As much as we love Orla, Clare, Michelle and James, the real star of Derry Girls is the eyerolling, smoking jacket-wearing Sister Michael. The actor who’s brought her to life, SIOBHÁN McSWEENEY, is in confessional mood when she meets STUART CLARK.
The acclaimed actress on playing Sister Michael in smash hit comedy Derry Girls.
It’s the morning after St. Patrick’s Day and Siobhán McSweeney – star of Derry Girls, one of the biggest Irish TV drama success stories in years – is feeling just a teensy-weensy bit delicate. “A ‘teensy-weensy bit?’” the Corkonian sighs, as we sit down for a natter in her north London abode. “Look, I’m having Lucozade and Berocca for breakfast!”
A pub was retired to yesterday afternoon after McSweeney marched in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade with her London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign pals and not left until the wee small hours.
“There was a great turnout and the reaction from the crowds was far warmer than I expected,” Siobhán says, perking up a bit. “You had a few eejits saying stuff, but overall it was great support for the cause. Bronagh
Waugh from Hollyoaks and Niamh McGrady from The Fall were also part of our group who were marching behind the Hare Krishnas. It was very diverse.”
A long-time reproductive rights activist, McSweeney was joined last month by fellow Derry Girl star Nicola Coughlan in helping to deliver a 62,000-strong petition calling for the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland to Secretary of State Karen Bradley.
“There were 28 of us, symbolising the number of Northern Ireland women who travel to other parts of the UK every week for an abortion. Amnesty International organised it and there was a great turnout of MPs, media and, most importantly, women who’ve been affected themselves and are prepared to tell their stories in order to help others. I can’t imagine how dif cult it must be for them.”
We’ll return to Karen Bradley later, but let us now focus our attention on Season 2 of Derry Girls, which four episodes in is proving to be just as gigglesome as its predecessor. Bagging herself some of the best lines – and out ts – has been Sister Michael.
“Oh, she’s wonderful,” Siobhán says of her eye-rolling character. “What I love about Sister Michael is that she has a life outside of being a nun. She has an awareness of the whole world. She’s not closeted away and she’s not ignorant. You could argue that she’s the only one
“I’ve never had an encounter with a nun. Knowingly. They may have been in disguise”
that has a proper handle on things. She observes the world with a clinical eye rather than getting too wrapped up in things. She’s the sort of woman I’d really like to go for a pint with.”
Asked whether she drew inspiration from a real life nun for Sister Michael, Siobhán shakes her head and says,
“No, I was never taught by a nun. I’ve never had an encounter with a nun. Knowingly. They may have been in disguise. She’s drawn from Lisa McGee’s wonderful writing. Possibly, I share a similar short fuse or a lack of patience. But apart from that, I’m not as well dressed or as fantastic as the woman, unfortunately.”
It’s like picking your favourite child, but a quick Hot Press of ce straw poll reveals Ms. De Brún And The Child Of Prague to be our fave Season 2 episode so far. Was there much religious iconography in the McSweeney house growing up?
“Oh yes, we had statues,” she nods. “My cousins had one of those blessings you get from The Pope – they probably sent a postal order off to the Vatican for it. JFK was above the Aga. There are certain marks of a time that are universal.”
With Season 1 inspiring such rabid devition, were Siobhán and the crew worried that people’s ultra-high expectations mightn’t be matched this time round?
“Yeah, there was a little bit of that,” she admits. “I don’t think it’s being faux-modest to say that we were truly overwhelmed by the response to the rst six episodes. I’ve been around long enough to know there’s no meritocracy in this business, so to have it recognised was brilliant. When you love something so much, you’re worried that it might not go the full distance but as soon as I read the rst script I knew we weren’t going to be suffering difficult second album syndrome. That said, I was on Twitter at 9.15pm looking to see what the response was to the
Across The Barricade episode!”
Which found Sister Michael rocking a
serious smoking jacket.
“Isn’t it brilliant?” she laughs. “That’s Cathy Prior, our costume designer.
She’s a genius. From day one we’ve had a complete mind-meld. We bonded initially over her little pixie boots. The best piece of life advice I have is, ‘Get the shoes right and everything else will fall into place.’ We weren’t able to get Sister Michael wearing an Aran jumper into the rst series, but we managed it this time. And the judo outfit! I felt a bit of a superhero in that.”
Does she have a favourite Season 2 moment?
“How long do you have?” Siobhán deadpans. “Any scene with Peter Campion, AKA Father Peter, is to be cherished. Just one look at him with his lovely hair! I had a pop-up part in London Irish, which Peter was the lead and equally wonderful in. Ian McElhinney, AKA Granda Joe, played my dad in a production of Uncle Vanya
in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. He’s the best company and always the last fella to go home. His withering putdowns of Gerry always have me shrieking with laughter.
“I love the scene where Clare is hanging off the cliff and then a mass brawl breaks out below. That was so
much fun to shoot! I think Peter says, ‘Don’t touch the hair, don’t touch
the hair.’ He’s such a brilliant fucking comedian. The blackboard scene, which is now becoming iconic, was wonderful too.”
Nicola Coughlan, AKA the aforementioned Wee Clare, told us that the hardest thing about being in Derry Girls is keeping a straight face.
“Oh, totally. All I have to do is look at Ma Mary and Aunt Sarah in those scenes where the parents are called in to see Sister Michael and I’m off!”
Bronagh Gallagher, who was an early candidate to play Sister Michael, told me she’s delighted she had to drop out of the running it because she wouldn’t have been nearly as good as Siobhán McSweeney.
“I hadn’t heard about that,” she gasps. “Honestly, I’m fucking honoured. I think her career is one to aspire to. She’s extraordinary. I’m really glad she didn’t pursue it either because I’d have given it to Bronagh. What a great compliment, I’m overwhelmed.”
With 1.8 million tuning in to see the Season 2 opener – add in catch-up and it’s now at around the 2.5 million mark – we should probably stop calling Derry Girls a cult hit. Is Siobhán surprised by the magnitude of its now thoroughly mainstream success?
“I used to get irritated when people talked about Derry Girls needing subtitles. Get over yourself; nobody’s on the moon here. I’m giving out to everybody now! I think the Scandinavian dramas like Wallander and
The Killing started the trend of people being willing to go with the story, and more importantly with the characters. The best thing about Derry Girls’
success, which no one, least of all Lisa McGee, took for granted, is that there’s been zero watering down or having to overly explain things. It’s 100% true to the story and the characters.”
Derry Girl is not the only wickedly funny TV show that Ms. McSweeney is currently to be seen in.
“The second series of Porters has just started on Dave. It’s a comedy set in a hospital where there are various echelons of hierarchy, the porters being the lowest of the low. Also joining the cast this year is Sinéad Keenan, a wonderful actress who I worked with as well on London Irish. I play a weird, deranged security guard – typecasting again! – who’s a bit too devoted to her job. She sort of thinks she’s Rambo. You know, one of those ones who couldn’t get into the police force, but wishes she had. Brandishes a taser too liberally. Very different to Derry Girls.”
Siobhán is also hitting the big screen as the intriguingly named Boring Noreen in Extra Ordinary, the tale of a small-town driving instructor with supernatural powers that also stars Maeve Higgins, Barry Ward, Claudia
“Any scene with Father Peter is to be cherished. Just one look at him with his lovely hair!”
O’Doherty, Risteard Cooper and Mary McEvoy.
“I was unable to go to the premiere of that, which is a shame because it was at SXSW in Austin, Texas,” she rues. “It got amazing reviews and rightly so because it’s so funny. They sent me a little teaser trailer of what they were trying to do with it and, like when you get a Lisa McGee script, I was, ‘Right, whatever you want, grand.’ I would have done anything for it. I’m literally in one scene, so really contributed very little to its impending success.”
Have any other independent Irish
lms caught her eye recently?
“Last night I ran into Simone Kirby, who’s also in the upcoming Artemis
Fowl movie, and told her I was gearing up to watch The Hole In The Ground. I say ‘gearing up’ because I’m a real wimp and live on my own and apparently it’s terrifying.”
So she differs in that department from Sister Michael who was spotted last week reading The Exorcist on the DerryBelfast bus.
“She’s much braver than I am in so many ways. A lm that I did pluck up the courage to watch and was scared witless by was Without Name, the horror lm set in Wicklow that had Niamh Algar in it. I slept with the lights on for weeks after that!”
Returning to politics and Siobhán McSweeney gave Andrew Marr a run for his money in the astute observation department recently when she tweeted, “Karen Bradley is a DOSE.”
“Thank you for recognising the forensic eye for detail I have,” she concludes. “Thatcher was malevolent but intelligent. Bradley is neither. She’s just unable. It’s a shame because she’s a woman in a position of power, and we don’t have enough of those, but she’s in over her head. If anyone from Prime Time or Newsnight is reading this the answer is, ‘Yes, I’d love to appear on your show, just give my agent a call.’”
• Originally shown on Channel 4, Derry Girls is also available on Netflix
Sister Michael with Jenny Joyce and some of her other Our Lady Immaculate College charges and (inset) the banes of her life!
Sister Michael with The Child of Prague (before the beheading)
Siobhán in her civvies