In life, there are those who tell themselves they’re doing it all. And then there are those who, despite all they do, tell themselves it’s never enough. Allow me to introduce one woman who, as difficult as it may be to fathom, falls firmly into the latter category: Pauline McLynn.
The actor, comedian and novelist was born in Sligo, on Ireland’s west coast, her family relocating down the road to County Galway when Pauline was six months old. A talented student, she studied History of Art and Modern English at Trinity College, Dublin. It was at Trinity that she made her first foray into the arts, signing up to the renowned ‘Players’ Drama Society ‘immediately’. From an administrative role with the group, the self-confessed ‘bossy one’ soon gravitated towards the stage, where her flair caught the eye, and the pen, of director and former theatre critic Gerry Stembridge. His glowing reviews of Pauline’s performances led her neatly to a gig with the national radio broadcaster, RTE, where she was to encounter a man familiar to us all: Dermot Morgan, aka Father Ted.
It was the late 1980s when Scrap Saturday, Morgan’s iconic radio show that brilliantly satirised Ireland’s week in politics, took the nation by storm. This programme pilloried the great and the good of Irish public life with outrageous abandon; a daring that ensured its immortality. Pauline was selected by Morgan to voice ‘all the women of Ireland’, thereby marking her out as a rare and hugely versatile actor and comedian, even before we came to know and love her via Father Ted.
And so to Ted. Here, Pauline’s portrayal of Mrs Doyle, the refreshment-obsessed doyenne of Craggy Island’s Parochial House, was simply peerless. More than holding her own amidst the sitcom’s stellar cast was no mean feat, surely. Yet that she did, and then some: her inspired take on a nerve-jangled, overbearing and hilariously hapless housekeeper going down, kettle ever boiled, in the annals of comedy history.
A role like this is, of course, the stuff that actors dream of; a gig that could ostensibly set one up for life. But here’s what’s so fascinating about Pauline McLynn: being ‘set-up’ never has settled well with her. Nor, it seems, has being pigeonholed. ‘I love throwing myself around, making people laugh,’ she tells me when we meet, ‘but I also like making them stop for a moment to think.’ And so it goes that the peripatetic Pauline has moved from Father Ted to Angela’s Ashes, to Channel 4 series Shameless and to a coveted spot on BBC soap Eastenders. Her TV and film roles have been punctuated, meanwhile, by powerful performances on the boards: that’s right, Mrs Doyle really can do Beckett. All this, and – did I mention? – Pauline has written no fewer than eight best-selling novels somewhere along the path. Sounds like someone who ought to know she’s something special.
When Pauline and I sit down, however, it becomes very clear that her propensity for – or steadfast dedication to, more like! – self-deprecation is anything but an act. She truly believes that nothing she does is ever quite good enough. Her acting success, literary success, even her crafting success (this woman makes and sells amazing tea cosies, by the way…) do little to quell those questions; cannot shift the sleepers lining the tracks of her thoughts.
Her internal dialogue, she confides, is heavy on lines like ‘well, you wouldn’t be able to do that again, would you?’ Lines like: ‘I don’t know how you managed to do that’. Even lines like: ‘you’re fooling everyone!’ This, I’d venture, chimes with the cognitive dissonance so many of us practice – the unlikely art of believing one thing to be true while acting as though the opposite were the case. We tell ourselves we’re a bit useless, while doing wonderful things. We achieve something remarkable, then wonder how we possibly pulled it off. We do our best, then somehow refuse to accept that our best is enough.
And to the question this sparks: is this inherent self-disparaging trait a faulty vehicle, necessarily? Must we apply its brakes to maximise our potential? Or, can this floating feeling of unfulfillment act not as a power drain, but as a powerhouse of propulsion?
Here’s an insight to my chat with Pauline…
Pauline, you have been many things and many people; once voicing ‘all the women in Ireland’, in fact! You’ve certainly never been typecast. Why is that, do you think?
I suppose I’m hard to pigeonhole as an actor, because I do love throwing myself around, making them laugh, but equally I love making people go ‘oh’, making them think, as well.
It’s inevitable I ask you about that other talent, the inimitable Dermot Morgan. Tell me about your relationship with him.
Me and Dermot, we’d done Scrap Saturday, and then we’d catch up with one another, usually around Christmastime, and we’d disgrace ourselves around Dublin…
Dermot gatecrashed my wedding, actually, on New Year’s Eve in ‘96, causing a bit of mayhem… the bride didn’t get a look-in with him around!
I rest my case! It was Dermot who taught me how to do the ‘apology tour’ – you know, the morning after the night before…that if you had any class at all, you’d either replace what you’d drank at someone’s house, or give them flowers and an apology. Mostly, I remember Dermot as one of these incredibly electric people who was never happy with what he had because he knew there was more to be had.
When we did Father Ted, as much as he loved doing it, we were guns for hire and you could tell that he wanted to be doing something else; something of his own. So when the call came that he was dead, I couldn’t believe that there was to be no more. But I wonder – and I know it’s horrible to lose anyone – I wonder if that was the way for him to go. In a blaze of glory. Within twelve hours of finishing the last Father Ted ever, he was gone; as a statement, that’s kind of magnificent when you think about it. But do I still wish he was around? I course I do.
There that’s sense of unfulfilled potential I’m interested in. When I think about you and Dermot, I think there must have been some sort of genetic trait running through you both – that searching to do better always. Looking at your journey from Ted to Eastenders, it has been…
Not madness: incredible, actually. And yet I know that you dine out on being self-disparaging, which is extraordinary considering your abilities and achievements. I sometimes think you must be ninety years of age when I look at all you’ve done. Are you driven, do you think, by that sense of unfulfilled potential?
Do you know what, when you say it like that, I often think I’m telling lies to people. When I say I’ve written eight novels…I think, ‘did I’?’ Could I do it again’? I’m not sure. I’ve no idea how it happened. I just go from one thing to the next.
So there’s no road map?
Not at all – no plan. I wish there was! And when I get down, which I do – very much so – I get very down because I think nothing’s good enough. Mind you, even when I’m up, I don’t think anything is good enough either!
I think people will find that hard to believe, but I hear you. I wonder, when you play all these characters – I’m thinking especially of your tough role on Shameless – does it affect you? Can you leave it behind when the camera stops rolling?
It’s strange you bring Shameless up, because I had very a strange experience on that show. I got way too involved with all of the series… and some of the actors, and to be honest with you, it kinda broke me. When my time there ended, because it had to, that was the last time I wrote a novel. I got burned out writing, and found myself in a big life crisis. Then, to cap it all off, I got the Menopause. Well, lovely. If you’re gonna kick a girl, why not do it while she’s down!!
Did that tough time reinforce you? What has is it done for you, in hindsight?
What is has done for me is that it was a big reality check. Now I feel so much for anybody who has any trauma or mental health issue; let’s say, depression. When I left Shameless, it was like a bereavement, and I feel for anybody who will ever find themselves in that situation in their lives, in their career, or whatever. Because it’s taken me about three years to get back to being happy again. And that’s with help.
When you say a bereavement…?
I think of it as a bereavement for a life you think you might have had. I really do feel for people who are going through any of that.
Life is pretty tough at times, especially if you face several challenges at once. Yet you say you’re happy now. How do you protect yourself now, from the dark clouds coming back?
Well, here’s the thing. I don’t know how it is for you or anyone else, but I think that when you experience something tough, you’re always left a little vulnerable. I think the older you get, the more vulnerable you get, because you’ve lived, you know? Isn’t that it?
Doesn’t adversity sometimes make you a bit stronger?
No, I don’t think it does. I think it makes you more vulnerable to everything, but you’re kind of cuter about how you deal with things maybe. And I do think the older you get, the more sensitive you get, too.
Pauline, you’ve given so much laughter to us all, but what makes you laugh? What makes you happy?
Very stupid things make me laugh. Like people falling over…I can make myself laugh by falling over. And misery. I suppose that’s why I like Eastenders so much; I mean, there’s nothing funnier than misery, is there? Nothing funnier than the most unfunny thing in the world?!