When Catherine Byrne joined the Abbey School of Acting aged 19, it caused a frisson of excitement as her dad was the late film star Eddie Byrne, who had roles in movies like Mutiny on the Bounty and Star Wars. Among those eagerly anticipating her arrival was student John Olohan, then aged 26, who waited at the top of the stairs with his pal, Gareth Keogh, to catch a glimpse of her. "Patrick Mason was doing a movement class with us, so we were all looking sweaty with red faces and our hair tied back," Catherine recalls. "I also had terribly spotty skin, so when the door opened, everyone looked at me and then walked away. They wrote me off when they saw me."
A week later, Catherine saw John playing a 12-year-old boy in a children's play, and only realised that he wasn't actually a child when he came up to her afterwards in the pub. "We thought he was so annoying, this little culchie talking to us, but we ended up becoming great friends," Catherine laughs. "We had a really good laugh, and found it really easy to talk to each other. We never thought about each other romantically, initially."
It was when they were cast as Phoebe and Silvius in a touring production of As You Like It that Catherine and John fell for one another. They got married two years later in 1979, when Catherine was 25 and John was 32, and have two sons, Jack (34), who has an online radio station, Radiomade, and Max (29), an art teacher. "Catherine is full of stories and life, and she's great fun," says John. "If I have a problem, she's the only one who knows exactly what I need to do to solve it."
Catherine (62), grew up in Clontarf as the youngest of four children. Her dad was away working a lot, and filming Mutiny took him away from home for 13 months, during which time Catherine, then aged seven, didn't see him once. Her late mum Kitty had been both an actress and a hairdresser before she married - she was part of the well-known Thuillier hairdressing family - and Catherine spent a lot of time alone with her when her older siblings moved on. "We were really close and she was a real character," she says. "I would have a cup of tea and she would have a gin and a smoke while we watched TV together."
Catherine had dyslexia, which wasn't recognised very well back then, so school was difficult for her. She left and began working in Arnotts on the stocking counter, and became a junior in window interior display. At 19, she decided to contact the Abbey to see if they did training in stage design, but they said they only did actor training. While she hadn't really thought about it before, Catherine decided to apply and her mum helped her to prepare pieces for her audition. She was successful and became a student of the Abbey School of Acting. "We didn't tell my father I was applying because we both knew he would loathe it," she says. "When I started, it was like someone waved a wand over me as I felt like this was where I should be."
Catherine became very successful and a big highlight for her was Dancing at Lughnasa, which ran in New York and London. She was in New York for 20 weeks when the boys were small, but John was able to bring them over to visit. "We always supported each other," she says. "I would stay at home with the kids while John was away, and when he came back, I would take a job. I know some people found it very strange that the mammy would be gone, but we ignored that. I honestly found having babies and little kids isolating, but John was fantastic and would come in and take over. I couldn't be with someone who didn't do that. He allowed me to go off and do what I want while he took care of the kids, and I hope I did the same for him."
Catherine is probably best known for playing Dr Judith Dillon on Fair City. She left the RTE soap two years ago, and is also a stone sculptor. The two career strands work well together, she explains, as it means she doesn't get anxious during breaks from acting.
John (69), grew up in Kells, Co. Meath, as the eldest of the late Jack and Eileen's three children. His father ran The Railway Inn and the family lived above it. "It was hectic and mad, so when I was asked to come into the business and run the pub, I ran," he says. "Eamon Carr was my best friend, and we formed a group even though we couldn't play instruments."
John loved drawing and painting and still draws today, but his parents weren't keen on him going to art college. He did maths, biochemistry and zoology at Trinity College, but didn't like it and left college after three years. He got a job in a factory, drawing patterns on material and copying them on to photographic plates, which he hated. He got interested in doing a producer's course in the Abbey, and they also informed him that they only did acting classes. He applied and got in and has also been very successful.
He's delighted to be reprising his award-winning role of Byrne in Big Maggie at the Gaiety, alongside Aisling O'Sullivan and Keith Duffy. Set in 1960s rural Ireland and shocking for its time, the John B Keane play is directed by Garry Hynes and is a compelling portrait of a woman who is determined to take control of her life following the death of her husband.
It's rare in the theatrical world to find a marriage that has lasted like Catherine and John's, so what's the secret? "I can't imagine being married to someone not in the business because our job is strange," Catherine muses. "You become very close to people you're working with and it's hard to understand that if you're not in it. You can't have 38 years of all glowing sunshine, but we said we would stick together so we got through the difficult bits. You have to work at a marriage, and sometimes it's crazily hard, but it was definitely worth it."
The Druid production of Big Maggie by John B Keane runs at The Gaiety Theatre from January 29 to February 20.
Tickets from €21, www.ticketmaster.ie
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