Iowa-born actress Kate Mulgrew, best known for appearances in Orange Is the New Black, Mr Mercedes and Star Trek: Voyager, is famous in the business for her near-perfect Irish accent.
“My friends John and Eithne think I sound like a culchie, though,” she counters, laughing. That’s Eithne Verling and John Crumlish, the latter of whom is chief executive of the Galway International Arts Festival, where Mulgrew will appear this weekend to read from her new memoir, How to Forget.
Mulgrew has an affinity with the west of Ireland that goes far beyond having friends in high places. Riding high on the worldwide success of Orange Is the New Black, the Netflix prison drama in which she plays Russian matriarch Red, Mulgrew returned home to Iowa to care for her parents. Her father, Thomas James (or TJ), had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer, and her mother, Joan, had Alzheimer's disease. The end result is a lyrical, atmospheric and wholly moving account of the curtain fall of Mulgrew's formidable parents.
“They are like night and day, and if I were to choose which way I’d go, I’ll take cancer any day,” she notes. “Alzheimer’s is grotesque, in every way imaginable. My mother knew she was entering a darkening thicket, hour by hour. Her inability to leave the thicket brought her to her knees, then to a crawl, and then to a standstill.”
Mulgrew came from an “unconventional” Irish Catholic family (she is the second of eight children), which she wrote about in her 2015 memoir Born with Teeth. Her father was a charming alcoholic who wasn’t a loser “but not a winner, either”. Since her father elected to forego radiation and chemotherapy, the care Mulgrew provided him was largely palliative, allowing him to drink his remaining days away.
Her mother’s long goodbye was a different beast. Mulgrew recounts how Joan, who counted Jean Kennedy-Smith as her best friend from boarding school, was profoundly Irish, and proud of it; the sort of woman who “categorically refused to be hamstrung by convention”.
“We are constitutionally built to withstand a great deal, and my mother took a month to die without food, just subsisting on ice chips,” Mulgrew says. “She had outlived her own mind. Both my parents did that very Irish thing – they didn’t go to the doctor. There was a sense of, ‘once you start going, you never stop.’”
By contrast, cancer took her father, TJ, much more quickly.
“I think I felt a privilege and honour in bathing and feeding my father his last soft-boiled egg, and essentially helping them to their deaths,” she admits. “I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility, easing them into oblivion, if such a thing is possible.”
I never found any kind of judgment from the Irish, while the feminist wave here in the US, it can judge
Initially, Mulgrew had planned to document the journey through a novel, because one can tell greater truths in fiction, she says. She removed herself from the bustle of New York and took up residence on Lough Corrib, in a friend’s house. Eventually, the writing project revealed itself to be another memoir. In writing, she examined her parents’ courtship: his tumbling in love with her mother, and her initial resistance, then capitulation.
“New York doesn’t lend itself to writing, at least for me, coming to it as late as I have,” she says. “The phone is ringing, dates are being made. In Ireland, I could unplug that part of me and tap into the quiet, unrestrained part of me and see whatever would happen with Pandora’s Box.
“You will know how an Irish winter would have helped with that subject matter. It was cold, it was dark, it rained. There was just me, a crackling fire and a computer. There was nothing to do but for go for it and go with it. I forced myself to leave the desk at noon, run or take a brisk walk, no matter if it rained. I’d come home, light a fire at 5pm, pour a glass of wine and I’d just . . . cry.”
‘Flip a switch’
While living in Galway, Mulgrew returned regularly to the set of Orange Is the New Black, where she was shooting her final season, which lands on Netflix next week. Did she find it hard to switch between the two different atmospheres?
“Not at all – from the time I was a girl I could compartmentalise,” she says. “I am first and foremost an actress. You don’t have to flip a switch – that switch is already in place.”
Mulgrew clearly has a romantic affinity with Ireland, and lived here during a period of great social change. The time she spent in Galway writing her memoir coincided with the run-up to the Marriage Equality referendum, then again for the months leading to the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
The latter was of particular interest to the actress. In 1977, she gave birth to a daughter, Danielle, and gave her up for adoption via Catholic adoption agencies in the US (the two reunited in 2001).
“I found in Ireland an acceptance of my actions that I never found here in the US,” she says. “There was just an acceptance, or a deep understanding in why I made that decision. I never found any kind of judgment from the Irish, while the feminist wave here in the US, it can judge. There’s a kind of wisdom there, especially with older Irish women. I love to talk about these issues with them – abortion, same-sex marriage – there’s an understanding of it, that they’ve seen it all.”
Mulgrew was recognised regularly for her TV work, even in the remote wilds of Connemara.
“People were just as you’d want them,” she smiles. “People would go, ‘are you not Captain Janeway [from Star Trek: Voyager]?’ ‘Are you not that cook [Red]? I thought you might be.’ Like they were doing you a favour by recognising you.
"But I love it. I did a series with Brendan Gleeson [Mr Mercedes] and that's why he's happily ensconced here. There's an anonymity here. In Ireland, ambition runs fierce and deep, but it's never on display."
Kate Mulgrew appears at the Galway International Arts Festival on July 21st at the Bailey Allen Hall, NUI Galway. See giaf.ie. How to Forget: A Daughter’s Memoir is published by Harper Collins. The final season of Orange Is the New Black comes to Netflix on Friday July 26th