Out of the habit

Siobhan in character as Sister Michael.

Siobhan McSweeney, well known for playing Sister Michael in the Channel 4 hit Derry Girls, told David Hennessy about her new Jimmy McGovern drama Anthony which deals with prescient themes such as racism, the challenges facing the performing arts and how recent reports made her worried they were making a Derry Girls movie without her.

As Derry Girls has become an international success, the no-nonsense nun Sister Michael has become an icon with memes and video montages dedicated to her inimitable put downs and eye rolls. She is brought to life by Cork’s Siobhan McSweeney whose other roles include The Fall, No Offence and Lisa McGee’s previous sitcom London Irish. Siobhan’s first screen role was in Ken Loach’s Palm d’Or-winning The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Trained at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, her theatre work includes The Kitchen and As You Like It, both at the National.

Siobhan can be seen in Jimmy McGovern’s latest drama which tells the story of eighteen-year-old Anthony Walker who was killed in an unprovoked racist attack in 2005.

Siobhan told The Irish World that the drama has a ‘depressing’ relevance now due to the recent death of George Floyd and subsequent protests.

She said: “Anthony was murdered in 2005. It is fifteen years later and it feels like it could have been done yesterday, possibly has been yesterday. That’s quite depressing but as a piece of drama and a piece of television, I think it’s wonderfully done.

“I managed to catch a preview of it and I think it’s incredibly powerful and I think audiences are going to be really captivated not only by the writing and the performances which are extraordinary but also the essential story, the essential premise which, regardless of any time, is incredibly powerful. It is so deeply relevant, depressingly relevant now.”

Anthony Walker was walking with his girlfriend to a bus stop in Huyton, Merseyside when they encountered his murderers. Anthony, his girlfriend and his cousin walked to another bus stop when they first received racial abuse but his murderer Michael Barton, brother of former football player Joey Barton, and Barton’s cousin Paul Taylor followed and ambushed the group. Anthony’s girlfriend Louise Thompson and his cousin Marcus Binns managed to escape. Anthony was killed with a blow to the head with an ice axe. His murderers were sentenced to life.

Aisling and Siobhan pictured at the launch of this year’s St. Brigid’s Festival at the embassy. Pictures: Noel Mullen

Rather than the grisly truth, Anthony tells the story of the life Anthony would have had if he had not been senselessly killed. Anthony was a devout Christian who loved basketball. He dreamed of visiting America and studying law at university.

“Because he was only eighteen, it’s the life he would have lived which is a really interesting thing because when we talk about loss, we think about the stuff that we have lost and the person. We rarely think about the loss of potential, the loss of what could have been and I think that’s really done so beautifully here. A very simple human story. It will hit us.

“It’s the people he would have helped. It’s got a really beautiful friendship story running the whole way through with his friend Mick (Bobby Schofield), you have the beautiful love story with Katherine, his fiance, and of course the highlight of the entire programme without a shadow of a doubt, I mean it’s called Anthony but it really should be called Luighseach, the midwife who is thankfully on a train when he…”

Siobhan is joking with us here as her role in the drama is that of the midwife who delivers Anthony’s baby on a moving train.

“Do you remember the film Shakespeare in Love? They’re in the pub and somebody goes to one of the actors, ‘What’s Romeo and Juliet about?’ And he goes, ‘Well it’s about this nurse…’ I think every actor who has ever lived let out an extra dark laugh when they heard that line.

“All joking aside, I was just deeply thrilled to be asked to be part of it. I mean the credentials alone, take away the story, just to work on any production with Jimmy McGovern… I’m a huge fan of his previous work. I feel that we need more dramas like this, that doesn’t shy away from our humanity and the politics that wrap around that as well. That’s what true story telling is, it has a message without being didactic.”

Jimmy McGovern is the acclaimed writer of hit dramas such as Hearts and Minds, Cracker and Accused. And although Siobhan’s role in Anthony may be brief that does it make it beneath someone of her profile.

“I think if you ask most actors, most practitioners, the only thing that’s king is the story and how the story is told. Whatever it takes to tell the story, that’s what’s done. That’s very much my attitude when it comes to my work: How best can I serve the story? This story needs to be told. The hard thing was opening wounds and retraumatising people. If I could be allowed to help tell the story, why wouldn’t I jump at that chance?”

As well as often being seen involved with Irish community events such as this year’s St. Brigid’s Festival, Siobhan has also been known to lend her support to causes she is passionate about such as the ‘Repeal the Eighth’ campaign in 2018.

Although she has been in awe of some of what she has seen recently such as the Black Lives Matter protests, she is also disappointed it is even happening.

 

“I’ve been dismayed by the need for it. I’ve been in awe of the level of organisation, compassion and intelligence behind these demos.

“I personally took the choice to not physically be involved with any of the protests because I’m shielding and I couldn’t take that risk. I supported it as much as I could and continue to support it as much as I can.

“Watching Anthony is going to bring to mind what’s happening. Just because it’s not in the spotlight, just because it’s not the number one news item it doesn’t mean people aren’t still working to disable these structures that are inherently racist and so blatantly and disgustingly racist, the openness of what’s going on and the absolute lack of shame.

“What I worry about is the people behind these stories as well, the people who this story will effect. It will reopen wounds. The generosity and bravery of Gee, Anthony’s mother, played beautifully by Rakie Ayola. When you watch it, you’re just going to fall in love with her. She had a big job, to portray Gee who is a mountain of a woman, a paradigm of forgiveness and of faith.

“I’ve suffered quite a lot of bereavement in my life- Thankfully nobody was murdered- And the idea of having to reopen those wounds and to not only see your son be murdered but to live in that trauma, live in it. She does it for a purpose. I hope her generosity is rewarded by people taking this story to heart.”

Recent events have caused people to contemplate Ireland’s racism problem. Siobhan has no doubt the country has one.

“I don’t think there’s an ‘if’ there. There’s no conditional, Ireland does have a problem with race. I think this is epitomised completely in the historical abuses within the mother and baby homes if you had a child of dual heritage or out of wedlock. Those stories are still beginning to be unearthed literally but we know a contemporary example is how we treat our asylum seekers.

“Direct provision is a stain on the pride Ireland holds that it’s above accusations of racism. We keep touting this tacky ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ phrase and I’m not dismissing the pain, the real trauma that caused for a lot of people but as James Baldwin said himself when he lost his patience with this, I can’t remember what the quote is exactly but, ‘When an Irish person and a black person enter a room, until the Irish person opens their mouth, they pass’.

“So when a black person enters a room they carry their race, their history and their position in society and their victimisation by a system, they bring that in with them. They have a lot of parallels but it’s not a complete correlation in the least. I think Ireland needs to stop resting on its laurels and thinking we have historically and continue to suffer racism and bigotry- Most definitely, I’m not discounting that- but that doesn’t let us off the hook for how we treat people of colour in Ireland at the moment.

“It’s nothing else but stupidity. I don’t want to be associated with a nation that’s stupid. I think we are better than that. It hugely is a minority.

“I mean, look at our referenda recently for God’s sake. In the last decade Ireland has shown itself to be socially progressive and fair. I’ve always said that Ireland socially is completely different to the Ireland of its legislation and of its institutions. We know that. We’re much better than any institution that claims to speak to us.”

If Covid-19 had not scuppered plans, Derry Girls would be filming its third series right now. Siobhan says this is disappointing and also an indication of how the industry will struggle.

“We’re all broken hearted but frankly this wasn’t an easy decision to make. A lot of thought went into it and I have to trust the right decision was made. It is deeply disappointing and it goes to show how badly affected our industry is. I think people think if you are in a successful television series, you’re somewhat immune to the widespread dangers of Covid. We’re all f**ked. Hopefully it can happen next year and whatever about filming, look at theatre.

“You have to understand most actors come from theatre. Most actors’ spiritual home is theatre. If you’re not minding your best writers, performers, directors, general practitioners like the designers, costume people and stuff like that… Theatre is where we learn and we grow and we become the people you want to watch so if that’s f**ked, there’s the supply chain right there.

“They think that theatre’s a luxury, there’s no real understanding of the huge ecosystem that one is dependent on the other. Theatre isn’t just a pipeline to Netflix or anything like that- I’m not saying that but there is an inter-connection between all the art forms.”

Derry Girls has become a huge success and arguably Ireland’s most widely popular show ever and now honoured with a mural of the main characters in the city that it has shown to the world. Siobhan believes the comedy has depicted Derry in a way it has never been seen before.

“I don’t think Derry has been seen like this before and certainly not through the lens of humour and joy and femininity which is what the show brings. Republic has this diddly-eye, rolling hills kind of rural idyll and with Northern Ireland it’s men with moustaches and leather jackets. Of course neither of these reductions tell the full story so I know that the people of Derry were grateful and surprised for us all, rightly so.

Anthony Walker was killed in a racist attack in 2005. Toheeb Jimoh plays Anthony while Julia Brown plays fiance Katherine.

“Derry is very proud of the show and that gives me great pride, that we’ve done them a service, we hope. It’s a show full of the spirit and life and humour and wit that exists in that city in spite of great injustices.”

Sister Michael has become a great subject for novelty merchandise with tea towels and mugs and a hundred other things available bearing the nun’s face and one of her classic lines. What’s the weirdest thing she has seen her character on to date? “Is she on tea towels? Jesus Christ. I tend not to see it although somebody did send me a picture of- I think it must have been a joke but who knows though- of a Sister Michael face mask. I can’t think of anything worse frankly.”

Siobhan distances herself from anything like this. She plays the character and what people want to put her on is completely up to them. She is just happy it is being received well.

“It has nothing to do with me. People take the character and they run with it. That’s very gratifying but that means nothing to me because I play her, she exists for me within the school. It is very mad.”

Several newspapers ran with a story last week that a Derry Girls movie was ‘in the works’. Although it was reported in several places, this really was a bit of a stretch as writer Lisa McGee merely said she had an idea ‘starting to vaguely form’ in her head.

Siobhan was as surprised by anyone by the misleading headlines: “Isn’t it wonderful? I clicked and suddenly that story came up that a Derry Girls movie is confirmed.

“I was going, ‘What the hell?’ Can you imagine the shock I got? I was like, ‘Am I in it? Am I to be somewhere?’ I was worried I was late.

“And then you actually read the article and she says, ‘I’ve been thinking about it’. Lads, what’s up with your industry? You would want to cop on a bit. You’re making yourselves into a laughing stock. If you could report back to the monthly meeting and tell them that your incredibly important, vital, democratic pillar of a professionalism is being made into a laughing stock with these stupid headlines.

“Actually I sort of expect an apology and I really like flowers so if you want to send me a bunch of flowers just to cover the shock I got in your profession’s irresponsible reporting that would be great. And wine as well. That’s a start anyway.”

We’re pretty sure Siobhan is joking about most of this but we’re not taking the chance and getting her the flowers and wine. Certainly don’t want Sister Michael to have it in for us.

Anthony is on BBC1 Monday 27 July at 8.30pm

Anthony is available on BBC iPlayer.

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