that she was talking about the relatively recent death of a parent. But even more revealing than public tears from this most private of people - it's taken me six years to convince her to give a 'personal life' interview - was the fact that, even as Carrie cried, there were traces of a smile in her eyes.

Likewise, the more Crowley spoke about the actual circumstances of her father's death, the more she assumed the other-worldly glow of a woman reliving one of the most spiritual experiences of her life - which, indeed, that death turned out to be. Carrie's sense of elation was no less palpable as she reflected upon her mother's death. So much so that one soon realises if you want to travel to the soul of Carrie Crowley you simply sit back and let her talk about her folks.

Sure, Carrie is "passionate" about her role in This Ebony Bird, the play she's currently rehearsing, and says "it has the potential to be stunning" and "hopes audiences give it a chance", but her real story begins and will probably end as a song of praise to her parents.

Carrie Crowley was born 40 years ago, raised in Waterford, has one older sister, Brid, and their mother and father Nodlaig and Con were, respectively, "a teacher and a guard". Nodlaig Crowley had "her first bout of breast cancer" when Carrie was in fifth year and appearing in a school production of Oliver! but her parents didn't even want to explain "what cancer was" at first.

"Yet I do remember the day she found out about it," says Carrie, as we sit in the Shelbourne Hotel. "I came home from school and there was a smell of smoke in the house, which was unusual, because nobody smoked cigarettes. But my mother was sitting at the kitchen table and had chain-smoked a packet of 10. Yet all she said was that she had to go to hospital and have 'surgery'.

"My mother didn't even mention cancer, because she andmy father were so aware whatdoing Oliver! meant to me. I wasn't told about it until the dayafter the show ended. They were wonderful people."

Carrie "got a great buzz from Oliver! but acting "wasn't a practical option", so she subsequently became a teacher and, when she eventually decided to quit that job, her folks accepted the decision.

"Myself and my mother weresitting at that same kitchentable and I said: 'I'm not going back.' And though she argued the toss with me, once she knew I had my reasons for doing something, and wasn't just being flighty, she was 100 per cent supportive," claims Crowley.

"Afterwards someone said: 'How could you let your daughter work in a pizzeria?' - that's what I did for six months - and she said: 'Everything we do in life informs us as individuals.' Whereas my father was still cutting ads out of the paper, saying: 'Here's a good job, teaching.' When I got a job in local radio and left to go to Dublin, he said: 'You're giving up a full-time job to take up a contract for just one series of a kids' TV programme!' But he was just saying I should have something to fall back on. Yet he and my mother backed me no matter what I wanted to do. And she really was a solid platform you could always come back to, she had real strength of spirit."

In the early Nineties, Carrie also "did some acting with the Red Kettle theatre company", was "doing a bit of singing", then met the girls with whom she formed the vocal trio Miss Brown to You. But she says she didn't have real confidence in any one area. So how about sexual confidence? Was Crowley, who would later become a figure of romantic longing for TV viewers - male and, presumably, female, given that she was once cited as a gay icon - always aware of how attractive she is?

"Not at all," she says, momentarily taken aback by the question and the compliment. "I have friends who are built like I am, and back when I was at school we were never the kind of 'girly' girls that guys would go out with. So I never really had boyfriends until I moved into my 30s and older men started asking me out.

"Then I realised I was attractive to men. But that doesn't meanthat back when I was 18, 19, I had no one to go out with. It's just that there weren't any big love affairsor passions, nobody swept me off my feet."

But was Carrie herself passionate, did she soak her adolescent soul in romantic poetry, novels, music and so on?

"Absolutely," she responds. "And maybe I was feeling thatpassion through poetry, theatre, cinema, whatever. I certainly was very easily moved to tears bysuch things."

Yet this form of vicarious passion is second-hand living, isn't it?

"Probably, but maybe you need to live second-hand before you can live fully, first-hand," Carrie suggests. "And I don't regret the pace at which things happened, romantically, in my life. I wouldn't have been ready for any of my great passions when I was young. In my 20s, I had love affairs of two or three years that burned themselves out, or turned out not to answer whatever inner need you have."

Did Carrie leave these love affairs or was she given the boot?

"In one case I was given the boot!" she responds, smiling. "And I had cried buckets for a week and got plastered every night, but then he came back, and I didn't engage in the same way, so I left. But that break-up, initially, really hurt because it was my first big love affair and I really believed it was love." Someone once told me 'Carrie doesn't really like men'. Any truth to that?

"And you heard I liked women?"

Yes.

"That's hilarious!" she responds. "I have never ever had a lesbian relationship! But this brings me back to saying I wasn't attractive to men in my teens. At the time I probably was more attractive to women, but I wasn't attracted to them. And I don't regret never having had a lesbian relationship."

Carrie's core romanticism was tested when both her folks died within a year of each other, around 2002. "Dad died first, from cancer, like my mother eventually did, but he died within six months of being diagnosed as having pancreatic cancer," she explains. "But dad also had an unconditional faith and completely believed in the hereafter, and would even joke: 'Sure we're all in the departure lounge, it's just a matter of when your plane is called!'

"But my mother fought it to the end, she didn't want to let go - maybe because her faith wasn't as strong as his. But my greatest memory surrounding my father's death is of the day he died. He was in St Vincent's, here in Dublin, my mother was at home, and myself and my sister were sitting on the stairs outside his ward while the nurse was tending to him, and we said: 'We'll have to get Mom to come up.'

But it was as if he'd heard us and he said to himself: 'Your mother's not well enough for the journey, I'll just go now.' Then the nurse came out and said: 'He is going.' So we went into the room, and at that very moment a priest just happened to be passing, so candles were lit . . . "

At this point Carries cries. "And the priest himself chose to say The Lord Is My Shepherd, which was one of my father's favourite psalms, so my sister and I joined in, and it all seemed so appropriate and so right. Then I lay on the bed touching him, talking to him, joking with him and it was wonderful.

"He was gone, but he was there. And I feel sorry for people who haven't been able to experience that kind of goodbye in terms of a parent. I was exhilarated, exuding joy, and that really helped my mother when we arrived home that night. What my father gifted us though his death carried us through it all."

Even so, a year later, a week before her dad's anniversary, Carrie's mother died.

"But, again, her death was a gift, in a way. Because myself, Brid and Mom had been saying: 'We must go for a holiday,' and for the last two weeks of my mom's life myself and Brid moved into the Mater Hospital and camped on the floor, so we had our holiday!" she says.

"And we looked back over stories in her life and chatted together and that, too, was exhilarating, the perfect way to say goodbye. I even'I don't regret the pace at which things happened, romantically, in my life. I wouldn't have been ready for great passions when I was young'

had the chance to feed my mother, which was gorgeous, because it gave me the chance to nurture her like she nurtured me. And in the end she just slipped away. But I still have the strongest sense of the presence, in my life, of both my mother and father."

The pain of losing her parents on a purely physical level surfaced a year later and left Carrie "crying all the time" and confining herself to bed "for a week, to weep it all out", which was "very healing". Equally healing was the fact that back in 1996 she fell in love with the man whom she married earlier this year, Ross Kelly.

"I had been a commitment-phobe, and that all changed when I met Ross," Carrie asserts. "At first I wasn't sure about him, or us, but then one night, about four months after we met, he called to bring me for dinner, and when he came to the door I just thought: 'I am head over heels in love with this guy!'

"Then, last November we were on holiday and he proposed. I thought he was joking but then I saw he wasn't and I just started crying! We got married in New York - we had a very spiritual ceremony conducted by an inter-faith minister in Ross's brother's bar - and now I am ferociously committed. Maybe, before Ross, I just hadn't met the right person. My sister even says I became an 'evangelist for marriage'!"

All of which leaves only one question. Given that Carrie Crowley is, herself, the child of a clearly sacred union, does she ever long to have a baby that might, 40 years from now, sit with another reporter and sing a song of praise to her in the same way she eulogises her parents?

"If it's to be, it will be. But if not, that too is for a reason," she responds. "And because of how my life has already gone, I don't feel I will be dealt the wrong cards. I was broody around 30, and did go for having a baby, once, but it didn't happen. Yet now, with Ross, I would hate to become obsessed with the idea. I don't feel that driving need.

"Though when my parents died I did feel a sharp knife had cut through the family line and thought: 'They are gone, what's going to continue of them, seeing as though Brid or I don't have children?' But she or I could, still, become pregnant.

"Yet apart from that, after my parents died I also asked myself: 'What is there I haven't done, that I would like to do before I die?' - and one thing I must do is write. I've been putting stuff on scraps of paper for years but now I've half a play written and the bones of a novel, both of which I want to finish. But overall, I couldn't be happier, and totally agree when you say my life has been blessed."

©Joe Jackson

'This Ebony Bird' opens tomorrow at the Half Moon Theatre, Cork

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