Fiona Shaw: We don't know who were are and the joy is in finding out
Ireland's Ancient East
Going back to her roots to explore Ireland's Ancient East, stage and screen star Fiona Shaw reflects on her personal journey, as well as that of our nation.
'How do you run away from a terrorist Muslim? Escape to a field in the middle of Ireland, of course," laughs Fiona Shaw.
She is referring to the surprise discovery of the tomb of Saint Nicholas in a field belonging to a pig farmer in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny. The tale tells of a band of Irish-Norman knights who, while travelling in the Holy Land, seized the remains to keep them safe from infidel Muslims - just one of the many delightful nuggets of history she unearthed on her three-day tour of Ireland's Ancient East.
"You'll even get a cup of tea and a scone while you savour the beautiful Norman abbey; it's a proper Irish welcome."
Shaw (58) knows far more about an Irish welcome than your average newcomer to these parts - although usually seen on-screen or stage with a cut-glass English accent, the actress-director hails from Cork. When we meet, in between sips of tea, she is animated, talking in an excitable gabble with that mellifluous Irish lilt that bounces up and down, punctuated with hearty laughs.
"Have you ever heard of the whispering galleries? It's really a very interesting story. During the plague prisoners would whisper their sins into a rivet in the wall," says Shaw, cupping her hands over her mouth in demonstration.
"Their voices would carry to the other side of the room where the priest was listening safe from contamination. It really was quite an amazing architectural feature for its time."
Shaw, when once questioned about her own knowledge and intellect, dismissed it in favour of being 'loquacious', in other words: chatty. She is just that but there is a sense of that modesty here as she talks about being "one of those nouveau learned people" while describing her new-found knowledge of the country, courtesy of a Fáilte Ireland promotional trip. And when she talks she possesses that same quality she has on stage and screen - the ability to engage, enchant and leave a lasting and memorable impression.
She left Cork in her mid-20s for London where she currently lives but admits to "breathing a sigh of relief" every time she steps off the plane in Ireland.
"Don't get me wrong, I love London but nobody minds you over there, not in the same way they do here. Irish people have a unique quality, this friendliness and openness, we just don't know how not to be nice."
I tell her that recently Fermanagh was voted the happiest county in Ireland and that, on receiving this news, my Fermanagh friend's response was: "Sure why wouldn't we be? We're not connected to the world at all."
Is it this sense of humour that sustains us, does she think? The ability to be playful but cynical at the same time?
"Yes, partly because we're a nation that's had to endure. We have huge resolve, which is sad in some ways. But we're also a nation of great welcomes and entertainment. We're not frightened of people and have no ritual of exclusion. I think this is part of what's made our success around the world."
Shaw herself has certainly enjoyed global success. I last saw her on stage in the Abbey in Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman with Lindsay Duncan. Shaw was the disgruntled wife of a disgraced banker played by the late Alan Rickman.
"Oh, poor Alan, that was such a sad funeral," she muses, staring into the distance, "but we should never have done that play," she adds rather indignantly, "it wasn't his best work; Hedda Gabler, for example, is much better."
Shaw has long been associated with the classics, playing some of theatre's greatest and most tragic roles. Together with her long-time collaborator and friend, Deborah Warner, they have tackled Medea, Electra, Richard II, Mother Courage, and The Wasteland. More recently she received rave reviews for the London production of Colm Toíbin's The Testament of Mary.
In a conversation about her ability as a stage actress she has referred to the point of theatre being to upstage having a great chat with a good friend and not many things do that. "I have to give you an exciting evening to take you away from domestic life."
She has worked prolifically on screen also, being one of the few of her generation to straddle stage and screen so successfully - not many could play the sexually-frustrated headmistresses who develops a grá for Tom Selleck's character in Three Men and a Little Lady with such aplomb, transforming that minor role to a major one. Her performance as the ill-fated Mrs Nugent in The Butcher Boy is one that similarly stays in the memory.
Equally, her performances in My Left Foot, Jane Eyre, The Black Dahlia, True Blood and as Aunt Petunia in the Harry Potter series demonstrate her flexibility and fervour for her profession. "I sought out comic roles initially," admits Shaw. "I was very Irish in thinking that I had to be funny all the time but soon realised that behind the wit is another garden to be explored. Humour is too often a defence but beyond it is tragedy, and that's more important as it tells us how to live."
Shaw's decision to pursue more serious roles coincided with the death of her brother, Peter, in a car accident when she was 28. She was playing Electra and channeled her raw emotion into the character - a performance for which she won the first of three Olivier awards. After that, the tragic roles kept coming, including Hedda Gabler, where Shaw was able to "harness gloomy West Cork".
"I had to convey a depressed person with Hedda Gabler, and you can't give the audience depressed as that would just be boring so I showed her to be anxious and twitchy, moving furniture around.
"Mary Robinson was president then and I remember one evening after a performance she came up to me and said that's what she does in Áras an Uachtaráin, she moves furniture around, she identified with that anxiety," laughs Shaw.
Hedda Gabler may be one of the roles she is most known for but, unlike Gabler, Shaw is a 'glass half-full person'. "Well, I'm half-full and half-empty," she laughs. "I would say I have an enthusiasm for life that I get from my mother, she's incredible."
Born to ophthalmic surgeon Denis and wife Mary, a physicist, Shaw grew up in Montenotte with her three brothers. She studied psychology at UCC before deciding to pursue her love of acting, moving to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) shortly after graduating.
Her mother forbade her only one thing: to become a nun. She did spend two weeks in a convent and while she enjoyed the solitude, thankfully returned to her acting career.
"I think you're born with it," she says of her passion for acting. "Who knows retrospectively what career you're going to have - I certainly didn't - but in some ways I have the career I've always wanted. It was about speaking language for me, about words, which I've always loved."
Shaw has always been open about being gay, and was previously in a relationship with actress Saffron Burrows. Today, she lives alone in Primrose Hill but makes frequent trips home - especially this year.
She was asked to direct the 1916 centenary concert in Washington, and spent months preparing, reading about Irish history. She also presented Seven Women for RTÉ, a documentary about the forgotten females who were influential in the Rising. For her generation and many more that followed, Irish history wasn't taught generously at school, which was a great loss.
At the end of the concert, at a meeting held by the ambassador for various Irish writers, Colum McCann was asked what he would say to Ireland. His response: be humble. "I love that," says Shaw. "He's telling us not to be down on ourselves, but don't brag about it either. There was an element of that with the Celtic Tiger."
Shaw admits to feeling a lot "chillier" when she returned home before the recession. "The country is new again and it's ours to be discovered by us. There's no repression left, it's just history. But we don't tend to seek out what's on our doorstep, we'd sooner take a Ryanair flight to Dieppe than drive an hour down the country and explore," she says, pulling the conversation back 'on message' about her Ancient East trip.
"Those castles and country houses that once belonged to history, that might have been painful for us in the past, aren't anymore. It's time we explored what's on our doorstep."
She has just experienced this in spades on her three-day tour of Ireland's Ancient East, which took her to Cobh, Cork's Maritime Gateway and the Titanic's last port of call, The Rock of Cashel, Holy Cross Abbey, Kilkenny's Jerpoint Abbey, Walsh Whiskey Distillery and Carlow's Huntington Castle, where our striking photos were taken. She had hoped it would yield something but was surprised by the experience. "It's been a revelation," Shaw says, eyes wide.
And what of the changes she has seen in her country over the years she has been going and coming? "The place is alive. The young are so educated and the skills of the people are connected to their ambition. We are a country light on its feet, so full of potential," notes Shaw, as she recalls the young girl she met in Cobh who gave her a guided tour of Maritime Cork.
"She was no more than 22 I would say but with this openness and confidence I never remember seeing when I was young. I envy that."
It's evident there isn't much that doesn't thrill Fiona Shaw. Life is taken at a gallop, her zeal for work only marred by what she can possibly fit into a breathless schedule.
She is currently directing opera in an attempt to ease off the pedal a bit. A work schedule that combined the Harry Potter movies with high-octane stage performances and very little sleep in between was the deciding factor.
Very little frightens her, apart from her father's disapproval. "Sadly he passed away recently so now, nothing," she smiles sadly but again, is quick to invite the comic.
"My friend said to me that I'm more frightened of my father's disapproval which is why I don't find the stage frightening." she adds, laughing uproariously.
Speaking of disapproval, and she's on a passionate pique about an air steward on a recent flight who mistook her for Harry Potter's Aunt Dursley and gave her the cold shoulder. Shaw couldn't figure out what she'd done wrong until the lady returned sometime later and confessed that she had forgotten she was just an actress playing the awful Aunt Petunia and had felt very protective of her children. Testament to her realistic performance I offer. "I think that woman needs to get another job," she says, laughing.
For all her career credentials, Shaw remains unstarry. No paparazzi hiding in the bushes then? "Who would want to take my photograph?" she hoots with laugher, "I don't dress well enough."
But surely, her appearance in the Harry Potter franchise has widened her audience to include a younger set?
"Yes, that is true. Lots of kids approach me and can't quite believe they can touch the person in the book and the film; it's really very sweet. Other than that, my life is just a life and better than most celebrities in that I get to exist under the radar but still get invited to nice things," she says, smiling.
Beyond the bedlam of work, I suspect Shaw is somewhat reclusive, savouring her quiet moments. In person there are glimpses of that ardent fervour she reserves for work. Definitely glass half-full.
Her schedule is unwavering: she has just finished filming a new sci-fi TV series called Candlecove in the US, she's about to start work on Medea for the UK-based festival, and there are numerous film roles on the boil. But, the role she would love to play is one she's familiar with: The Mother of God in Colm Toíbin's Testament of Mary.
"I'd love to do it again. He has essentially turned the Bible story on its head. It's so clever of him to play with fiction as fact and great to see the reactions of the audience, they're having such a ride."
She concedes to enjoying it thoroughly because it questions who we are. "It goes back to my recent trip around Ireland: we don't know who we are and the joy is in finding out. We can often feel excluded by a weird old inheritance but this country is ours, it's both familiar and strange which is what makes it so interesting and it belongs to us all."
With that, she shows me her new jacket emblazoned with Ireland's Ancient East on the sleeve and is off with a gallop into the rain.
For more information and suggested itineraries for Ireland's Ancient East, see irelandsancienteast.com
Photography by Patrick Browne