Mrs Brown's girl: Eilish's homecoming
For years Eilish O'Carroll has delighted audiences in Mrs Brown's Boys. She spoke to us about coming out and coming home
Eilish O'Carroll warns me upfront that she is about to delve into a personal and painful memory from her youth. I instinctively reach for the Kleenex, in case things get totes emosh altogether. "I was on the back seat of the bus in Dublin, it was the number 40," she begins gravely. "The traffic was very heavy. There was a lot of noise from the engine as the bus stalled. I was sitting on the upper deck. And the vibration from the engine rumbling up through the bus caused some … unexpected feelings in my body. I'll leave the rest to your imagination. Just to say, the number 40 has always meant an awful lot to me."
Sacred God as Agnes herself might say. I discreetly slide the Kleenex away, although it might be needed to wipe away a tear or two or mirth. As one of the stars of Mrs Brown's Boys - she is Brendan O'Carroll's sister, and a long veteran of the stage both here and in Britain, Eilish has well-honed comic timing and isn't afraid to go there.
In recent years she's also harnessed that gift for an uproarious one-woman show, Live Love Laugh, which has won warm plaudits at the Edinburgh Festival and elsewhere. The show deals with the colourful ups and downs of her lifetime, which has thus far seen two marriages, two sons, a mid-life coming out and happy reinvention in West Cork. And, of course, she has been an integral part of the late blooming phenomenon that Mrs Brown's Boys has become - she plays Agnes' nice, if ever so slightly dim best pal Winnie McGoogan.
This past week, the show was voted best British Sitcom of this Millennium by the readers of the Radio Times. "That's really lovely, of course it is," she tells me. "But I was there back in the old days when we were just trying to get bums on seats in small venues. I thought it was great then and I think it's still great now. The success didn't change how I thought of it."
Eilish grew up in a family of ten (Brendan took her place as the baby of the family) in Finglas with a carpenter father and a mother who was the first female Labour TD in country. Despite this, money was tight; Eilish didn't have a bed to herself until she was in her teens. She loved performing as a child and would go on to perform in pubs and clubs with a band called Pentagon.
Life got in the way of her burgeoning singing career - she met and married her former husband and settled with him in Surrey where they raised their two sons, Stuart and Lee. Her marriage ended after eight years, and she met her second husband two years later. In mid-life, however, Eilish would began a relationship with a close female friend. Despite attempts to blame her feelings on a phase or even early menopause, she soon realised they weren't going away and that her marriage was over.
"I've no regrets about it now but it was hard at the time", she says. "I lived around the corner from (her former husband and sons) so I could still come and do the washing. I did go in once and do the hoovering when they weren't there, I have a bit about that in my show. I remained very close to my ex-husband over the years, he was definitely my biggest supporter at the time."
She would move back to Ireland, but by then the property boom had priced her out of Dublin and she settled instead in Cork, where she connected with a local lesbian group, adjusted to her new life and overcame her own internalised homophobia. She met her partner Marian in 2003 and they have been together ever since. Both of them cheered for the Yes vote in last year's marriage referendum, but Eilish says she has no notion of getting married again.
"I thought it was very important that it would be there for everyone as a right but I have already been married twice. To my mind marriage is a great institution because it protects children. But it's also an old-fashioned institution and a bit of a straitjacket, it's very confining. I don't think you need it to show you love someone. Of course, within minutes of the Yes vote I had media people ringing saying "so … when's the big day?"
Marian works as a stage manager on Mrs Brown's Boys and Eilish balances her hectic filming schedule with writing and performing her one-woman show. She will also speak in September at the Festival Of Women, which will be held in the RDS. "It's a man's world still," she tells me. "And I'm pro anything that has women speaking up for other women. There'll be a panel on the day and we'll take audience questions."
The couple are also in the process of moving from West Cork to Dublin. They've bought a house in North Strand ("You can take the girl out of Finglas…"). "When I moved back first houses seemed to go up by ten grand every time you looked at them. My plan was always that as soon as things settle I'll move back. There has been a lot of work to be done to the house in Dublin. But it's very close to the centre, so it'll be easy to get in and out of town." On the number 40 presumably.
Eilish O'Carroll will perform Live Love Laugh at St John's Theatre Listowel on Thursday, September 8 (box office 06822566) - tour dates and ticket info from http://eilishocarroll.com/
The Festival of Women runs Fri-Sun, September 16-18. Tickets from www.festivalofwomen.ie