Mrs Brown's Boys star Eilish O'Carroll on living, loving and laughing
Best known for her role in her brother's smash-hit comedy Mrs Brown's Boys, Eilish O'Carroll is also the star of her own solo show. Jenny Lee chats to the Dubliner about the autobiographical comedy that reflects on her life, which included a strict Catholic upbringing, two failed marriages, motherhood and coming out as a lesbian at age 50
BEST known as Winnie McGoogan, the next-door neighbour in her brother Brendan's hugely successful TV sitcom and stage show Mrs Brown's Boys, Eilish O'Carroll's life has been very different from that of her carefree on-screen character.
"Winnie has a simplicity about her that is quite charming. If we could all go through our lives believing that everybody is good and not intellectualise and analyse too much I think we'd live longer lives," the actress laughs.
In contrast, Eilish has spent many years worrying and battling with her emotions. At the age of 40, having had two sons and gone through two failed marriages (one of them abusive), she found herself fighting off inner feelings for the opposite sex. After much soul-searching, she came out as a lesbian 10 years later.
This month she brings her very own life story to the Northern Ireland stage in her one-woman show Live Love Laugh.
"It's a very personal piece, but the show could be about any woman's journey in life. It's about reinvention. Women have to wear so many different hats in life – whether it be a mother, wife or nurse. At times life throws us a curve ball where we totally have to reinvent ourselves, just in order to survive."
Born in Dublin in the early 1950s, Eilish was the second youngest in a family of 10 and together with her younger brother Brendan developed a passion for performing at a very early age "in order to get noticed" by her parents and siblings.
Her mother Maureen was the first female Labour TD to be elected in Ireland, in 1954, and Eilish credits her for influencing her career choice.
"She had a great turn of phrase and sense of humour. There were always lots of conversations and debate going on in the house, whether it be socialism or politics – and I guess comedy is a bit like politics."
She believes her brother Brendan, who plays foul-mouthed matriarch Agnes Brown in his hit show Mrs Brown's Boys "was born a natural comic" and "could make people laugh before he could even talk".
There are moments when she sees glimpses of her mother in the character Agnes.
"There are times I would say to myself 'My mother said that once'. Of course she did it in a far more eloquent way," she laughs.
Eilish began her performance career singing in a band called The Pentagon. Moving to England to raise her young family, she still found time to take to the stage in a local drama group.
In 1997 she returned to Ireland and started working with her brother as wardrobe assistant for the Mrs Brown's Boys stage shows, as well as understudying the female characters. She got her opportunity in 1999.
"It was in Glasgow's Pavillion Theatre. One of the ladies wanted time out to do an RTE production and Brendan asked me if I would fill in and do Winnie. I had only one night to prepare for it, but I must have struck a chord because I've been in it ever since."
It wasn't until the late 90s that Mrs Brown's Boys took off on a big scale. The hit TV show based on it was commissioned in 2009, airing for the first time in 2011.
Eilish, like the rest of the cast – which includes other members of the O'Carrol family – is surprised by its success; it has won numerous awards and its Christmas specials average an audience of 10 million. The drama about working-class Dublin life has even crossed over to the big screen, with Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie released in 2014.
"It's still really hard to get your head around. Last night we had 7,000 in the audience for the Good Mourning Mrs Brown arena show. It's beyond my expectations and what's lovely is that 20 years down the line I still love doing what I'm doing."
Behind her on-screen laughs, Eilish has gone through personal turmoil, persecuting herself for being attracted to women. "Perverse, disgusting – all these words I hate people using to describe someone else, I was using to describe myself," she confesses.
"I appreciate in retrospect that was down to my conditioning and religious belief system around those issues. Thankfully I've grown up and life has changed, as has Ireland's attitude towards sexuality. Sadly despite the Referendum bringing equality, we still have a psyche in Ireland and some young people and adults are going through hell because of their sexuality."
The people Eilish was afraid of telling the most was her two sons.
"I postponed that conversation for about 10 years. I thought I hid it well, but of course kids, no matter what age they are, are extremely perceptive. They were extremely supportive – after telling me they were 'very angry'. I was expecting them not to be happy with me being gay. But it was the fact I robbed them of the opportunity to support me that angered them.
"I realise that was very wrong of me, but at the time I didn't know how to handle it and therefore I felt no-one else could come to terms with it."
Eilish's first lesbian relationship lasted six years before buckling under the strain of her guilty feelings. It was only when she had the confidence to tell people about her internal battle and got such a positive response that she found herself penning her autobiographical comedy.
Live Love Laugh has reached out far beyond the LGBT community.
"I've had parents tell me they had problems coming to terms with a child who is gay and it's really helped them. I've had women stop me and tell me about being in a violent relationship. It just inspires and empowers them."
Her message to women, especially those going through the menopause, is to "embrace life, love yourself and do what you want to do".
"The change in life for me literally meant a change in life. Whatever your circumstance, it's a case of accepting it and embracing the changes. The wonderful thing about life is it keeps changing. So rather than thinking tomorrow is going to be the same old drudgery, believe that something new and wonderful could happen."
Now 65, Eilish admits she keeps ticking things off her bucket list.
"I used to say when grow up I want to be a star, a singer, an actress. All of that happened to me much later in life and my message is don't give up on your dreams. I still want to be a ballerina. I don't think that's going to happen, but it never stops me from fantasising."
"I'm loving life and can't wait for the rest of it," says Eilish, who has been with her current partner, Marian, for 12 years.
And does her future include marriage again?
"I fought for the right to marriage because children within same-sex relationships should have the same legal rights as any other couple. My partner and I are happy with the ways things are, but maybe when I'm 90 another trip down the aisle might be a good idea," she laughs.
:: Eilish O'Carroll, Live Love Laugh 2017 tour plays various venues across the north of Ireland between April 22 and May 20. For full details visit Eilishocarroll.com. Good Mourning Mrs Brown is at Belfast's SSE Arena from December 7-9. See ssearenabelfast.com for details and booking.