Saturday 23 March 2019

Brendan's mammy: the fearless crusading TD

Trail-blazing Labour TD Maureen O'Carroll still inspires her son Brendan's comedy, says John McEntee

Brendan O'Carroll as Mrs Browne
Brendan O'Carroll as Mrs Browne

John McEntee

Television critics remain vociferous in their near universal condemnation of Brendan O'Carroll's crude, rude and vulgar comedy Mrs Brown's Boys. But no one seems to be listening to the critics.

Without even adding the RTE viewing figures, O'Carroll's Frankenstein creation was watched by an astonishing 9.4 million viewers on Christmas Day. It was the BBC's most popular offering over the festive season -- attracting a bigger audience than Doctor Who, Sherlock and Downton Abbey.

Yet while such a vast audience clearly found hilarious the F-word-littered antics of the cross-dressing Dublin comic O'Carroll, there is one woman who might not be amused: O'Carroll's late mother Maureen, a trail-blazing and campaigning Labour Party TD in the 1950s.

In fact the late Mrs O'Carroll, who bears a striking physical resemblance to her son's frumpy and bespectacled creation Agnes, would probably be embarrassed -- or, in her words, "mortified" -- by her youngest son's potty-mouthed creation. After all, she was a a pioneering Dubliner who was far from vulgar, let alone daft.

Brendan's character Mrs Brown responds to her daughter's complaint that all men on a first date expected fellatio by declaring: "I'm not fucking singing opera for any man. I'd rather give him a blow job."

However the real Agnes , a mother of 11, was light years removed from the foul-mouthed, lager-drinking vulgarian her son has made a fortune from -- not to mention the mantlepiece full of Bafta awards for comedy that the top-rating BBC TV show has garnered.

O'Carroll professes great devotion to his late mother. A former novitiate nun, she is still remembered in Dublin's Northside as a fearless left-wing politician who took big food companies to court in a bid to stamp out overcharging.

In a recent RTE documentary Labour's Way, Barry Desmond spoke of his party's pride in having Mrs O'Carroll, who died in 1984, as their first female TD. He said: "We're very proud to have the first woman elected a Labour deputy, none other than Brendan O'Carroll's mother. She was a woman who was hugely prominent on issues of adoption and she pioneered the admission of women to the Garda Siochana. Maureen O'Carroll was exceptional."

So how would Maureen feel about her son's fictional character being described by the Irish Independent TV critic as someone who made you feel vaguely embarrassed to be Irish?

No one doubts the immense pride Brendan feels in having a mother like Maureen O'Carroll. He has said: "She changed an awful lot of laws that were anti-women and anti-children and we never heard about it in school. We never heard a word."

But if she were walking the streets of Finglas today, wouldn't her adoring son's comic creation not rankle?

Born in 1913, the daughter of a schoolteacher, Maureen attended University College Galway on a scholarship; and then surprised her family by becoming a novice nun.

Convent life was abandoned after she fell in love with her future husband, Gerard O'Carroll. As a boy he had been shot by British forces during the War of Independence.

Curiously, Maureen had fate to thank for her own existence. Her parents were all set to elope to America in 1912 and had tickets bought for the ill-fated Titanic, only for a change of plan at the 11th hour.

After renouncing her vows she became a teacher.

The turning point was on her wedding day in 1936. Married women in Ireland weren't allowed to be civil servants. So Maureen walked out of teaching and into a life of protest, becoming an activist who fought successfully to have this iniquitous law changed.

She settled in a council house in Finglas, had 10 children and adopted one more -- a little boy trapped in a reform school. Maureen also tried to ensure no abandoned child would ever be condemned to reform school again, canvassing the help of Eamon de Valera to change policy.

An activist in the Irish Labour Party, she was elected to the Dail in 1953.

In spite of massive opposition from vested interests, she had already set up the Lower Prices Council to fight price-fixing cartels. Maureen O'Carroll marched into the Dail on a mission to protect the ordinary Irish shopper from postwar black-marketeering. She went on to become the Irish Labour Party's chief whip.

Recalls Brendan, her youngest son: "And she also tackled social issues. Ireland at the time was in the Middle Ages and it was actually legal for a husband to beat his wife with a stick, so long as the stick wasn't longer than his fore-arm. My mother helped change all that."

As a TD Maureen introduced Ireland's short birth certificate, which allowed "Illegitimate" to be replaced by the less judgmental "Father Undeclared".

Brendan, born in 1955 when his mother was 42, remembers her as unconventional. He would hear her on the radio railing against child illiteracy in Ireland, yet her own children couldn't get her to help them with their reading. She wouldn't take Brendan to task about not doing his homework, but she took him to see Mary Poppins at the local cinema some 22 times.

Maureen lost her seat in the Dail in 1957 and her husband to cancer the following year. After being rejected by the electorate, she set up a women's refuge and became a top trade union official.

When 12-year-old Brendan left school in the summer of 1968, Maureen was away on union business in Canada. It was months before she realised her youngest was working as a hotel waiter. But she accepted Brendan's choice.

"She thought we'd find our own way in life, regardless," said Brendan. "And she taught us to believe we could fly."

But also like Agnes, Maureen could bring her children crashing back to earth. "Ah, darling," she once said to her second-youngest, Eilish, who stars as neighbour Winnie McGoogan in Mrs Brown's Boys, "God didn't make you very beautiful, but he made you ever so lovable."

She once annoyed Brendan so much he pulled the false teeth from her gums, and left her toothless for the night.

One day she dallied too long in a supermarket while he waited in the car, and Brendan got her thrown out by telling the security man that the lady in the blue coat was a shoplifter who was slightly deranged.

Like Agnes, Maureen could be pretentious. She'd take on a Hyacinth Bouquet voice when answering the phone and play the sophisticate, only ever drinking gin, and using a cigarette holder. Yet when she was given a new fridge, it functioned for a full year as a cupboard because Maureen didn't realise it had to be plugged in.

Brendan recalls how, tying his shoelaces and pinching his cheek, she would tell him, "Brendan, you can be anything you want to be," as she sent him off to school. Consequently, in Finglas he became known as "the can-do kid".

Since Maureen's death in 1984 aged 71, Brendan maintains she has contacted him in his dreams, helped him to deal with financial disasters, the loss of a baby and the end of his marriage.

It was eight years after her death that O'Carroll first donned a wig and became Agnes.

"I only played her because the actress booked for a radio sit-com didn't turn up," he recalls. And when he needed a character for a stage play in 1997, Brendan sat down at a dressing-room mirror, put on a wobbly wig, pencilled in a Nanny McPhee mole -- then looked up astonished and said: "Feck me, it's me mammy!"

The storyline for his new Mrs Brown's Boys film sees Agnes battle big corporates trying to crush the Moore Street markets -- just as Maureen once fought the multinationals controlling Dublin's factories.

"When I'm writing I think, 'What will Agnes do?' and then wonder what my mother would do," he says. "She gives me the answers. My mother still speaks to me every day." He adds, grinning: "I suppose I was in denial about becoming my mother, about dressing up as her on TV. You don't want to be seen as Norman Bates."

He admits that in Mrs Brown's Boys there are three people in front of the cameras, himself, Agnes and his mother. "It is," he adds, "an unholy trinity."

Irish Independent

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