Eilish O’Carroll, star of Mrs Brown’s Boys, found her prejudices challenged when she came out as a lesbian. She talks to Mark Fisher about her new show Live Love Laugh, a comic look back at her life
THERE’S a chain Eilish O’Carroll has worn round her neck for 35 years. Inscribed on it are three words: “Live Love Laugh”. The phrase isn’t hers – it was given to her by a sister – but it’s the motto by which she has led her life. And she has certainly had her share of living, loving and laughing.
When it comes to living, this is a woman who has experienced everything from growing up the second youngest of 11 in an Irish Catholic family to finding herself an international celebrity in her fifties. It is O’Carroll who plays best friend Winnie McGoogan in Mrs Brown’s Boys, the phenomenally successful sitcom created by her brother, Brendan. After attracting TV audiences in excess of 11 million, they’re shooting a movie version in September before another tour of Canada and Australia.
When it comes to loving, she is a woman with passion to spare. By the age of 40, she had clocked up two husbands and brought up two sons before she became irresistibly drawn to another married woman. After much soul-searching, she came out as a lesbian ten years later. That first six-year relationship buckled under the strain of their guilty feelings. She has been with her current partner, Marian, for eight years.
And when it comes to laughing, well, this is a funny woman who refuses to live in her brother’s shadow.
After all that living and loving, she has distilled her wealth of experience into a
one-woman autobiographical comedy called, naturally enough, Live Love Laugh. Now, at the age of 60,
she is making her Edinburgh Fringe debut with what she calls the “most sincere confession I ever made in my life”.
“I had written a tiny piece about an event in my life which, at the time, wasn’t funny,” she says. “It was only when I had the confidence to tell people years later that they were falling about the place laughing. When I found that people found it funny, it was therapeutic because it was actually changing the memory for me. I thought, ‘You take yourself too seriously.’ Other people can see it from a different perspective and they don’t have the hang-ups and the guilt.”
From this small anecdote emerged Live Love Laugh. It’s a comic look back at her life, including her belated sexual awakening and the trauma it unleashed. Having feelings for a woman was a new and unexpected experience for her. If she had repressed her instincts in the past, she had been unaware of it. Even today, she can’t say whether she has always been a lesbian or whether it is a recent change.
More than that, she freely describes herself as having been a homophobe, the product of a culture in which homosexuality was not acknowledged, let alone condoned. To realise you are the thing you most fear takes some adjusting to.
“I persecuted myself for quite a few years,” she says. “It was hard for me to get my head around it because I really had no idea. I think the conditioning was so strong. I needed to know whether it was my imagination or an unfortunate experience (and that’s how I would have described it at the time) that I had just fallen in love with a woman. I had no road map to tell me that these things happen. It took about ten years before I could embrace it on every level.”
She consulted a clinical psychotherapist who helped her pick through her Catholicism and conditioning. “I was as homophobic as the next person,” she says without embarrassment. “Homophobic is what I was because it was how I learned to be. I had never knowingly met a gay man or a gay woman in my life. I felt no prejudice on any level, whether it be religion, colour or sexual orientation, but when it came to me coping with it, the homophobia came out. That’s when I used words like: ‘I’m not normal. I’m perverse. I’m disgusting. I’m sick.’ Where do those words come from? We live in a society that gives us these words as we grow up. It’s in the air.”
It was not the only adjustment she had to make later in life. She had always known her kid brother Brendan was a gifted comic, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that his Mrs Brown alter-ego took off on a big scale. Along with other family members, O’Carroll joined the cast of his stage show. It was a massive popular hit despite the absence of mainstream publicity, much in the same way the TV incarnation in 2011 was pooh-poohed by the establishment but lapped up by the public. At the Glasgow Pavilion and, later, the Edinburgh Playhouse, the various Mrs Brown comedies of working-class Dublin life were a word-of-mouth phenomenon. In the autumn of 2006, the Pavilion even put on a mini-season, showing Mrs Brown’s Last Wedding, Mourning Mrs Brown and Mrs Brown Rides Again back to back.
Seeing the show’s success in Glasgow, Rab C Nesbitt writer Ian Pattison suggested BBC producer Stephen McCrum should check it out. “They knew they were taking a huge risk,” says O’Carroll. “They were very frightened. It was either going to end careers for some people in the BBC or make them heroes. And it made them heroes.”
Prior to that, she had been involved in amateur dramatics and she attributes her performing instincts to a childhood
spent competing for attention with her younger brother. “Brendan was a naturally funny mimic and a great artist as well, he could draw anything. He had a great imagination and a wonderful way of telling a story.
“And he was the baby, so he was my mother’s pride and joy. So the best drama school I ever went to was growing up in a large family because you had to learn to perform to get attention. There is that child in me that still wants that attention.”
• Eilish O’Carroll: Live Love Laugh, Pleasance Courtyard, 2:45pm, until