independent

Wednesday 24 October 2018

Part of an Irish acting dynasty

Belinda Walsh meets with performer Máirín O'Donovan

COSTUMES, WIGS, MAKE UP, the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd was as normal a part of growing up as anything else for singer, dancer and somewhat reluctant actress Máirín O'Donovan. Born into a great acting and showbusiness dynasty, she is the daughter of the much admired and talented actor and comedian, the late Frank O'Donovan who toured in England and for decades in Ireland with his own 'Fitup' Company.

But her father is best remembered for playing the lovable character, Batty Brennan for 10 years in Ireland's very first T.V. soap, the 'Riordans'. Máirín's mother, the late Kitty McMahon was also an actress and her parents meet and fell in love doing a show in London.

Her uncle was the well-known actor Harry O'Donovan who worked alongside Jimmy O'Dea for many years and her grandparents, Francoise and Rose McMahon were also thespians and all-round entertainers.

Máirín O'Donovan was born in Mount Merrion in Dublin but has been a Wicklow resident for many years. Her earliest childhood memories are of saying goodbye to her showbiz parents as ' they were always off working'. She was brought up until the age of 10 by her aunt Eliza in Skerries, but spent the school holidays along with her older sister Derry, touring with her parents, and the 'Frank O'Donovan Show' or the 'Dublin Follies'. Máirín shares some of her memories. ' There was always a lot of excitement watching my parents dressing up and I remember my sister and I would get up to all kinds of mischief taking things we shouldn't and wearing them outside in the street. My parents also taught drama to students who came to them and I can tell you they were pretty hard taskmasters.'

In the Ireland of the 1930s, '40s and '50s with no television, these touring companies were a popular source of entertainment in the towns and villages where their plays and concert parties were welcomed with open arms. Mairin explains, ' There was about 15 or so touring 'Fit-up' companies doing the same melodramas around the country. We came into a ballroom or hall and did everything. We put up the stage, did the lighting, the sound, the curtains, the chairs, the piano, the whole lot. The townspeople would actually request a certain play and you daren't put a word wrong in those plays because wherever you went everyone would know the script by heart.'

While touring in Ireland in the ' 40s her father Frank O'Donovan began writing songs, some of which became famous such as 'On the One Road' which was chosen by the army as their official song and translated into Irish. Other songs like ' Sitting on the Bridge below the Town' and 'Little White Cross' and many others were taken up by well-known artists like ' The Wolfe Tones' and played all over the world.

Máirín describes her father as easy-going, a very gentle person and has fond memories of him writing away on his songs. She also remembers with laughter the first role he made her play.

'Any child in a "Fit-up" company ends up playing the part of ' little Willy', a small child who dies in the well-known melodrama "East Lyne". I was no exception and when I got too big I remember having to scrunch my legs up under my chin and put on a squeaky voice.' She says laughing joyously, then adds in a tiny squeaky voice, ' Mother, I can see the angels coming!' She laughs with tears in her eyes at the memory.

A natural born performer, Máirín loved playing small parts during the school holidays in the company and couldn't wait to do bigger roles. Although she knew the nuns in the Loreto on the Green, where she was a boarder, would have preferred to keep her out of showbusiness, she also found she had to convince her parents to let her be part of this life. ' My parents did their best to try and talk me out of the theatre and steer me in other directions. But I wanted in and I was determined. I remember wondering why they were trying to chuck me out of it. I didn't think of it all as some great art, it was the family business and I didn't want to be pushed away.'

Máirín was 17 before she got her first serious singing and acting role playing the part of Lily in the Walter Macken play, 'Home is the Hero' -a story about a family set in Galway. She toured all around Ireland with this play and enjoyed being a full-time entertainer. 'It was a very nice life being on tour. As soon as the hard work was done setting up, we could relax and rehearse late in the morning, have long leisurely lunches and free afternoons before the show that night. We were self-sufficient, everybody got paid and we could live on the money, even put a little by.'

Life was not always sunshine and roses for the very pretty and strongwilled teenager whose strict, religious parents kept a firm hand on her and the other members of the company. With a troupe of around 15 younger people in their charge, Máirín's mother, who had a reputation for firmness, would often clash with her free spirited daughter. She explains, 'Sometimes you would hear people say, "showbiz people are a loose lot" but it was quite the opposite. My parents were very strict. We were so protected it was ridiculous. I remember arguing with my mother because she wouldn't let me go dancing. Looking back now, we were a big responsibility with more ladies than gents in the company, so I suppose we needed a firm hand like my mother's.'

In 1955, Máirín decided to spread her wings and head off on her own with the backup and encouragement of her sister Derry, to work in Newcastle, Co. Down. Here she worked alfresco, singing and dancing on the bandstand and then aged 20 she met a broodingly handsome 37-year-old picture restorer, Johannes Thermes from Holland and fell in love.

'I think everybody has one year or one season when they just go mad. At 18, theoretically you know it all but you don't have the experience to go with it. It's exactly the same with young people today. You live and learn, as they say. I worked for the first time in my life outside on the bandstand in Newcastle. It was very hard work, we were doing two shows a day but it was also great fun. When I met Jan and fell in love and decided to marry, all hell broke loose initially, as my parents thought I was too young but of course, they grew to accept and love him in time.'

Máirín and Jan were happily married for 36 years and have five children. Two of her daughters, Symphorosa and Eliza, live in Wicklow with their families. Her son Laurence is in Sligo; Annette lives in Scotland and Nicolas in the south of France with their families.

To date Máirín has nine grandchildren. Sadly Jan died 18 years ago of lung cancer. She says of her late husband, 'He was old-fashioned and traditional but kindness itself. We were very happy together. He would go out of his way to do things for me. As he worked more or less from home he was around a lot and very

involved with the children. I remember how he loved fresh flowers and being Dutch of course our home was always filled with flowers.'

Jan's restoration work often took them to Holland and for a time to Germany but they also spent a few years in the west of Ireland where Jan worked as an oyster farmer. 'I always said I'd never marry an actor or anyone in showbusiness as it's too insecure. So what do I do, I go and marry a picture restorer. It's a precarious business too. And he did get the oyster business out of his system eventually,' she laughs. Máirín continued to act and sing during her childrearing years doing bit parts here and there. The advent of Irish Television in 1961 saw the demise of the touring companies but when places like Ardmore were established, new opportunities were opened up. Máirín took part in a TV programme called the 'Moderns' which contained a mixture of music and comedy talent. Down the years this glamorous and cordial lady has worked in the Gaiety and most of the main theatres and appeared in a number of Irish soaps including 'Glenroe'. She has also done a large body of extra work, and is involved in the Bloomsday events every year. More recently she has taken up ballroom dancing to which she has reached gold medal status. In her own jovial and selfdeprecating way, she tells us, "I always preferred singing and dancing to acting. I never thought I was much good at acting to be honest. I'm a kick-in-the-pants type of actor. I have to be made to do it but when I started doing ballroom, I got the bug. I really enjoyed it, especially the tango and the slow waltz.'

In 2005, this charming lady represented Wicklow in ' The All Ireland Active Age Talent Showcase' in the Concert hall and these days she is part of the ' Delia Murphy Tribute Show' singing all the old favourites accompanied by a guitarist. Máirín tells us how she became involved.

'My family and friends talked me into taking part in the Showcase and I can tell you, no one was more surprised then me when I won for Wicklow. It was a very enjoyable experience. The Tribute show came about when Carmel Cullen, a niece of Delia Murphy, wrote a book about her and her mother, Delia's sister. In the show Carmel does a comedy act and I sing the songs. It's great fun and the exciting news is that we've been invited to the Irish Embassy in Washington to do the show in November and we're expecting to do another date in NewYork.

For Máirín O'Donovan showbusiness is in the blood and for her there really is no business like it. Her advice to aspiring singers, dancers, and people who are trying to break into this world, ' You need to have it in you to start with and you need to want to do it passionately, and really enjoy it.

'It's the same no matter what job you do, if you don't enjoy it you're in the wrong job. Just remember there are people in this world who take great pride in getting a floor to sparkle and really enjoy it - we can all find something we enjoy doing.'

Máirín O'Donovan will be performing the 'Delia Murphy Tribute Show' on August, 25th in the Ilac Library, The Ilac Centre, Dublin. COSTUMES, WIGS, MAKE UP, the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd was as normal a part of growing up as anything else for singer, dancer and somewhat reluctant actress Máirín O'Donovan.

Born into a great acting and showbusiness dynasty, she is the daughter of the much admired and talented actor and comedian, the late Frank O'Donovan who toured in England and for decades in Ireland with his own 'Fitup' Company. But her father is best remembered for playing the lovable character, Batty Brennan for 10 years in Ireland's very first T.V. soap, the 'Riordans'. Máirín's mother, the late Kitty McMahon was also an actress and her parents meet and fell in love doing a show in London.

Her uncle was the well-known actor Harry O'Donovan who worked alongside Jimmy O'Dea for many years and her grandparents, Francoise and Rose McMahon were also thespians and all-round entertainers.

Máirín O'Donovan was born in Mount Merrion in Dublin but has been a Wicklow resident for many years. Her earliest childhood memories are of saying goodbye to her showbiz parents as ' they were always off working'. She was brought up until the age of 10 by her aunt Eliza in Skerries, but spent the school holidays along with her older sister Derry, touring with her parents, and the 'Frank O'Donovan Show' or the 'Dublin Follies'. Máirín shares some of her memories. ' There was always a lot of excitement watching my parents dressing up and I remember my sister and I would get up to all kinds of mischief taking things we shouldn't and wearing them outside in the street. My parents also taught drama to students who came to them and I can tell you they were pretty hard taskmasters.'

In the Ireland of the 1930s, '40s and '50s with no television, these touring companies were a popular source of entertainment in the towns and villages where their plays and concert parties were welcomed with open arms. Mairin explains, ' There was about 15 or so touring 'Fit-up' companies doing the same melodramas around the country. We came into a ballroom or hall and did everything. We put up the stage, did the lighting, the sound, the curtains, the chairs, the piano, the whole lot. The townspeople would actually request a certain play and you daren't put a word wrong in those plays because wherever you went everyone would know the script by heart.'

While touring in Ireland in the ' 40s her father Frank O'Donovan began writing songs, some of which became famous such as 'On the One Road' which was chosen by the army as their official song and translated into Irish. Other songs like ' Sitting on the Bridge below the Town' and 'Little White Cross' and many others were taken up by well-known artists like ' The Wolfe Tones' and played all over the world.

Máirín describes her father as easy-going, a very gentle person and has fond memories of him writing away on his songs. She also remembers with laughter the first role he made her play.

'Any child in a "Fit-up" company ends up playing the part of ' little Willy', a small child who dies in the well-known melodrama "East Lyne". I was no exception and when I got too big I remember having to scrunch my legs up under my chin and put on a squeaky voice.' She says laughing joyously, then adds in a tiny squeaky voice, ' Mother, I can see the angels coming!' She laughs with tears in her eyes at the memory.

A natural born performer, Máirín loved playing small parts during the school holidays in the company and couldn't wait to do bigger roles. Although she knew the nuns in the Loreto on the Green, where she was a boarder, would have preferred to keep her out of showbusiness, she also found she had to convince her parents to let her be part of this life. ' My parents did their best to try and talk me out of the theatre and steer me in other directions. But I wanted in and I was determined. I remember wondering why they were trying to chuck me out of it. I didn't think of it all as some great art, it was the family business and I didn't want to be pushed away.'

Máirín was 17 before she got her first serious singing and acting role playing the part of Lily in the Walter Macken play, 'Home is the Hero' -a story about a family set in Galway. She toured all around Ireland with this play and enjoyed being a full-time entertainer. 'It was a very nice life being on tour. As soon as the hard work was done setting up, we could relax and rehearse late in the morning, have long leisurely lunches and free afternoons before the show that night. We were self-sufficient, everybody got paid and we could live on the money, even put a little by.'

Life was not always sunshine and roses for the very pretty and strongwilled teenager whose strict, religious parents kept a firm hand on her and the other members of the company. With a troupe of around 15 younger people in their charge, Máirín's mother, who had a reputation for firmness, would often clash with her free spirited daughter. She explains, 'Sometimes you would hear people say, "showbiz people are a loose lot" but it was quite the opposite. My parents were very strict. We were so protected it was ridiculous. I remember arguing with my mother because she wouldn't let me go dancing. Looking back now, we were a big responsibility with more ladies than gents in the company, so I suppose we needed a firm hand like my mother's.'

In 1955, Máirín decided to spread her wings and head off on her own with the backup and encouragement of her sister Derry, to work in Newcastle, Co. Down. Here she worked alfresco, singing and dancing on the bandstand and then aged 20 she met a broodingly handsome 37-year-old picture restorer, Johannes Thermes from Holland and fell in love.

'I think everybody has one year or one season when they just go mad. At 18, theoretically you know it all but you don't have the experience to go with it. It's exactly the same with young people today. You live and learn, as they say. I worked for the first time in my life outside on the bandstand in Newcastle. It was very hard work, we were doing two shows a day but it was also great fun. When I met Jan and fell in love and decided to marry, all hell broke loose initially, as my parents thought I was too young but of course, they grew to accept and love him in time.'

Máirín and Jan were happily married for 36 years and have five children. Two of her daughters, Symphorosa and Eliza, live in Wicklow with their families. Her son Laurence is in Sligo; Annette lives in Scotland and Nicolas in the south of France with their families.

To date Máirín has nine grandchildren. Sadly Jan died 18 years ago of lung cancer. She says of her late husband, 'He was old-fashioned and traditional but kindness itself. We were very happy together. He would go out of his way to do things for me. As he worked more or less from home he was around a lot and very

involved with the children. I remember how he loved fresh flowers and being Dutch of course our home was always filled with flowers.'

Jan's restoration work often took them to Holland and for a time to Germany but they also spent a few years in the west of Ireland where Jan worked as an oyster farmer. 'I always said I'd never marry an actor or anyone in showbusiness as it's too insecure. So what do I do, I go and marry a picture restorer. It's a precarious business too. And he did get the oyster business out of his system eventually,' she laughs. Máirín continued to act and sing during her childrearing years doing bit parts here and there. The advent of Irish Television in 1961 saw the demise of the touring companies but when places like Ardmore were established, new opportunities were opened up. Máirín took part in a TV programme called the 'Moderns' which contained a mixture of music and comedy talent. Down the years this glamorous and cordial lady has worked in the Gaiety and most of the main theatres and appeared in a number of Irish soaps including 'Glenroe'. She has also done a large body of extra work, and is involved in the Bloomsday events every year. More recently she has taken up ballroom dancing to which she has reached gold medal status. In her own jovial and selfdeprecating way, she tells us, "I always preferred singing and dancing to acting. I never thought I was much good at acting to be honest. I'm a kick-in-the-pants type of actor. I have to be made to do it but when I started doing ballroom, I got the bug. I really enjoyed it, especially the tango and the slow waltz.'

In 2005, this charming lady represented Wicklow in ' The All Ireland Active Age Talent Showcase' in the Concert hall and these days she is part of the ' Delia Murphy Tribute Show' singing all the old favourites accompanied by a guitarist. Máirín tells us how she became involved.

'My family and friends talked me into taking part in the Showcase and I can tell you, no one was more surprised then me when I won for Wicklow. It was a very enjoyable experience. The Tribute show came about when Carmel Cullen, a niece of Delia Murphy, wrote a book about her and her mother, Delia's sister. In the show Carmel does a comedy act and I sing the songs. It's great fun and the exciting news is that we've been invited to the Irish Embassy in Washington to do the show in November and we're expecting to do another date in NewYork.

For Máirín O'Donovan showbusiness is in the blood and for her there really is no business like it. Her advice to aspiring singers, dancers, and people who are trying to break into this world, ' You need to have it in you to start with and you need to want to do it passionately, and really enjoy it.

'It's the same no matter what job you do, if you don't enjoy it you're in the wrong job. Just remember there are people in this world who take great pride in getting a floor to sparkle and really enjoy it - we can all find something we enjoy doing.'

Máirín O'Donovan will be performing the 'Delia Murphy Tribute Show' on August, 25th in the Ilac Library, The Ilac Centre, Dublin.

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