Sunday 22 September 2019

Ireland's top sister act

It's been a whirlwind few years for Derry Girls star Siobhan McSweeney, and the Aherla native says she finds the role of Sister Michael 'liberating'. But there's more than just acting in her blood as she's an ardent human rights and same-sex marriage campaigner, as she tells reporter - and cousin - Concubhar Ó Liatháin

Siobhan McSweeney's first role as an actor was her biggest. She played the part of Jesus in the school nativity in Aherla, where she grew up.

Now, however, the Cork actor is more famous for her depiction of Ireland's favourite nun, Sister Michael, in the award-winning Channel 4 comedy series Derry Girls. There she stars alongside the likes of Nicola Coughlan, Ian McIlhenny and Tommy Tiernan, as well as a host of household names who have cameo roles.

Her Nativity role, however, gives a strong clue as to the unshakeable nature of her character.  "I ended up sitting in a box pretending to be the infant, glaring at the donkey and sheep because they had more lines than me," she says.

First of all, though, a declaration of interest: Siobhan McSweeney is a cousin of mine. Her grandfather was the famous Irish language poet, An Suibhneach Meann (The Gentle Sweeney) and my granduncle. 

So the question I put next has a bit of a sting. 

"Siobhán," I ask in all innocence, "what do you think of Sister M? Is there anyone in particular you've based her on?"

"I love playing her!," she answers.  

"It's so liberating playing someone who is so free from any social constraints. 

"I'd love to be as confident and unburdened by what other people thought of me as her. So maybe she is an aspiration? 

"In fairness, I have to thank Lisa McGee, the writer, for giving me all the best lines."

"So Siobhán," I interject.  "Is there anyone we know you've based her on?"

"I haven't really based her on anyone specifically," she says, "but like any other role, I'm sure she is an amalgamation of various people and traits I've witnessed along the way. 

"Maybe even some of our shared family, Concubhar. Who knows?"

The next time there's a family gathering of the MacSuibhne clan, I'm sure speculation about whom Sister Michael might be based on will be a topic of conversation.

Due to the success of Derry Girls, there has been talk that the actors might be offered an honour such as the freedom of the famous walled city.  Siobhán, however, has stolen a march on her fellow cast members by being offered a role in a rehearsed reading of Brian Friel's 'Freedom of the City' which is to be staged in the Guild Hall as part of an imminent festival, Art Over Borders.

"I was thrilled when Sean Dorian and Liam Browne asked me to take part," she says.

"Arts Over Borders is a wonderful event, consisting of three festivals around three writers: Beckett, Wilde and Friel. 

"I'm delighted to be included in their amazing programme this year."

Part of the excitement of the new role is, as she says herself, going back to Derry.  

"It is always a joy. It's a great city. It reminds me of Cork with its rich history, proud inhabitants and great talent. I'm delighted that the people of Derry have taken Sr M, and by default, me, to their hearts."

The play is set in the Guildhall in Derry in 1970 in the aftermath of a civil rights meeting and seems to foretell the tragic events of Bloody Sunday, which actually happened two years later. 

Unlike Friel's more pastoral and domestic plays set in Ballybeg, this play is more openly political. Siobhán says she's "excited to be doing this timely, still-relevant rehearsed reading actually in the Guildhall, where it is set".

She's no stranger to the works of one of Ireland's leading playwrights. She's appeared in Dancing at Lughnasa, Lovers, Translations and his adaptations of Uncle Vanya and Fathers & Sons.  

"I actually did a student drama production of Freedom of the City when I was in UCC and longed dreadfully to be a real actor," she says.

"It's lovely to revisit it as a somewhat 'real' actor nearly 20 years later. 

"Brian was a very witty man, deeply kind and encouraging when we met."

Siobhán is full of chat and laughs when you meet her - but she's also very concerned about human rights and has taken part in a number of political demonstrations in London.  She's a strong advocate of same-sex marriage and the reproductive rights of women, and her Twitter handle is Siobhán 'The North Is Next' McSweeney. She's angry because the north of Ireland is still the only place in the UK or Ireland where same sex-marriage and abortion rights for women are outlawed. 

"I believe in equality. I believe that the people of the north of Ireland, like people anywhere, are entitled to the same healthcare services and are entitled to love whoever they want to love, as anyone else in the Republic of Ireland and the UK. 

"This isn't a radical thought.

"However, bigots and homophobes have been allowed to gain undeserved power in the North and are holding the rest of the country to their own cruel, ignorant, and misogynistic standard. 

"Polls have shown that the actual population of the north holds much more progressive and compassionate views that their apparent representatives.

"The people of the north have been nothing but welcoming and generous of spirit to me. 

"If all I can do is shine a light on the way they are being neglected, then it behoves me to do so."

My next question is a version of the time-honoured classic, would you allow your daughter on stage Mrs Worthington?: "Would you recommend a life on the stage or screen to your younger self?"

"Through my work I've met, seen, and playe, some extraordinary people," she says. 

"I am delighted every day I get to be an actor.

"If I have any advice to my younger self, it would be to be braver and go to drama school younger. I'd recommend this life to anyone. 

"It's not perfect, the insecurity is exhausting, and  there are still huge problems rife in the industry, especially when it comes to casting, diversity and gender parity.

"But for all that, there is absolutely nothing else I'd rather do. I'm lucky. Do it!"

Given her family background in the Múscraí Gaeltacht - her father, Traolach, who died last year, hails from Cúil Aodha - I wonder whether she has ever considered a role in an Irish-language film for TG4 or a drama.

"Of course. I'd love to do that, but I've never been offered anything from TG4," she says, "or any series as Gaeilge.

I don't get off lightly.  "You'll have to write one, Concubhar! Get me to be in it."

Having had roles in The Fall, which propelled Jamie Dornan to stardom, and also in Porters on Sky, Siobhán is kept busy apart from Derry Girls.  She's also appeared on stage in London's West End, in the Royal Court Theatre, and in Royal Shakespeare Company productions. But when can we expect her back in Cork again? 

"Unfortunately for me, and perhaps luckily for Cork audiences, I'm being kept away for the next few months with work elsewhere," she says.

"I hope i can get back soon though, as I had such a wonderful time doing Autumn Royal at The Everyman. The palace is such a wonderful theatre. 

"Julie Kelleher, the Artistic Director there, is doing an amazing job with clear and forward-thinking programming.

"Cork is lucky to have such a vital and vibrant arts community."