'I was a homophobe until I came out during my forties'
Chrissie Russell meets lesbian playwright Eilish O'Carroll, who stars with her brother Brendan in Mrs Brown's Boys
To the thousands of fans of Mrs Brown's Boys, Eilish O'Carroll is best known as Agnes Brown's best friend, the nice, if ever so slightly dim, Winnie McGoogan.
Like many of the cast, she's also related to the show's star; she's Brendan O'Carroll's sister, and nearest in age to him in their family of 10.
But this week has seen the Dublin mum-of-two take on a very different role, starring in her own self-penned, one- woman show, Live Love Laugh.
In it Eilish (60) revealed for the first time the emotional journey that brought her through two failed marriages to coming out as a lesbian in her 40s.
It was a decision that came as a shock not only to her happily married husband and two sons, but most of all to herself.
"I was living a very normal life in suburban Surrey," she explains. "The boys were on their way to university and I'd a lovely husband. Life was pretty good. What happened came completely out of left field."
What happened was that Eilish fell in love with a woman. Despite attempts to blame her feelings on a phase or even early menopause, she soon realised they weren't going away.
"Eventually I went to see a clinical psychologist and paid big bucks to be told I was experiencing 'transference'. He said I had to tell the woman how I felt," she says.
"I told her, she said she felt the same way and that was it -- two marriages, two families blown apart."
The two women left their husbands and moved in together. But from the outset the relationship, which lasted on and off for six years, was doomed.
"We were carrying far too much guilt," explains Eilish who had already had a previous marriage breakdown.
"My sons stayed with their stepfather and I went back four or five times a week to see them.
"I remember one time no one was in, so I decided to do some hoovering. My younger son came home and said 'are you trying to hoover up your guilt, mum?'"
Her voice breaks telling the story. "I was. I felt so guilty. I was supposed to give them a stable home and I'd ruined it."
It wasn't until much later that Eilish had the strength to explain to her sons why she'd walked away from her marriage.
"I'd been back in Ireland about three years but visited them regularly in England. I always meant to tell them but bottled out because I was so afraid of rejection.
"Finally I took them out to dinner and came out. They went very quiet. My eldest was terribly angry.
"He said it was nothing to do with my sexuality but he was angry because they'd known I was going through a terrible time and I hadn't trusted them enough to tell them."
Her ex-husband proved an unlikely source of support. She says: "He was hurt because he didn't want the marriage to end.
"But we'd always been great communicators and very open with each other. He hadn't seen this coming -- no one had -- but he supported me and remains a close friend today."
Her own family were also accepting. "Brendan couldn't care less," she says. "His attitude was always 'if you're happy, I'm happy for you' and the older ones just never mention it."
But it was Eilish herself who struggled to come to terms with life as a gay woman. "I was the biggest homophobe," she explains.
"The feelings were ingrained in me the way they are for so many people of my age with an Irish Catholic upbringing."
When she left England and moved to west Cork in 1997 she joined the support group, Lesbians in Cork (linc.ie).
"I found myself looking at butch women in the group thinking, 'I couldn't be a lesbian, I don't look like that'," she says.
Two years of 'lesbian pubescence' followed where she cut her hair short, rolled her own cigarettes and wore boots in a bid to 'fit in'.
She laughs: "I was a like a 48-year-old lesbian teenager, trying desperately to find my place in the world."
Surely going to bed with a woman, after 20 years of being with men, must have been a daunting experience?
"Not daunting, mind-blowing," she laughs. "It was a completely different experience, I felt so comfortable and natural in a way I'd never done with a man.
"Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed sex with a man. But this was something else; I suppose the fact that it felt right proved to me this wasn't a phase."
Eventually with support from Linc she made peace with her choice, and in accepting herself, found she could accept someone into her life, her partner of eight years, Marian.
Though she had never married, Marian too came out at 49 after years of hidden relationships with women.
She's been welcomed into Eilish's family, invited to events, but it's a very different relationship to Eilish's previous heterosexual marriages.
"We're very independent," she explains. "We don't have the same level of expectations on each other of how the relationship has to be, we do what works for us."
Even little things such as buying a home or setting up direct debits have thrown up challenges.
"I'm totally responsible for myself," she says. "Marian and I care deeply about each other, but we're not responsible for each other."
The couple have no plans to marry and still have their own homes in Cork city and west Cork.
At the moment they work together, with Marian stage manager on Live Love Laugh. The play, which runs until tomorrow at Trinity Players Theatre, as part of Dublin's Gay Theatre Festival, has been a cathartic experience for Eilish, better used to hiding behind the large cast of Mrs Brown's Boys.
"I feel that by putting myself out there it's made me stronger," she says.
"Writing the play helped me exorcise my demons and when I look back at who I was, it feels like another life."
She adds: "I think we can get too preoccupied with putting labels on people, 'wife', 'mother', 'lesbian', being 60 -- why should just one thing define you?
"At the end of the day, I'm just me and I feel finally I'm comfortable with who I am."
Tickets for 'Live Love Laugh' are available from €10 at www.gaytheatre.ie