Inside the home of best-selling author and Fair City actress Claudia Carroll
'My character Nicola is the snootiest cow, really. If she moved in next door to you, you'd move out immediately," Claudia Carroll, stalwart of Fair City for the last 20 years, announces with a laugh.
Claudia reaches for the neighbour analogy to describe her character possibly because neighbours are on the elegant blonde's mind; she and her parents have just moved back into their newly renovated period house in Dublin 4, and are looking forward to seeing their old neighbours again, some of whom her parents have lived next to for over 50 years.
In another twist, Claudia's latest novel, The Secrets of Primrose Square is all about neighbours, the place they live, and how their lives intertwine. "It's inspired by Pearse Square off Pearse Street, which has always intrigued me. It's so pretty and residential, and yet so near the city centre. I began to imagine what it must be like to live there, and what the stories of the people there are - and suddenly they became a book," says Claudia.
Like a lot of actresses - Sheila Hancock and Emma Thompson spring to mind and, closer to home, Kate Thompson and Amy Huberman - Claudia doesn't just recite the words of other writers; she creates her own characters and plots, too. The Secrets of Primrose Square is her 15th book; she started writing some years after her acting career took off, during the time she became a fixture on Fair City.
"I started writing between takes, in the dressing room. It was a great way to get going. Trying to write on a set is like writing in a bus station. I'm a great believer in the snatched 15 minutes. Perfection is the enemy of the possible," she notes wisely.
It's not surprising that the acting did take off - she'd been at it practically from babyhood. "I'm afraid I was an irritating showbiz kid," Claudia says. "I just loved showing off. My mother took me to Betty Ann Norton, the famous drama teacher, as soon as she could."
Bizarrely, after the Leaving, Claudia opted to do a BComm degree in UCD, but she soon found her way to DramSoc. "I know it was mad, I don't know why I did commerce, and I never used it. Very soon after I left college, I got a job on a children's programme called Rimini Riddle with Tara Flynn. I always felt it had only two viewers - my mother and the producer," she laughs.
She did some theatre work at the same time, and that led to the part that has defined her acting career. "The then producer of Fair City, Niall Mathews, saw me in a play I was appearing in and offered me the part of Nicola. He said it would be a week's work. Twenty years later, I still fly over Carrigstown from time to time," she notes, alluding to the fact that Nicola can be a bit of witch.
As well as getting a great job, the part has led to close friendships. Her best friend is Clelia Murphy, who played the part of Niamh for years. She also formed a close bond with one of the directors of the TV soap, the late Anita Notaro, who was also a novelist, and it was she who encouraged and mentored Claudia. "Anita had just published her first book," Claudia recalls. "I was chatting to her about it one day and said, 'I'd love to write a book'. And she said immediately, 'Just write three chapters, I'll give them to my agent. I can't promise anything, but at least it's a start'." Anita's agent was the fabulous Marianne Gunn O'Connor; she loved Claudia's work, and has represented the actress ever since.
That first book was called He Loves Me Not... He Loves Me. It's a romance, like a lot of her books, and while she's brilliant at writing about love, she says it has eluded her in recent years. "I've tried online [dating]; I've met some nice men, but nobody extra special. But I'm open, I believe it's important to be open - maybe I'll meet a nice 50-something," she laughs, adding, "I do feel so privileged in every other way; I love my work and my writing. Acting work at my age gets thin on the ground, so I'm lucky people want to read my books. I've a great family, and, so important, given all the homeless people, I've a roof over my head."
That roof is a wonderful old two-storey-over-garden-level red-brick house on a leafy road in Dublin 4. It dates from 1860, and Claudia's family is only the third family to have ever lived there. "It's always been our family home," she says. "I grew up there with my two brothers, and it was a fabulous place to grow up."
Claudia's parents moved to Wexford 10 years ago, leaving Claudia in the house on her own, but they need her now, and so they're coming back. It wasn't suitable as it stood, so many changes had to be made.
"My parents are amazing. Dad is 80, he was a doctor, and practised until two years ago, but he has glaucoma - it's in our family - and he's blind. Of course, like a lot of doctors, he's a terrible patient. He's blind selectively. If you say, 'Dad, put out the bins', he says, 'I can't, I'm blind'. If there's soccer on TV, he can see perfectly," she jokes, adding, "My mum is great, I brought her to Paul Simon when he played here, but she needs a wheelchair when she's out and about. So we had to make the house wheelchair-friendly and comfortable for them."
Some people might have downsized, but not Claudia and her parents. She's too sentimental for that. "I couldn't sell it," she says. "It has too many memories. I was born into the house."
While they were getting work done, they decided to renovate the whole house and look after all the problems associated with old houses - damp-proofing and electrics - as well as upgrading it.
"We got a wonderful architect, Kirk McCormack from Longform Architecture. He looks like a Hugo Boss model, but not only that, he really minds us. I couldn't fault him. I could ring him any time I had a worry," she notes gratefully.
Claudia's parents are going to live mainly on the garden level, as it will be easier for them to set up home there, but they gutted the whole house.
"For the damp-proofing, we had to have a digger to go right down through the floor and walls of the basement," she explains. "We had to rip out walls to make all the openings wide enough for wheelchairs. We had to put in RSJs - reinforced-steel joists; I didn't even know what they were. And we put in underfloor heating to make the place all lovely and toasty for the parents, in case the Beast from the East ever turned up again."
The basement is now like a garden-level apartment, and the garden has been done so Claudia's parents will have nice views. The bedroom is en suite, and there is a walk-in wardrobe for her mother. There is also a lovely state-of-the-art kitchen and TV area.
Changes have been made upstairs, where there are three reception rooms and three bedrooms, though not as many changes as Claudia would like. "I thought it would be lovely to do a Gone With The Wind-type staircase, but the architect told me I was in fantasy land. 'There is such a thing as a budget,' Kirk said," she laughs.
Claudia had help with the decor from her friend Sharon Devlin, who has a great eye, but she retained a lot of the mahogany furniture her mother collected over the years. "A lot of people are snotty about brown furniture; I'm not. It's of great sentimental value to me," she explains.
Claudia was particularly keen to hang onto her dining room - even though it's on a different floor to the new kitchen - for hosting events like her book club. "It's called the Diversity Book Club, we come from all corners of the globe, and I love it. The food served echoes what's in the book - we recently had a book set in Pakistan and we had a Pakistani banquet. It's competitive. I'm hosting the next one; I'll probably pick a book about the Famine and serve spuds," she jokes, adding, "I'll be like Mrs Patmore in Downton Abbey."
All joking aside, she is thrilled to be back in her house and looking after her parents. "I get up early and get two hours writing done before breakfast," she says. "Then I'll shout down 'Is everyone alive?' I hear groans; we've made it through another day. The gallows humour in our house is our thing. But it's wonderful to have them. I wouldn't have it any other way; I'm so privileged."
'The Secrets of Primrose Square', by Claudia Carroll, published by Bonnier Zaffre, €16.99
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
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