Nolans have danced their way through triumph and disaster
The late Bernie Nolan was representative of the Irish women of her generation who made their homes in England
“Bernie Nolan referred to herself as the ‘nutter of the family’ . . . She was the first of the Nolans to begin a television acting career. She was willing to attempt being an opera singer for a television programme. There was a bit of panto. She was game.” Photograph: Camera Press/Nicky Johnston
Surely the best story about the Nolans is that after their last gig in Dublin there were a lot of complaints about the behaviour of their fans. Observers who rang RTÉ’s Liveline the next day said they’d never seen a drunker, rowdier, more disgraceful crowd. There might have been fighting. It was middle-aged women run riot – and kind of heartening in a strange way.
The Nolans can hardly have been surprised. “I get really infuriated with the goody-goody Catholic girls image,” said Bernie. Besides, they are no strangers to the recipe of how too much white wine, briefly stewed with the unfairness of life, can result in an explosive row. There are a lot of things the Nolans did not need explained to them. “One too many glasses of wine were drunk,” said Colleen in 2011, of a then recent rift between the sisters. “Things were said.”
For 30 years we have seen the Nolans facing triumph and disaster just the same. The divorces, the bankruptcies, the family rifts, the less than ideal husbands and the cancer diagnoses – three of the Nolans have had breast cancer. Each drama became public property in its turn and ended up in the bookshops and the tabloids. As journalist Nick Duerden put it when he interviewed them on the publication of a joint memoir, Survivors, the Nolans have spent a long time “making heavy weather out of light entertainment”.
And now Bernie Nolan is dead at 52, of breast cancer.
From the beginning their fans loved the Nolans – or the Nolan Sisters, as they were then – because their modest musical act was so accessible. In other words, everyone else thought they could do much the same thing. The Nolan Sisters’ great strength was that they seemed ordinary. They weren’t outrageously beautiful or outrageously talented – they looked like normal girls, almost amateurs. Nobody knew back then about the Nolans starting their combined career by singing in nightclubs on school nights, waiting to be driven home by their father, who sat at the bar until 3am, plastered.
Back then it looked like the Nolan success story was founded on nothing more than a sparkly top, a blow-dried fringe and a tanker full of lip gloss . . . ah, the 80s. The Nolans had a lot of girls singing into the back of hairbrushes in the privacy of their bedrooms. They were a seemingly inexhaustible supply of that inspirational figure, the girl next door.
They were also part of Ireland’s least-loved diaspora, the Irish who went to the north and midlands of England: that section of the diaspora that has provided us with entertainment stars.