When I graduated from drama school I was an actor and I thought I would continue to just be an actor – like, “give me your scripts and I will say your lines”, but as most jobbing actors will find out, it’s not really that straight forward.
Drama school was that really intense two year period where for 50 hours a week you are neck deep in the work that you love and pushing yourself and challenging yourself to make work. Going from that into just blanket unemployment, I found that really, really challenging.
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As a jobbing actor, there is a sense of the trajectory of your career lying somewhat in the hands of other people just deciding to give you work or deciding not to give you work. I’m a bit of a control freak and I couldn’t really cope with that which is why not long after my Mam passed away actually I started to write and started to move towards creating work.
On a Saturday night when the curtain came down on the last night of a show I didn’t want to, on Monday morning, feel like I didn’t have a place in the world anymore, or because that show ended I suddenly was whipped unceremoniously out of the industry. I wanted to still feel like a part of it and that really was the drive for starting to make work and particularly when I started to write my first play, the one-woman-show called Charlie’s a Cepto. I was giving myself a job. I was like, “if you’re not gonna put me on a stage, I’ll put me on a stage, easy.” It’s not easy, but ye know, I’ll just do that!
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Starting to write really opened up a whole new world for me, not just creatively but even in terms of my mental wellbeing. I need to have goals, I love an aul’ structure and there’s absolutely zero structure when you’re an actor unless you’re on a set or in a rehearsal room which no actor is as much as they’d like to be.
That whole process of engaging with The Axis, Ballymun who produced Charlie and working with my husband, Aaron Monaghan, who directed and was dramaturg on it, it opened up a whole new avenue of creative control and it does make you feel kinda powerful. It made me see the trajectory of my career for the rest of my life whereas when I was a jobbing actor and I didn’t have the outlet of writing or making I was like, “How do you keep this up for like 50 years? How do you keep this up?” The constant not knowing, that lack of a sense of control over how your career might play out.
Moving into writing and making, it hasn’t just helped my career, which it has hugely, but it’s also given me a stronger sense of solidity or being centred in myself as an artist and as a person in the world, taking up the space that I feel I have worked for as opposed to feeling like people are doing you a favour all the time by giving you jobs.
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I lost my Mam, Terry Monnelly, in 2012, she passed away at 59, stupid young, which was really challenging and before it happened we knew she didn’t have long left. I remember saying to my partner at the time, who actually lost his Dad quite young as well, that I didn’t think I would cope. I was like, “I won’t cope, I won’t be able, I don’t know how I’ll function” and he said that “your body will cope, your body will guide you through it”. At the time I was like, “That’s not helpful, I don’t know what you mean”, but it did, it just did.
There’s a sense of responsibility to the people around you who are also suffering, there’s a sense of responsibility to the person who’s gone; my Mam was a boss, she was a strong woman and one of the things she said to me before she died was that I wasn’t to be one of those people going around saying their Mam died. I think what she meant by that was to not let her being gone define me, that I had to carry on and keep going and look after my family, look after my Dad and just stay strong. I think even just pretending to have that strength, it almost manifested its own real strength.
I’m incredibly lucky to have a brilliant family, I have two older siblings, and my Dad and my Mam’s brothers at the time. I’ve brilliant, brilliant friends and a really supportive partner; I had lots of people around me, minding me I suppose to some degree. I had felt this responsibility to be there for my family as well. I think there is a thing that kicks in when you lose somebody where you feel the necessity to be strong for the people around you. Like, my Dad had lost his wife.
Another thing that I found that I had to do to keep going was, I went back to work really quickly, I think I needed to be busy. First of all I was like, “This is exactly what Mam would tell me to do, she’d be like, “‘Get up off your arse and get back to work’”. So I did do that, just to be busy; to be distracted.
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My Mam worked for Bank of Ireland and as part of her life insurance policy there were three grief counselling sessions for one of her family members and she had specifically told me before she died that she wanted me to take those; not my two siblings, not my Dad, me. It was like it was on a list of things that I had to do; that she had said to me to do. So I started doing them probably too soon; a couple of months after she passed. I only ended up doing two counselling sessions because it wasn’t right for me at the time. It felt like scheduling an hour a week to grieve for her which felt unnatural in some way and then on the day it was happening, I’d just be dreading it all day.
I think I rushed into it and I was ticking a box, I was doing this thing that my Mam had told me to do. I was following through with her wishes and it didn’t come from me. I think if you’re going to dive into counselling or therapy or just discussing your mental wellbeing with somebody, it needs to come from you.
I wasn’t angry, it’s a crap thing, it’s an awful thing and it’s so unfair in lots of ways but I was also very conscious that I had her for like 26 years and that’s really lucky in lots of ways so I didn’t really know what to say to the counsellor. I’m extremely lucky in that I had a brilliant, brilliant relationship with my Mam; there weren’t any unresolved issues there; there was nothing that I needed to work through.
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Throwing myself into everything else in my life, into my friendships and my relationships and my work was a real saviour. There’s something about working in creative industries and doing something that you love so throwing yourself into your work isn’t a hardship, it’s what you want to be doing.
That kind of a grief fundamentally alters you in some way, not necessarily in a terrible way it just does, it just shifts something in you that won’t ever shift back and being an artist and being somebody who makes work and creates things, it’s a drive to channel some of that stuff into your work. It’s not that you’re necessarily going to write a play about losing your mother but all of that stuff feeds into the work that you make and feeds into you as a performer and you as a maker.
Wanting to make my Mam proud as well was important to me. She really didn’t want me to be an actor. When they sent me to drama school as a kid – I did loads of after school activities – and when I really zeroed in on the acting, when I said I wanted to do it for a living, I’d say they were like, “What were we thinking?!” But at the same time she was really, really, really proud of the work that she did get to see me do, she was super proud.
We got through that as a family, not that we don’t miss her everyday of course we do and we wish she was here, but we are continuing to get through it and to be OK.
Because artistic people in general are so passionate about the work that they make, things can get so heightened in the rehearsal room, on sets, when there’s time pressure, things can feel like it’s the end of the world but it’s not. It’s an incredible achievement to make a piece of art, whether that’s a play or a short film or a feature or whatever it is – it’s an unbelievable achievement and it takes incredible dedication from a massive team of people. I think going through something like losing a parent too soon might give you a sense of perspective around things. We’re not saving lives, we’re making plays.
I was lucky enough to make a feature at the end of last year that I’m acting in, an Irish language film called Doineann which was produced by Doubleband Films who are a Belfast film company. We were shut down twice over the course of filming so it was pretty intense but we managed to get it done and it’s in the edit now. Hopefully that will be knocking around the world at some point this year which I’m really excited for and proud of.
I was lucky enough to be awarded a theatre bursary by the Arts Council at the end of last year which has given me the opportunity now to focus on my writing for a while which I have been doing to varying levels of success over the last month or so.
I’m actually working on five different plays, not because I’m really prolific but because I’m a master procrastinator; I just like to be able to jump between Word Documents. Three of them are projects I’m working on myself and then two of them are collaborative projects that I’m working on with artists that I haven’t collaborated with in that way before so it’s really exciting.
The beauty of being a writer is that I’ve been able to keep doing that throughout this whole time, not that I haven’t also lay on the couch and watched too much television (I absolutely have) but it does mean that I can be working. There are days that I have been struggling to sit down and write but it’s such a valuable outlet to have especially during this time when we’ve been stuck at home. There’s always something I can be working on, and developing and getting better at as well which is what the bursary is enabling me to do – write for the sake of writing.
Remember, if you’re a member of the Irish creative industry, you can talk to a counsellor free of charge at any time of the day or night. Simply call the phone number below.