‘When the Tuam babies story broke it really brought it home to us’ - Simone Kirby on heartbreaking Resistance adoption story
The Irish actress talks about the real stories behind the women of Resistance, successfully juggling parenthood with acting, and a return to theatre
During the first episode of RTE’s new drama series Resistance, one heartbreaking scene particularly moved viewers, and that was the moment Ursula Sweeney, played by Simone Kirby, was forced to say goodbye to her sleeping son Tomás by a Catholic nun at an orphanage, having just been informed that he would be adopted by a couple in Boston.
Ursula, a code-breaker in Dublin Castle during the War of Independence, had to give her child up as she was pregnant and unmarried when her fiancé was killed at war.
During filming of the series, written by Colin Teevan and directed by Caterhine Morshead, the shocking, tragic story of the burial of possibly hundreds of babies and children in a mass grave on the site of a former Bon Secours Mother and Baby home in Tuam, Co Galway, broke. So, that scene and that storyline had an even weightier resonance for Simone, fellow cast, and crew.
“This happened to so many women and it’s not all that long ago,” Simone tells Independent.ie. “When the story broke of the Tuam babies that really brought it home to us because we had started filming before that story broke and then we heard all that, and we were really shocked, and it made us feel this story was even more important.”
On set on the day that scene was filmed things were uncharacteristically quiet. On such a serious shoot – the forced adoption storyline is just one of several weighty plot strands playing out at the height of the War of Independence – cast and crew had great crack, but that day was sombre. And as the mother of a boy very similar in age and looks to Tomás (played by Dylan Heath), Simone did not have to do much digging to embody her character.
“The kid who played my son was incredible,” she says of Dylan. “He was the sweetest, sweetest kid. He was so cute and he was initially quite shy so a lot of those first scenes I did with him he was just like that.”
She adds, “He was so, so, cute so actually it didn’t take much for him to break my heart. I have a boy who looks like him and he was four at the time, my son, so he was a little bit younger but they’re both blonde and they’re similar kids so that I suppose helps as well.”
While Ursula is a fictional character among a mix of fictional and real figures, her plight is loosely based on a true story. Teevan, who also penned this series’ precursor, Rebellion, drew from the life of Josephine O’Donoghue.
“Her husband died and she had a custody battle and lost her eldest son who was sent to live with her in-laws in Wales. She was fighting to try to get him back. She was working in Cork in Victoria Barracks and the IRA helped her to get her son back in exchange for her helping them with information,” explains Simone.
“There were a lot of women who were spies and were helping the IRA in different roles so [the story] is loosely based on her but on other women as well.” Of understanding Ursula’s willingness to partake in espionage, she adds, “When it comes to your children it’s kind of a no-brainer. You’d do anything.”
Resistance boasts several interesting women among its protagonists. Natasha O’Keeffe plays Ursula’s lawyer sister while Aoife Duffin plays a journalist for Sinn Féin’s propaganda department. However, Teevan has said the women will become sidelined somewhat as the drama continues, much as they did at the time.
“With Aoife Duffin’s storyline, she’s such a sparky character, but she’s surrounded by men who probably won’t listen to her really,” says Simone. “And Natasha, who plays my sister, as a lawyer, where is she going to end up? We know that in the 1930s and 40s in Ireland, if you were a school teacher, for example, and you got married, you had to give it up.”
However, at the time the action is set, in November 1920, there were women who were free to pursue professional careers. The Marriage Bar, which prevented women in the Civil Service and many private companies, from working after they married, was not introduced until the following decade.
Despite the weighty themes and “absolutely freezing” November weather (“there’s no warmth in those women’s clothes and those tiny shoes - I don’t know how my grandmother survived at all”), Simone says the cast, particularly herself, O’Keeffe, and Brian Gleeson, kept things light-hearted behind the scenes. In an interview with the Irish Independent last week Natasha described Simone as “great crack” and a “piss-taker”. Simone insists she has “no idea what she means”.
Growing up in Ennis, Co Clare, the opportunities for budding actress Simone were slim. There was no theatre in the town when she was a child (Glór opened in 2001) and she does not come from an acting family but she always had the bug and was eventually drawn to Galway for its arts scene; “Galway was such a hub of theatre and music and in the mid 90s it was a brilliant place to be so I made a beeline for Galway when I finished school.”
She studied Arts for just one year before dropping out and joining Galway Youth Theatre, progressing to the Gaiety School of Acting, followed by a move to London, where she is still based, with her husband, the actor and writer Fergal McElherron.
A prolific theatre actress she has performed with The Old Vic, Shakespeare’s Globe, The Irish Rep in New York as well as The Abbey and The Gate amongst others in Ireland. In recent years, however, she has taken a step back from theatre, although Fergal is still heavily involved, to spend time with their son and focus on TV and film projects which demand less time and commitment.
Off the stage, she is probably most familiar to Irish households for her TV roles in RTE series Pure Mule and Single-Handed and, more recently, Clean Break, Love/Hate and BBC hit Peaky Blinders. She is also gearing up to appear in several episodes of Silent Witness.
Her critically acclaimed big screen breakthrough, as the lead in Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall in 2014, led to roles in the BBC’s Mother’s Day, The Flag, England is Mine and an IFTA-nominated turn in Notes on Blindness.
She was a very new, breastfeeding mother when Loach was casting his period drama, so she had to travel to Ireland with the baby, without Fergal who was working at Shakespeare’s Globe. Thankfully her mother stepped in to help her care for him for the ten week shoot. Simone broached the subject of breastfeeding and its demands to Loach during their initial meeting but he was unperturbed.
“Ken Loach and Rebecca O’Brien, who produced it, they were brilliant, they knew what was involved. When I first met him my son was only 16 weeks old and I was really upfront with him and I told him and it didn’t faze him at all, and he gave me the job. They were really helpful, so they made it possible.”
This experience was echoed on the set of Resistance for Natasha O’Keeffe. Her baby was just three months old during the shoot, but a female director, female producer, and largely female team on the project made it possible.
“You just need that kind of support. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be able to work and it does work if people understand your situation and are willing to sort of help out a little bit,” says Simone of working motherhood. “But it doesn’t require much really, just someone to support you like Natasha’s husband supported her, or my mother supported me.”
Among Simone’s other credits are two big budget Disney ventures, Alice Through the Looking Glass, and the upcoming big screen adaptation of Irish author Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, although she describes herself as “such a small cog in the wheel”. She is a bigger presence in Lee Cronin’s upcoming creepy debut, the Sundance-bound The Hole in the Ground, which also stars the brilliant Seána Kerslake. The heart-pounding trailer (see above) landed this week and has critics feeling more than a little excited. Simone will also appear opposite Barry Keoghan and Cosmo Landis in Calm with Horses, Nick Rowland’s adaptation of Colin Barrett’s collection of short stories.
This year will also see Simone return to theatre for the first time since the birth of her son, and come full circle back to her native Ennis, in a play written by Fergal, with Rough Magic and Glor, in Ennis, co-producing.
Resistance continues on RTE One tonight at 9.30pm.