If you only know Siobhán McSweeney from her role as Sister Michael on the smash hit Derry Girls, you might think that her natural home is the cool, curmudgeonly demeanour of her most famous character.
In life, however, there’s nothing sardonic about her. There’s a fierce, dazzling charisma that makes her an almost athletic conversationalist, someone who can bounce from big issues to big laughs without missing a beat. Aside from being an accomplished actress, Siobhán is that rare thing that Ireland is so good at producing and yet bad at rewarding: a great talker.
“It’s a weird thing to say, but I think she’s the sexiest character I’ve ever played,” she says of Sister Michael. “She’s so confident, which is always sexy. She always has her shoulders back, her belly out. There isn’t a zip in that costume, it’s all elasticated and loose and lovely. She’s just delighted with herself.”
Contrary to popular assumption, Siobhán did not grow up with nuns. Coincidentally, we actually went to the same secondary school: a part-private, semi-state girls’ school in Cork city. We seem to be the only two Irish women in London who grew up with a nun-free existence. Perhaps this is why, I suggest, her portrayal of Sister Michael has become so instantly iconic. She isn’t playing her like a nun, because she doesn’t really know any. She’s playing Sister Michael, instead, like a woman. She agrees.
“I think probably because I have had no experience with nuns, I find them fascinating. In a parallel world, perhaps in the past, I can understand the draw of a life of a community of women dedicated to learning, cut off from being looked at, of not being looked at. What happens then? What are the positives of not being looked at? We know what the negatives are. Maybe it’s that your real femininity comes out, because it exists purely for yourself.” Despite this fascination, however, Siobhán says she felt a great sense of responsibility when it came to portraying a nun on screen.
“When the latest Tuam babies reports came out before the first series, I was so nauseated by the stories. Something about Ireland right now, it’s like we’re vomiting up our past. Those stories about the skeletons coming up through the earth – that’s a f*****g Greek apocalypse, isn’t it? Except it’s our reality, in Galway and in all the rest of Ireland.
“I’m not here for the fluffy nuns,” she says, with force. “I’m not here for the excuses, I’m not here for the sentimental nostalgic look at the past as if it were all Take That concerts. You have a responsibility as a performer. We’re not just people for hire; we’re not warm props. I remember thinking, what are the ethics of playing a nun, knowing what we know now? What are the ethics behind playing somebody who has contributed, and maintains, and continues to hang on [to the Catholic Church] with an iron, dragon grip?”
What did she decide, when it came down to Sister Michael’s case?
“I told myself to lighten up,” she laughs. “I had faith in what the show was doing, in the authenticity and integrity of it. It’s dripping in authenticity. It’s based on Lisa’s [McGee, the showrunner of Derry Girls] actual life. Her writing is rigorous and filled with authenticity, and she’s got something to say. So you’ve got to show it all.”
She is also, like Lisa McGee, dedicated to showing the complexity of all-girls’ schools. “There’s a thing about all-girls’ schools that Lisa has spoken about as well, where the jock is a girl. The debate team captain is a girl. The science nerd is a girl. The slut is a girl. The goth is a girl. The clown is a girl. They’re all girls in an all-girls’ school. You get used to seeing things that are usually roles taken by the boys. [In a mixed school] you weren’t allowed to be funny. Nobody would laugh.”
Siobhán has worked with the Derry Girls showrunner since McGee’s short-lived 2003 sitcom, London Irish. Since the show’s success, McGee has become synonymous with a cadre of Irish women whose voices have burst onto the international scene in recent years. Whether it’s Aisling Bea, Sharon Horgan, Maeve Higgins, or Roisin Conaty, there’s no doubting it – Irish women are “hot right now”.
“We are, actually, really hot,” she agrees. “And also…” she ponders for a moment. “We’re out. Do you know what I mean?
“It feels like the female population of Ireland has totally outed themselves. We’re here now. The thing I find amazing about Repeal is that you couldn’t ignore it. The result was so extraordinary, and the conversation was so in-depth. What do you do after that? You have an entire population that is, for want of a better word, radicalised. That can’t help but drip into every area of culture. So many women stepped forward and told their stories. If that’s not the most primal shadows on the cave, I don’t know what is. Plus, it’s the root of every art form, to stand out and tell your story. If that’s not the most powerful agent for change, then what is? We now have a population of women who feel like they can stand out and tell their story. And unlike a lot of the Western world at the moment, we know our stories can make a difference.
“It’s not about being ’empowered’. What is that? That’s a f*****g T-shirt. That’s some capitalist idea being sold to you. But this is a growing realisation that our stories have the power to change.”
While the Republic’s fight for abortion reform has been a success, Siobhán has been lending her voice to the North’s struggle for the same. In February, she and fellow Derry Girls star Nicola Coughlan joined a protest with Amnesty International on Westminster Bridge.
I ask her, as a fellow Cork woman, whether she felt uncomfortable with her newfound role as a spokesperson for the North. Derry Girls, after all, has become one of the few cultural touchstones that represents an everyday Northern Ireland. The kind where you grow up getting your school bus searched by the RUC while gnawing, disinterested, on penny sweets. That kind of representation matters to the people who are being represented, and the burden of care can be formidable.
“Completely,” she agrees. “When I first moved over here [London], I made friends with a load of Northern Irish people. I got in with a gang of them, and usually a couple of scoops in, depending on their persuasion, the same thing would come up. ‘You abandoned us. You left us.’ It would all come out of them, and you would think: oh my God, this is a trauma.
“We both identify as being Irish but our experiences could not be more different. It’s like when you first move here and you go down the Irish Centre and it’s all auld fellas weeping into their Guinness and talking about hang sandwiches, and there’s me, fresh from the Celtic Tiger, going – please, it’s paninis, babes. Our versions of being Irish are not the same. But from my peers? Oh my God. I had no idea what they were talking about. Nationalism was purely theoretical to me. But I realised that, in my own way, I was as bad as the Brits, by not having a f*****g clue. So they told me, and they taught me.
“Sorry,” she interrupts herself. “I’m usually good craic. What was I doing today that put me into this weird mood?”
She pauses for a moment. “Oh. I know. I had to change the bed linen. Jesus Christ. I hate doing it. No problem cleaning loos. Loos need to be cleaned. But duvet covers? Life’s too short. It’s too big. How did we put a f****r on the moon? When I’m inside it, crying, sweat going into my eye. Jesus. It was like a Keystone Cops routine.”
Talk inevitably turns to the recent election results, where Siobhán is reticent about picking a side. “I don’t know what I think about it. I’m a natural contrarian, and always delighted when the parties that assume that power is theirs by right get it taken from them. It’s not hard to like that,” she considers. “It’s not hard to like Sinn Féin’s policies. Mary Lou’s a fantastic speaker and a great leader. I think she’s great, but I think Sinn Féin hasn’t, to my satisfaction, dealt with its history. If they had come out ahead of it and shaped the narrative that way, as opposed to ignoring it and leaving an uncomfortable feeling with people who remember the ills that they’ve done…
“I feel nervous saying it, because political talk is so polarised. You have to be for someone, and if you’re not, you’re definitely against them. And that’s not how I feel at all. I feel that the Republic is only beginning the journey of dealing with our past and figuring out how to go forward. We’re such a young country, and we might be a different kind of country very soon.”
History, nationality, identity, womanhood, nuns are all topics that Siobhán is naturally effusive on, and presumably will be touched on this weekend in her sold-out event in Galway with writer Susan McKay – a real-life ‘Derry Girl’ meeting a fictional one.
“They’ve asked me to have a chat with Susan McKay. She’s an award-winning journalist and a writer, and she’s also from Derry. She’s an extraordinary woman.” She looks at me narrowly, with an ‘I’m not worthy’ expression. “I’ve been asked to do a lot of these things, and I’m not being coy, but… why… I mean, I’m not interested in what I have to say! What is it about playing a nun on a comedy that makes people think she should be the keynote speaker at a feminist conference? I get very stressed about them. It’s not my natural home at all. Also, there’s a feeling that I have no right. I don’t want to take the voice of someone who could contribute more to the conversation. I’m basking in my own privilege, really. Still, I can’t wait. I love Galway, beautiful, but what they’ve done with the programme is amazing. Margaret Atwood is there; there’s a choir. We’re doing a morning swim and everything.”
“Oh Margaret, yes, Peg, she’s mad for me,” Siobhán teases. “I have to screen her calls.”
And even though it’s a joke, you can’t help but think Siobhán McSweeney is the exact kind of actor who could end up starring in an Atwood adaptation. There’s a rigour and an energy to Siobhán, an insistence on seeing the world clearly and for what it is, that makes her both a magnetic performer and a singular presence to be around. Maybe it’s something about being from Cork; maybe it’s something to do with finding success in her forties. When, in her own words, “there was a lot of life in my life”.
She lost her mother in her early twenties, and her father passed away during the filming of the second series of Derry Girls. Her aunt, “a surrogate mother” to her, passed in 2019 also.
“It’s embarrassing at this point.
“People are going to stop believing me. Or they’ll step away, thinking a piano is about to fall on their heads. The relentless, tiring, boring agony of grieving. You’re like, when do I get to start my life again? And you can’t. You have to sit in the s**t until it’s over.
“The shininess of superficial career stuff, you can’t take it too seriously when you know the reality is that you’re picking out a casket in Ballincollig on a Tuesday. But conversely, when you’re in Ballincollig you can say to yourself – there’s more to life than this.”
Siobhán McSweeney is in conversation with Susan McKay tonight at An Taibhdhearc, Galway, as part of Galway 2020