Brendan O'Carroll: ‘I’ve never written for the critics. I only ever write for the audience’

 Comedian Brendan O’Carroll, aka Mrs Brown, lays bare his struggle from poverty to playing TV's favourite Irish mammy 

For a man who spent a career with his eyes firmly fixed on the horizon, it was hard for Brendan O’Carroll to look back.

Call Me Mrs Brown is the title of his new autobiography, but auld Agnes — at least the TV version of her — doesn’t get much of a look-in. Instead, it’s the story of the man under the wig: his childhood, his long, grafting career in hospitality and then his even more grafting career in showbiz.

It’s a story of humour born of pain, success wrung from adversity and of the steely ambition beneath the affable exterior. Mrs Brown is just the happy ending we all know is coming.

O’Carroll says he has “no f**king idea” how it all happened.

“I get that comedy was seen as the new rock and roll. Every generation has its own comedy, just like every generation has its own music. But the problem is, people aren’t dying at 40 and 50 anymore.

“So, all of a sudden, the comedy that came along left a whole audience behind. And we tapped into that.”

Of the charge that it’s low-brow, he adds: “I’ve never, ever written for a critic. Never. I write for the audience. Somebody told me once that you’re more Shakespeare than you’re anything else. Shakespeare didn’t write for the royal family. He wrote for the penny-paying public... and I write and I perform for them.”

Agnes Brown has her roots in O’Carroll’s childhood, in the street traders from Moore Street in Dublin that he knew and ran errands for, and in the towering figure of his mother Maureen.

When his father Gerard died in 1964, O’Carroll was just six.

“He wasn’t the huggy type. He had been sick for a while and in hospital. So it wasn’t like: ‘Oh, there’s no daddy in the house’. There hadn’t been any daddy in the house for months on end.”

One night soon after he was coming up the stairs of the house in Finglas when he heard a sound that he thought was the TV.

“And it wasn’t, it was her (his mother) crying. And I remember saying to myself: ‘My job now is to f**king make her laugh every day’. And I think that’s where it started.”

Maureen was the founder of the Lower Prices Council, which campaigned against high prices and black marketeering in the aftermath of the war. She was elected as a TD in 1954, becoming the first female whip of the Labour Party. She was a principled woman who, decades before it became a cause célèbre, raised the issue of the dodgy adoptions of Irish children by wealthy American couples.

But the price was a certain neglect of family life. O’Carroll’s siblings — he had 10 — would hear her on the radio “decrying the fact that too many kids were coming out of school illiterate”. But she wouldn’t be there to help them with their homework. “It was hard to understand that, that you’re fighting for all the children in the world except us.”

​His favourite childhood Christmas came at age 13 when he was left alone and had all his friends in for a buffet, after which they watched Morecambe and Wise.

When he told his wife Jenny about this she wondered if it was appropriate to leave a kid that age on his own at 13. “But then she thought about it and said: ‘I’m not sure you were ever 13’,” he adds with a smile.

After Maureen lost her seat in the 1957 general election the family endured poverty and tough times.

“We didn’t know we were poor, because everyone on the road was the same”, O’Carroll says. “But my recollection is of my uncle Vincent and my uncle Paul calling to the house on a Friday night.”

In adulthood, he understood that the uncles represented the St Vincent de Paul.

“It was only years later I realised they were paying the ESB bill, they were paying the gas bill.”

O’Carroll left school at 12 and worked a series of jobs, but mainly as a waiter. While working at Dublin Castle during a visit by Margaret Thatcher in 1984, he mistakenly put salt instead of sugar on her dessert and “almost killed her”.

He also served Robert Mugabe. “You looked at him and you went: ‘There is one f**king thug’. I was thinking: ‘What is this c*** doing in our country?’”

He went into business with friend Kevin Moore, with whom he ran Abbott’s Castle pub in Finglas. In 1989 O’Carroll returned from his sister’s wedding to find Moore had cleared out the pub and done a runner with everything. It was a huge blow and O’Carroll had no idea where Moore had gone.

Later O’Carroll was questioned by police in connection with the investigation into Moore’s death.

“They wanted to know did he have any enemies in the Castle. He didn’t. He didn’t have any enemies anywhere. For all that happened, he was just the most lovely guy, which made the whole thing so shocking.”

It later transpired Moore had been diagnosed with HIV and had gone to Australia for a holiday before returning to his mother’s house, where he died by suicide.

O’Carroll’s grief turned out to be a blessing in disguise and drove him to make a go of his passion — comedy.

His first gig was at the Rathmines Inn in Dublin, where he organised a version of Blind Date. He built his act into a sell-out stage show and had a regular slot on Gareth O’Callaghan’s radio programme. 

Waiting backstage at RTÉ to go on The Late Late Show, he realised an audience with Gay Byrne was a new level.

“I was throwing up beforehand. Because the Late Late is a big opportunity, but there is nowhere to hide — people get found out on it.”

The audience on the night was flat, Byrne tried to gee them up before O’Carroll went on, and he realised it might be a “chance to shine”.

When he came out his opening gambit to Byrne was “how’s your Mickey?”. Host and audience ate it up and a star was born.

His first play The Course, which drew on his brief stint as an insurance salesman, became a huge success despite having been rejected by the Dublin Theatre Festival. His first novel The Mammy topped the Irish bestseller list for 16 weeks. He wrote the script for the movie adaptation Agnes Browne starring Anjelica Huston (he says he has no idea if she’s ever seen Mrs Brown’s Boys).

In the late Nineties his first marriage was coming to an end. He had wed teenage sweetheart Doreen Dowdall in 1977 but she was always uncomfortable with his level of fame and, as the years passed, the marriage began to fray. They split in 1999, and I wonder if he regretted persevering with it as long as they did.

“No. That’s like asking me did I regret trying. I never regret trying. Nobody wants to fail.”

It was only the intercession of his late mother, coming to him in a dream and telling him to “get up off your knees and do something”, that snapped him out of a career and personal low.

I wonder if he had his own words of wisdom for his daughter Fiona, who split from her husband of 15 years, co-star on Mrs Brown’s Boys Martin Delany.

“Hers isn’t even a similar situation in that she wasn’t a kid,” he says. “She was quite mature when she got married. I didn’t know what I was f**king doing. And I probably got married because my ma told me not to. I was a rebel.

“I was only really, really young. Fiona wasn’t, and hers is kind of a breakdown that you saw coming from both sides.”

Fiona and Martin, he says, are now better friends than they ever were when they were married.

He got off to a slightly tense start with Jenny Gibney, committing the faux pas of interrupting her crossword at a breakfast table. But they recovered and have been married now for 17 years.

“The amount of times that I come down to Jenny and have a cup of tea and say: ‘I f**king can’t think what to write next, I’m lost’. And she would just, she’s so casual, she’d go: ‘Ah, it’ll come’. And that calmness is something that’s so important.

“One of the great lessons that I’ve learned through it all is to stop looking for success. Sometimes you have to stop looking so hard and it will find you. And, eventually, it found me.”

Brendan O’Carroll The Autobiography, Call Me Mrs Brown is on sale now

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