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Tracings Brendan O’Carroll: the can-do kid

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Olivia Tracey

"My mother was a nun," announced comedian Brendan O’Carroll with serious sincerity in Dublin’s Pasta Fresca restaurant.

"And I suppose you’re the immaculate conception," I thought strongly suspecting yet another joke on his part. However, it is indeed true that his dear mother, Maureen O’Carroll, was a holy sister but renounced her vows to eventually marry a carpenter called Gerard O’Carroll.

Brendan speaks a lot about his mother and the tremendously positive influence she had on him. The youngest of 11 children, he recalls how, tying his shoelaces and pinching his cheek, she would tell him, "Brendan, you can be anything you want to be," as she sent him off to school. Consequently, in his north Dublin Finglas neighborhood he became known as "the can-do kid," demonstrating a mind-over-matter motto in this working-class area where the power of positive thinking was definitely more rare than rife.

Indeed his, mother was highly accomplished in her own right, a politician, way ahead of her time. In the 1950s and ’60s women in the Civil Service were no longer allowed to work once they got married, and so being a civil servant and falling victim to this law, Maureen O’Carroll decided to do something about it. She joined the unions and, in 1953, became the only woman to be elected to the Irish Parliament, working as shadow minister for foreign affairs and the party whip. In this capacity she managed to change a law prohibiting married women from working in the civil service. She also designed the short birth certificate and replaced the stigmatic term "illegitimate" with "father undeclared."

She went on to suffer her own personal tragedy with the death of her husband when Brendan was only 6. Nonetheless, the comedian reminded me, she still managed to rear her children in their corporation house in Finglas.

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For his part, O’Carroll is a great man for telling stories and so it is not surprising that he has extended his career beyond stand-up comedy to a novel and screenwriting, among his credits "Sparrow’s Trap" and his trilogy, "The Chisslers," "The Granny," and "The Mammy," the latter having just been made into a movie produced by Jim Sheridan and directed by Angelica Huston.

Having written both the novel and the screenplay adaptation, he also starred in the film alongside Angelica who plays the lead, with Marion O’Dwyer, Kate O’Toole and singer and sex symbol Tom Jones. He even afforded me my motion picture debut in the role of a posh snooty customer buying fruit in Moore Street, dressed to the nines complete with a white, fluffy bichon frise (poodle to the rest of us). He is hoping for an American cinematic release in December, just in time for the Oscar nominations. Otherwise it will be a spring release for "The Mammy" prior to the Cannes Film Festival.

This is petty good going for a man who left school at the age of 12, worked as a comic-waiter for 18 years and ventured into joint-ownership of a pub, Finglas Castle, only to find, on his return from a long overdue vacation, that his partner and friend had absconded, leaving Brendan bankrupt. However, never one to suffer defeat, he approached a friend, John Sweeney, manager of the Rathmines Inn, requesting an opportunity to start stand-up comedy gigs. He began with $75 a night only to rise to $750 per night within two weeks. He was then 35.

His popularity escalated and within a couple of years he was guesting on no less than "The Late Late Show." Since then he has gone on to write four best-selling novels, two plays, four screenplays (two of which have already been made into movies with himself as writer, director and actor). Two seasons of his television series "Hot Milk and Pepper," five one-man-show tours, two Top 10 hit singles including a gold and platinum album and over two and a half thousand live stand-up appearances. Don’t be surprised if one of his hit plays "The Course" makes it to an Off-Broadway venue after its success in Dublin’s Olympia Theater.

With regard to his success as a write, he attributes much of it to Billy Flood, his school teacher at St. Gabriel’s School in O’Devaney Gardens. He encouraged Brendan no end and started a library for the class where Brendan discovered the wondrous "Treasure Island" which he read no less than six times. The teacher gave him the book and since wrote a poem dedicated to the comedian entitled "When the Young Hand Took the Old Book."

Brendan, happily married to Doreen, is now equally encouraging his own children, Fiona, 18, who just got seven honors in her Leaving Cert and is about to follow her producer-director ambition at dun Laoghaire Film School; Danny, 14, who wants to be an actor and has just landed a part in Paramount Pictures "Angela’s Ashes," and Eric, 6, who, for now, just wants to be a kid. On this note again he refers to his mother, who, during her years as a school teacher, invited an artistically gifted pupil to camouflage a crack in the classroom window by painting a stained-glass version of The Last Supper. The result was so impressive that she invited the child’s parents to the school to see their daughter’s work. However, paying no attention to the painting, they presumed that the youngster had broken the window. Ever since then, Mrs. O’Carroll reminded Brendan to always look for the picture, not the crack.

Brendan’s next project is "The Bing and Ball Gang," which he has just finished writing and hopes to direct, and which soon goes into production in L.A. starring Sean Connery and Sir John Gielgud. There’s no doubt that while his mother may have told him he can be anything he wants to be, it looks like he’s taking it a step further, being everything he wants to be. And indeed why shouldn’t he?

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