Friday 13 December 2019

Bondings: Sisters by blood, friends by choice

Catherine and Eileen Walsh are delighted to be acting together - on the stage - for the very first time, writes Andrea Smith

Sisters Eileen and Catherine Walsh were both bitten by the acting bug. Photo: Michael McSweeney
Sisters Eileen and Catherine Walsh were both bitten by the acting bug. Photo: Michael McSweeney

When she finished school at 17, Catherine Walsh was particularly heartbroken at leaving her school's drama society in Cork to go to Dublin to study acting.

Her teacher was Ger Canning, now an RTE sports commentator, and he consoled her by saying that this was only the beginning of things for her. "You don't understand," she sobbed. "My younger sister Eileen is coming up and she's even better than me."

Catherine, 47, is second-eldest of the five children in their family, and she has a twin brother Michael, a computer technician. Eileen, 39, is eight years younger and the baby. Oldest sibling, Mary, is a teacher who lives in Cork, while Bernadette, who comes between Catherine and Eileen, is a social worker living in Australia. They're all very close and they have a great relationship with their mum, Rita, an ICA stalwart.

Their dad Timmy had a sudden heart attack and passed away without warning 18 months ago, leaving the family heartbroken.

Eileen was rehearsing The Tempest in Newcastle at the time. She dropped everything and came home, and then had to return for the performances, which was hard.

Of all the family, Catherine and Eileen were the theatrical ones and both pursued acting as a career. Eileen was only nine when Catherine left to do a summer course with the National Youth Theatre in Dublin, followed by a two-year diploma in theatre studies at Trinity College. Eileen says that whenever her sister came home to Turner's Cross, she seemed 'very exotic', and she went up on the train to visit her, "usually sitting beside a nun for safety". "Eileen was always very funny and entertaining," Catherine recalls.

Eileen also did the acting course at Trinity, and both sisters have pursued very successful acting careers since then. Eileen had a boost early on when she played the lead role in the stage version of Enda Walsh's Disco Pigs, where her performance was widely praised. She also gave a stand-out performance as Crispina in the 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters and was recently seen in Can't Cope, Won't Cope and Catastrophe. "Eileen always brings a great lightness, which extends to her acting," says Catherine. "She can go to very low depths and great heights in a performance, but there is always a light touch, which isn't easy to achieve."

Eileen combines stage and screen, while Catherine is mostly a stage actor whose performances have garnered great critical acclaim. Her favourite roles were The Synge Cycle and Bailegangaire with Druid and Eugene O'Brien's play Eden. "Catherine's performance in Eden is one of the best I have ever witnessed," says Eileen. "She is incredibly focused and the amount of research she does is phenomenal, and it has an incredible pay-off on stage. As a person, I have yet to meet anyone with a bigger heart, sometimes to her own detriment. She is too kind and too lovely and will extend herself as much as she can. She's probably the most selfless person I know."

Due to the age gap, the sisters have never gone up against each other for a part, but Catherine says that this may all change when Eileen turns 40 this year. "I'll be saying, 'Oh she has them all'," she jokes. The sisters are delighted to be performing together for the very first time in the world premiere of Enda Walsh's new play, The Same, and it's an added bonus that it's on in the old Cork Prison premises on Rathmore Road. While Eileen now lives in London, Catherine is based in Dublin, so they are revelling in the novelty of living at home again for a few weeks and having their mum wave them off to rehearsals every morning.

The two-woman show is produced by Corcadorca theatre company to mark its 25th anniversary, and is directed by Pat Kiernan. The sisters both play Lisa, who meets herself 10 years down the line and is going through a breakdown. "It's about what happens when you meet your future self and if you can help and advise your old self," Eileen explains. "It explores whether you'll take that advice or whether your future path is already laid down? Like all of Enda's work, it's very much a love story, and it's really kind of left-field and will take you by surprise."

Enda actually wrote the play specifically with Eileen and Catherine in mind, and while the subject is serious, there is a comedic edge to all of the playwright's work. "Catherine previously did The New Electric Ballroom, so we both know Enda's work and his language so well," says Eileen. "It's an exploration of ourselves in a lonely state, so everyone can access it. No matter how busy your world is, or whether you have 1,000 followers on Twitter, everyone experiences loneliness at times."

Catherine is single, while Eileen met her husband, Stuart McCaffer, when she was performing in Edinburgh and went to have her hair cut. He's a barber who is now working as a sculptor. They have two daughters, Tippy, 11, and Ethel, eight, both of whom are showing a theatrical streak, much to their mother's chagrin. "I think I have no time, but Eileen manages to act and do school runs and she also teaches spinning classes," says Catherine, admiringly. "I'm completely in awe of her."

The Same runs from February 13-25 at the old Cork Prison premises on Rathmore Road. Tickets from Triskel Arts Centre: Info:

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