“I’m so proud of my mammy”

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents -

He’s built a com­edy em­pire worth mil­lions, but Mrs. Brown’s Boys cre­ator Brendan O’car­roll re­veals he owes ev­ery­thing to his trail­blaz­ing mother.

Mau­reen O’car­roll did not live to see her son Brendan en­joy his suc­cess as star and cre­ator of the wildly pop­u­lar com­edy se­ries and live arena show Mrs. Brown’s Boys.

But if the Ir­ish ac­tor has any­thing to do with it, his mother’s re­mark­able (and lit­tle-known) po­lit­i­cal and so­cial legacy will fi­nally be given due credit. As he pre­pares to tour Aus­tralia early next year with his lat­est arena show For The Love Of Mrs. Brown, the 62-year-old grows an­i­mated when he tells Stel­lar about the as­ton­ish­ing story that few know about his “mammy”.

Brendan O’car­roll was the youngest of 11 chil­dren raised by cab­i­net-maker Gerard and Mau­reen, a one-time novice nun. Dur­ing his youth, he says, “Ire­land was [stuck in] the Mid­dle Ages – and my mother helped change all that.”

And while he’s long de­nied she in­spired his most fa­mous char­ac­ter, in curly wig and glasses, Agnes Brown (build­ing an em­pire worth an es­ti­mated $30 mil­lion on the way), O’car­roll now ac­knowl­edges the “un­holy trin­ity” at the heart of his suc­cess: him­self, Agnes and the mother whose love and life proved so wor­thy.

THE LIFE OF the woman born Mau­reen Mchugh came with its own Hol­ly­wood twist. A year be­fore her birth in 1913, her par­ents aborted their plans to set off on the SS Ti­tanic’s maiden voy­age and elope to the US, in­stead sell­ing off their tick­ets just days be­fore its ill-fated jour­ney. Her mother and jour­nal­ist fa­ther en­cour­aged her to read and think crit­i­cally, earn­ing Mau­reen a schol­ar­ship to univer­sity around the time she met Gerard.

Ac­cept­ing his mar­riage pro­posal put an end to her pro­fes­sional am­bi­tions as a teacher; hit­ting a wall in the form of what was then known as Ire­land’s “mar­riage bar”. Es­sen­tially, leg­is­la­tion at that time pro­hib­ited wed­ded women from hold­ing a job in the civil ser­vice. When she mar­ried in 1936, her ca­reer ef­fec­tively ended.

“She was let go,” O’car­roll ex­plains. “And she said, ‘ Well, I’m not hav­ing

Long be­fore he donned a wig and found suc­cess as the pop­u­lar Mrs Brown, Brendan O’car­roll found in­spi­ra­tion in the form of his trail­blaz­ing mother In­ter­view by HOLLY BYRNES

that!’ So she got deeply in­volved with the union and was de­ter­mined to get that law changed.”

From her tiny coun­cil house in Fin­glas, the woman widely known as “Lit­tle Mo” waged war against the so­cial and eco­nomic is­sues she saw af­fect­ing the poor fam­i­lies around her. As she dug into her re­search, “she re­alised so many laws on the statutes were anti-women,” says O’car­roll, who points to one law that gave hus­bands per­mis­sion “to beat your wife pro­vided the man didn’t use a stick longer than his fore­arm and thicker than his thumb”.

Mau­reen was even­tu­ally en­listed to run for the Ir­ish Par­lia­ment in 1954; she later claimed vic­tory – and made his­tory – as the first fe­male TD (MP) for the Ir­ish Labour Party.

She would go on to leg­is­late for cheaper gro­ceries, erase use of the word “il­le­git­i­mate” on birth cer­tifi­cates for those born out of wed­lock and helped set up the Ban Gar­dai, which al­lowed women to join the po­lice force. And she did all of this in only a short-lived, three-year stint in par­lia­ment.

When her hus­band died of as­bestos-re­lated can­cer in 1962, Mau­reen used what lit­tle money she made from a po­lit­i­cal pen­sion to buy two ter­race houses and set up a women’s refuge for bat­tered wives and home­less chil­dren. This, de­spite the fact her fam­ily were still liv­ing in their own cramped ter­race, which still puz­zles O’car­roll. “I don’t even know where they put them all,” he says. “They must have been stand­ing up in a wardrobe.”

But once his older sib­lings moved out, mar­ried or mi­grated, O’car­roll re­mem­bers rel­ish­ing the time he had his mother to him­self. “It got to one point where it was just me and her,” he tells Stel­lar, “so I’d get the un­di­vided at­ten­tion of this ge­nius of a woman. My older sis­ters would re­mem­ber a woman they had heard on the ra­dio, de­cry­ing the fact kids were com­ing out of school il­lit­er­ate, but who wouldn’t be there to help them with their home­work.”

There’s lit­tle doubt in O’car­roll’s mind his mother gave him the con­fi­dence “to be any­thing I wanted to be,” he says, an at­ti­tude which earned him a rep­u­ta­tion in his home­town as the “can-do kid”.

Even af­ter her death in 1984, O’car­roll be­lieves his mother kept en­cour­ag­ing him to suc­ceed. At one of the most trou­bled times in his life, af­ter a failed project had left him fi­nan­cially ru­ined, he was des­per­ate and on his third night with­out sleep. So, he says, he did what good Ir­ish boys al­ways do: knelt at his bed­side and prayed. “I said, ‘Mum, I know you want me to find the an­swer to this my­self but if there’s some­thing you can do, just give me a feck­ing break.’”

That night, he says, she ap­peared in a dream, call­ing him on the tele­phone to say: “If you want it that bad that you’re pre­pared to get down on your knees for it, get off of your feck­ing knees and go do some­thing about it.”

O’car­roll, a stand-up comic- turned-writer, cre­ated the char­ac­ter of Mrs. Brown for an Ir­ish ra­dio sta­tion in the early 1990s. When the ac­tress due to play the role failed to show up, ever re­source­ful, O’car­roll ran with it – and 25 years later, he is still sell­ing out are­nas play­ing the char­ac­ter.

Last year Pro­fes­sor Ni­amh Reilly, who teaches po­lit­i­cal sci­ence and so­ci­ol­ogy at Mau­reen’s alma mater (the Na­tional Univer­sity of Ire­land, Gal­way), be­gan re­search­ing the con­tri­bu­tion she made to Ire­land’s po­lit­i­cal his­tory as part of a cel­e­bra­tion of the univer­sity’s alum­nae.

“She has emerged as a won­der­ful ex­am­ple of really con­found­ing ex­pec­ta­tions and break­ing the mould,” Reilly says of Mau­reen. “She was really quite ex­tra­or­di­nary. There’s a whole book to be writ­ten, I think.”

For his part, O’car­roll pays homage to her legacy ev­ery time he steps on the stage in front of an au­di­ence.

There have been two films based on her life and the show, 1999’s Agnes Browne, star­ring An­jel­ica Hus­ton, and 2014’s Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’movie. O’car­roll’s sis­ter Eil­ish, who plays Agnes Brown’s dotty neigh­bour Win­nie Mcgoogan, now plans to adapt Mau­reen’s story once more for a proper biopic.

As for his own flir­ta­tion with pol­i­tics, O’car­roll ad­mits he has con­sid­ered run­ning for par­lia­ment, but just doesn’t want the bother. “I al­ways said I wouldn’t go into pol­i­tics un­til I could af­ford to and then I got to the stage where I didn’t need the money and I didn’t need the pol­i­tics in my life.”

For now, he’ll leave that to Agnes Brown. “If Mrs. Brown had a univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion like Mum, she would be my mum,” he says. “There’s times, even now, that I’m on­stage and say things and I go, ‘Je­sus, that’s my mother. That’s so my mother.’ I think we all do that. [But] I’m so proud of my mammy, who made her life mat­ter.” Mrs. Brown’s Boys Christ­mas Box Set, Mrs. Brown’s Really Big Box Set and Mrs. Brown’s Boys Specials are out on DVD on Wed­nes­day.

“I’m so proud of my mammy, who made her life mat­ter”

MRS O’CAR­ROLL’S BOY Brendan O’car­roll is tour­ing Aus­tralia next year; (above left) as his al­ter ego Mrs. Brown; (below left) his mother Mau­reen.

MUM’S WORD (clock­wise THE from above) The youngest of 11 chil­dren, O’car­roll rel­ished the time he had with his in­spir­ing mum; win­ning the Best Com­edy Award at the UK Na­tional Tele­vi­sion Awards in Jan­uary; his sis­ter Eil­ish (at left) plays Mrs. Brown’s neigh­bour and friend, Win­nie.

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