Wednesday 21 November 2018

Singing mother's praises

Sarah Caden

SOPRANO Cara O'Sullivan and her 18-year-old daughter Christine vividly recall the multicoloured coat dress. It's still around somewhere, Cara says, though it's more than a decade since Christine wore it. It means something, is symbolic even, of a certain time and, for Cara, a certain nagging feeling.

Christine was five when Cara bought the coat dress. Cara was in Wexford, away on one of her very first singing jobs, and during a dutiful phone call Christine had begged, "Mammy, please come home!"

"I bawled for a full hour," Cara says, while Christine smiles and shrugs. Both agree that Christine probably shook off the sadness quicker, but Cara spent the following few days locating the perfect present to make up for her absence. "I can't believe it," she laughs, "But I spent £25 on a pair of tights! One of my first wages, and I spent them on guilt!"

Before keeping our appointment, Cara and Christine O'Sullivan had looked through family photo albums. She was surprised, Cara admits, to see herself snapped so much with Christine.

Her own perception is of being absent working while her daughter was little, but that is not shared by Christine. Mammy might have been away a fair bit, and sometimes she might have wished her to stay home more often, but when Cara suggests it was hard on her daughter, Christine quickly laughs her off.

Cara O'Sullivan was in her early 20s when she became pregnant with Christine. "It wasn't planned, you could put it like that," says Cara. "But my family were very supportive. Obviously, it was a difficult time, but we got on with it and we got over it."

Cara was a single parent, but that is not to say she was alone. The third of four children brought up on Old Blackrock Road, Cork, Cara was living at home when she became pregnant, and her daughter was warmly embraced into that arrangement.

"When I look at the old pictures," Cara says, "I see again how much my parents worshipped Christine. They worshipped all their grandchildren, but she was special to them because I wasn't married and because we lived with them and they got so much from her."

In her late teens, Cara had begun training as a singer, but had given it up in her very early 20s. When Christine was a toddler, however, Cara began to train again. "And when I went back," she explains, "I had a greater appreciation, and a hunger I didn't have before. There's nothing like a baby to make you grow up or to understand the need to make a living. I was ready then, and I was very lucky, because I didn't have to chase after a music career, it was more like we found each other. And while I put my show on the road, my mother kept the show on the road."

Her mother, who died in 2002, fully encouraged Cara's career, even though it took her away from home regularly. "I wanted her to get a job in Penney's," Christine jokes, "and then I graduated to Marks and Spencer and then BTs." 'Granny', however, assured Cara that she must follow her heart, and allowed her the ease of knowing that Christine was always OK when she was away.

According to Christine, she was more than OK, and remembers those years with a great sense of togetherness, rather than one of absence. Her cousins, children of Cara's older sisters, lived close by and were always in and out, and Granny was a second mother to her.

"I was always Mammy though, that was very important," Cara points out. "And that was difficult for my mother, because she was the boss, and then I'd return and she'd have to stand back. It took a lot, not so much of courage on her part, but discipline and sacrifice. My mother worked very hard to make sure the lines were blurred as little as possible, and that was very generous of her."

While Cara and her mother were not particularly alike in personality, there was continuity in how both reared Christine. She was a very good baby and child, Cara says, and that helped. Christine smiles sweetly at this compliment and her mother adds that she knows how to get her own way too. "In fact, she plays me just like my mother did. I don't know how they do it, but it works." Cara's father died more than 10 years ago, and she, Christine and Granny were a great threesome. Christine remembers Granny bringing her to Wales while Cara toured there with Hansel and Gretel, and they got snowed in in Snowdonia.

When Granny became sick, three years ago, the threesome stuck together. Granny didn't want doctors or fussing; she had, Christine says, "a tumour, not cancer, never cancer", and her daughter and granddaughter did most of the caring through her 18-month illness. All the family helped, but it was "a privilege" to live there with her in her last days, to be allowed make it as easy as possible.

It was a strange loss for Christine. Never, she says, was she confused as to who was mammy, but there was a sense of losing her second mother when Granny died. "It was really sad," says Christine, "but it didn't all really hit me until Mum had to go away again. Then I really realised Granny was gone."

In the last year, while Cara has been touring extensively with the Glyndebourne Company, Christine has lived with close family friends Rita and Pat Geaney. She knuckled down to studying for her Leaving, and plans to study business next year - she hopes at UCC. She has a beautiful voice, though Cara has never heard it.

It's been an unusual year for Cara and Christine, since moving out of Granny's house last summer, where both had lived all their lives. They talk about clothes in storage, boxes at friends' houses and, warmly, of the mobile home near Youghal that the family insisted they take.

Cara is buying her first home, an apartment in Cork, and her eyebrows go sky-high when Christine laughs approvingly at the idea of it as her student flat.

"I've a grown woman on my hands!" exclaims Cara in mock despair, before explaining how many of her singing contemporaries put off children until too late, or are juggling small kids and a career now. "It's worked out very well for me and I hope it hasn't been too hard on Christine, but without my own mother I couldn't have done any of it."

Cara O'Sullivan performs with the NSO in an evening of Viennese favourites on July 23 in the National Concert Hall and on July 24 in the RTE Farmleigh Proms and Sunday August 1 at St Brendan's Church, Birr as part of the Birr Music Festival

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