Magazine article The Spectator

'The Family Didn't Approve of Acting'

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Family Didn't Approve of Acting'

Article excerpt

It's oddly exciting, upstairs at the Old Vic: there are actresses rushing to rehearsal; the burble of PR ladies schmoozing the press; the sense of a curtain about to rise. A bright new play. I smile, look around hopefully for my interviewee-to-be, the actress Niamh Cusack, but instead a handsome bearded chap appears in front of me. 'Oh, hi there, I'm Finbar Lynch [Niamh's husband and co-star in Dancing at Lughnasa]. I'll come back and take proper care of you in a second.' What's he talking about? Take care of me, how? I have no idea. I later find out that he thought I was an understudy, but though confused I feel also warm and included -- a co-dancer at Lughnasa.

A few minutes later, Niamh appears -- slight, blonde, friendly -- and we sit on school-style wooden chairs as she gently dismantles my preconceptions. She's daughter number three in the great clan of acting Cusacks: there's father Cyril; three actress sisters, Sorcha, Sinead (the one married to Jeremy Irons) and Catherine; plus two brothers (Paul and Pádraig). I'd imagined a childhood full of family productions, Cyril directing, the girls competing for parts.

But: 'It wasn't quite like that, ' says Niamh.

'We were like two families actually, because the older three are ten, 11 and 12 years older than me. My mother lived with us but she had a very bad heart so she was in bed quite a lot of the time. Pádraig and myself were alone together and dependent on each other.' Wasn't Cyril around? 'By the time I was really compos mentis he had left home, ' says Niamh. Oh, I say. But was he a decent father? 'He was very, very forceful!' says Niamh, smiling. But though Cyril seems to have behaved in an undeniably rattish way, abandoning Niamh's bed-bound mother, Maureen, and starting another family (with Mary Cunningham, whom he eventually married), Niamh won't be drawn into bitching. All she'll say is, 'Well, he wasn't a daddy-daddy at all, he was much more like a granddad. And he was an eccentric.

He would pick us up from our music lessons on a Friday in a horse and carriage which he'd have rented. I remember being at school when I was about seven and the teacher looking out of the window and saying, "There's a tramp outside so don't talk to him." I knew it was Cyril. He was just one of those people.' I look concerned, but Niamh hurries to reassure me. 'Oh, but we had a lovely time, Pádraig and myself. We lived beside the sea and it was that time when little children were allowed to walk around on their own.

The kids would all be given packed lunches and we'd go down to the seaside, down to White Rock which was a good mile away. It was quite safe because there would be loads of adults who would know who you were.' Did your Irish childhood help you with the role of Maggie? 'No, not really!' Another preconception bites the dust.

Niamh explains: 'The sisters in the play live on a farm, they're country folk. We weren't.

But there is one person who's been very helpful and that's Kitty, whom I call my godmother. Kitty came to live with us after Pádraig was born because Mother was very, very ill indeed . . . ' Niamh looks away. 'Anyway, Kitty is my real link with this world that Brian [Friel, the playwright] has described because she comes from a farming family, she lives on the land. Kitty used to take us down to her house and it was just like the play! There was one sister who always stayed at home; there was bread baked every day, milking to be done and the hens fed. …

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