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Mary McEvoy: Deconstructing Biddy

For 17 years, Mary McEvoy didn't just play Biddy Byrne on 'Glenroe'. She was Biddy, at least in the eyes of upwards of a million people who would watch her as the dowdy, unthreatening -- sexually and otherwise -- farmer's wife every Sunday evening.

It was only when she left the show in 2000 that Irish audiences slowly got to learn more about the real woman behind the woolly jumpers, wax jacket and mucky wellies, getting glimpses of the actress's own personality and history, and, gradually, her private, often agonising battle with depression.

It's that struggle that McEvoy, now aged 56, documents in her new memoir, 'How The Light Gets In', a book in which she isn't afraid to present herself -- if not introduce herself, on a wide scale, for the first time -- as complex, flawed, challenging and difficult, as well as opinionated, unpretentious and honest on topics as diverse as her career, religion, parenting, death, sex, love and ageing.

'Weekend' meets McEvoy on a Tuesday afternoon in the Westbury Hotel off Grafton Street, in a quiet corner of the bar.

"There was a time in the 1980s when, if I'd walked in here, everyone would have probably noticed and known who I am," McEvoy says. "Not any more. Maybe it's because Celtic Tiger Ireland is embarrassed by the country cousins!

"Back in 'Glenroe's' heyday, you'd walk into a place with all of these people and you're be at an immediate disadvantage. It was kind of scary," she continues. "Everyone would have a projection on you too -- either 'there's that nice woman off television', or 'there's that bitch, she has ideas about herself'."

And now? "Recently, I'm getting more notice again on the street because of things I'm doing on TV and radio, and it's made me ask myself if I want all that again. But it's okay, because I'm more grown up about it now, and I'm getting more recognition as myself and not as Biddy."

McEvoy has just come from a session in the gym, as she is currently on a weight-loss crusade with Elaine Crowley on TV3's 'Midday'. She looks flushed and healthy.

She's a bit on edge this afternoon because -- and this won't do much to dispel the image of her as Mrs Miley Byrne -- some of the sheep on her farm in Westmeath are lambing, and her partner of 23 years, Garvan, is, in her words, "having a canary" because of it (by the end of our 90-minute interview, she has three or four missed calls from home. She emails later to assure me that mothers, lambs and Garvan are all fine).

Exercise and weight loss seems a good place to start the interview, as McEvoy reveals how she has spent her life battling with her weight, even confessing to an eating disorder in her late teens and early 20s.

"I think food was my drug of choice, rather than alcohol or heroin," she states. "I'd abuse myself with food. I still have a desire to consume food: it is like injecting something into your veins that serves as a dimmer switch on your life and feelings.

"I've always been self-conscious about my weight and tried diet after diet. The difference this time round is that, having had a medical first, it became about health and well-being. It's not about losing weight but staying healthy.

"Exercise, especially for women, can so often be about bashing yourself for not being good enough. For the first time in my life, I don't know what weight I am. I don't feel the need to be checking it all the time."

The title of McEvoy's book comes from a line in Leonard Cohen's song 'Anthem', which has the lyrics: "There's a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in." McEvoy says she likes that sentiment because it implies that supposed weaknesses can be turned into strengths.

"I'm not ashamed of my depression," she says. "I always think that honesty is the best policy. I'm glad to be put on the record as saying, 'This is what it is, you live with it'. I don't write about curing my depression. I write about learning to live with it.

"I think there are too many happy endings to things, and I don't think life is like that. I don't think that's a negative way of looking at life; I think it's realistic. Somehow we've been lulled into this expectation that there's somewhere we're going to get where there are not any problems. That's not life -- it never was and never will be."

She pauses for a moment. "Happiness and suffering come to people in different ways," she continues. "The thing I strove against for years was to not sit with my depression, but rather to distract myself. Now I go, 'Okay, this is a not-good moment. I'm going to sit with this not-good moment now', and when I do that, I see it's nothing, a phantasm.

"But it is very difficult to come to that conclusion, and if a young person came to me today and said, 'I'm feeling really down', I don't know if I'd have the words to help," she says. "In that instance, you have to stop trying to fix the person. You just have to be there and say, 'You are down, and I can only be here with you'. The worst thing you can say to a depressed person is, 'Cheer up!'"

In the book, McEvoy traces her earliest memories of being a depressed person. Even as a child, she remembers being overly sensitive and experiencing extreme reactions to everyday situations.

Despite having what she repeatedly stresses was a happy childhood as the only child of a farming couple in Delvin, Co Westmeath, McEvoy suffered from a constant anxiety about being her real self, and that she wasn't good enough for her parents or the world.

All that being said, it's hard not to reach for the ever-popular 'blame the parents for everything' card. "My parents were very good to me, but they were very of their time," she explains. "It was such a different society then. Everyone, particularly in rural Ireland, was suppressed and oppressed by the Church and the State. So I don't think my parents were different to anyone else's.

"When I think about it, my father was 55 when I was born and my mother was in her 40s, so they did rather well, considering."

McEvoy writes extensively about her complicated relationship with her parents, and about how she was torn between wanting to please them -- becoming the family farm manager and/or a farmer's wife, according to her father and mother's respective wishes -- and forging her own path as an actress.

One of their earliest battles was over McEvoy's decision to embrace Buddhism. For a person prone to depression and anxiety, all of these tensions served to exacerbate her irrational feelings of guilt and shame.

"Parents can't win, no matter what they do," she laughs. "But one of the great tenets of Buddhism is that you take total responsibility for what happens to your own life. It's a very hard thing to do, but it's not like you're taking blame; you take responsibility. All of society, and everything we read, tries to bamboozle us into believing it's someone else's fault, be it parents, a government or whoever."

McEvoy never discussed her mental health problems with her parents. "My dad died in 1991, and I didn't really become aware of it until after that," she explains. "I would be down, but I kind of felt like I didn't need to moan about it to mum. I felt she had enough to be dealing with at that point.

"When I first got the psychiatrist's diagnosis of depression, I was delighted because at least there was someone to tell me that I wasn't just this wibbly wobbly person who wasn't able to live life like everyone else."

Does she regret not sharing this part of herself with them? "No. Modern parents are very much like, 'You can talk to me about anything', but there was more of a distance in parenting back then."

No matter how bad she might have been feeling, McEvoy says she never considered taking her own life. "It never came to my mind," she states. "There's an Agatha Christie quote that goes, 'I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing'.

"I do believe that where there's life, there's not always hope, but there's always something that makes you feel part of it all. One day I was feeling very rough and two little pigeons perched on the window, and I just had to smile at them because they were so funny. There was I, smiling in the depths. But I do really struggle with it. I'd love to help people who feel like that, but I don't know where the words are."

Going on anti-depressants was key to gaining control of her illness. She recounts how, on a night out in France soon after starting medication, she had a breakthrough, and began to feel relaxed in herself for the first time.

She celebrated perhaps her first rush of unadulterated joy by waltzing with singer Mary Black around this Parisian hostelry. "It was like getting out of jail," she recalls. "It was simply that normal feelings had become so strange to me that this felt extraordinary. I will always remember that night because it was like, 'This is what it's like to be normal'.

"I know people who are depressed who'd benefit from medication, but refuse to go that route. That makes me sound like a drug pusher and I'm not. But they're trying to solve an emotional problem that's caused by a depressed attitude. They'll never do it. It's like using a chisel to hammer in a nail. You can't overcome something with your mind when your mind's not thinking right."

McEvoy says that she's also benefited from counselling, a treatment that is perhaps still viewed with a degree of scepticism and stigmatisation. "I think Ireland has a great love of darkness," she says. "It's the old Celtic shadow side. In a funny way, I think the Irish psyche is quite attached to the negative side, that we feel more secure with a darker, cynical view of life. In one way, you can see why. If you're like, 'Sure, nothing is ever going to get better, the country is f*cked', that's quite a safe place to be because that means you just have to sit there and do nothing."

The crucial point about therapy, she adds, is to know when it has ceased being beneficial to you: that way lies the kind of monstrously self-absorbed introspection that gives the practice a bad name.

"Caroline Myss uses a great phrase, 'woundology', to describe people leading with their wounds, so that the wound becomes the way we bond with people," McEvoy says. "Counselling is like a ship to cross the sea of suffering, but you have to get off on the other side eventually."

'How The Light Gets In' also covers McEvoy's early forays into acting; how, in her early 20s, she moved to Dublin, studied drama in Ballsbridge (alongside her good friend Martina Stanley, who plays Dolores in 'Fair City'), and worked nine-to-five in the Department of Agriculture.

Even though she quickly landed several prominent stage roles and good reviews with them, and even after she was cast as Biddy in 1983, McEvoy spent many years commuting, helping on the farm at home at weekends. Today, she lives on that same family farm, raising cattle in addition to the sheep.

Though agriculture is in the blood, McEvoy says that she always liked showbusiness. "I actually use the word 'showbiz' deliberately rather than 'acting'," she says. "This might sound strange, but there's something innocent about people in showbusiness. Yes, it's an, 'Oh, look at me!' thing, but it's kind of innocent. It's not harmful."

She might have been uncomfortable with the fame that 'Glenroe' brought her, but McEvoy evidently looks back on those years with fondness. She doesn't deny readers insights into her famous fictional marriage to Mick Lally's Miley Byrne, either.

Indeed, McEvoy draws a complex portrait of Lally, who died last August. As she tells it, the actor couldn't have been more unlike his affable alter ego. Instead, Lally, though by no means anti-social, liked to mostly keep to himself on set, reading a book seated at Teasy's bar, rather than messing around with the cast.

Lally was also quite adamant about protecting his real family from being in any way confused with his screen one, so much so that he and McEvoy would even try not to sit together in the pub on cast nights out. But the pair had an easy, comfortable chemistry, so much so that he liked to take naps in between their bed scenes, though both hated doing kissing scenes.

"Mick's intellect was something nobody really knew about," she says. "Mick was very intelligent, incredibly well-informed, and had this great curiosity about life. He was very himself, Mick. He would get frustrated and annoyed if someone forced the identity of Miley on him socially, but he had such a strong sense of himself and such a strong family life that he was okay with it.

"I miss him. I really do. I didn't see him every day, and I mightn't see him for long periods. But there was something connecting us -- friendship, I suppose -- and that hurts when it's taken away. Mick was the symbol of the sheer happiness that everyone involved with 'Glenroe' felt. It was the happiest set. Everyone wanted to work on 'Glenroe' because we had a ball. We really did. We loved each other. It was an immense privilege to work on it."

One topic that McEvoy was determined to tackle in the book without any embarrassment is sex, and namely how Catholicism, or at the very least the brand of Catholicism that took hold in Ireland, inculcated a profound sense of shame about sex and sexuality.

Despite how much has changed since her days of, as she describes in the book, "losing your virginity for the sake of it", McEvoy still believes Ireland is a country with a massive anxiety about sex. "When you walk out on St Patrick's Day and see two kids engaging in sexual activity on the streets, langers out of their minds, that's as much about shame as anything else," she says.

"Sex and sexuality, and all those things we were taught to feel shame about, are natural, but they're also about self-respect. To me, I don't care if someone is promiscuous as long as they're responsible. That sort of bestial public coupling is not about respect for you or the person you're with. It's basically mutual masturbation."

McEvoy adds only half-jokingly: "I think this country needs a FÁS course in foreplay. Sex is a skill. There's so much pleasure to be had from sex, and not just this rushing to experience it. In this country, you can tell the vilest joke about sex, but you can't talk normally about sex. What's that about?"

Back in her single days, being famous for playing something of a frump on a TV show wasn't exactly the best card to play when trying to pull. "Can you imagine a friend trying to set you up with someone? 'She plays Biddy in 'Glenroe'.' Noooo!" she laughs.

"It didn't help in that I wasn't like Biddy myself. Today, I'm beginning to feel again how I used to feel as a young woman, which is a sexual creature. By that, I mean I have the courage to come out from underneath that image now. But I think that was quite handy for me as well at the time because I carried a lot of shame about sexuality too."

McEvoy has been in a relationship with musician Garvan for more than two decades. I mention how I was surprised to learn that she had a partner; I, like many people, had always assumed she was single.

"Sure, I was supposed to be gay," she interrupts, with a laugh. Indeed, there has long been an urban legend that McEvoy was a lesbian and was engaged in all manner of furtive lesbian dalliances with high-profile women, among them a one-time RTE broadcaster, a now retired politician and even a well-known lesbian couple.

"I think how all that came about was that I was listed in 'In Dublin' magazine as a gay icon, which was a tremendous honour, so then some people put two and two together to get six and assumed I was gay," she explains.

"Maybe it's because Garvan has very long hair, so if anyone was to approach us from the back in a restaurant or somewhere, they'd think he was a woman! It's hilarious. My cousin told me that one day in work someone said to her, 'Oh yeah, Mary is gay. I saw her'. With someone I'd never met, I might add. We've had a great laugh about that rumour down through the years."

Silly rumours aside, I ask if McEvoy's life-long struggle with depression has put a strain on her relationship through the years? "Garvan is like any other person: he dealt with it well sometimes, and he didn't deal with it well other times, just like myself," she replies. "He's very good at accepting things as they are without trying to change them."

She continues: "There's no such thing as a perfect relationship, and it's time that makes it. I think it's like a nice piece of furniture that becomes smooth over time from being used, a lovely chair that develops the grooves and has its own character.

"Even then, we never had 'I'm walking out' difficulties. There's no deal breaker with us really, unless it's absolute, total disrespect. His capacity to accept things as they are really worked in our favour, bless him. He's a sweetie."

McEvoy is stepmother to Garvan's now-adult daughter, but she never had children of her own. "The only time I ever wanted children was when I felt that that was what was expected of me," she says. "But I'm so glad I didn't have kids. Knowing that I was a depressed person would have made that so much harder for everyone.

"I think when I hit my 30s I had a sense of responsibility for my elderly parents, and I didn't want more of the same. Now I have to say I'm bloody glad I didn't have kids. When I see parents negotiating with toddlers at checkouts in the supermarket, I'm glad I just have animals to worry about!"

'How The Light Gets In: My Journey With Depression' by Mary McEvoy is published on Wednesday (April 7) by Hachette, price €13.99. Mary will be signing copies of the book in Eason, O'Connell Street, Dublin, Saturday, April 9, at 12.30pm

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