Maeve Higgins: ‘Irish people are treated as some kind of miracle when they do well abroad’

The comedian on making it in the US and Ireland’s ‘overlooked, undervalued’ women

One new essay by Maeve Higgins begins this way: "The fact that I am unable to experience everything personally sometimes gets me down. I want to know other lives very badly. The most I can hope to do is try and mix it up a bit, perhaps train myself to appreciate rutabaga or learn Icelandic, but I will still fundamentally be stuck being myself."

The lives of others, and her own, occupy the Cork writer and actor’s new collection of essays, Tell Everyone on This Train I Love Them. Positioned on a trajectory, her previous collections – Off You Go; We Have a Good Time, Don’t We?; and Maeve in America: Essays by a Girl from Somewhere Else – tell a sequential story of a writer evolving and going deeper.

Higgins, who is from Cobh and lives in New York, is enjoying a multifaceted creative career, seemingly gravitating towards wherever the juicy stuff is. She recently completed a master's in international migration studies, and throughout this collection, there is a sense of a writer who desires to learn about herself and others. There are essays on a border security expo, the climate crisis, and the reality TV show 90 Day Fiancé's lessons about immigration and US citizenship. The title is taken from the final words of Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, a 23-year-old who was killed when he tried to stop a racist attack against two Muslim girls on a train in Portland.

'The deeper I looked and the more I learned, I began to understand that migration is a lens to look through at all of the biggest challenges we face today'

Humour orbits Higgins, who began her career as a comedian on television sketch shows and as a stand-up. But her non-fiction writing – essays, columns, journalism – is underpinned by a serious call to step outside the self and take in what other people are going through. So the essays are another sort of orbit, a transmission about her experience through the lives of others that spins out and catches the context of others.

As a columnist for the New York Times, and a columnist with the US Guardian, what was often framed as Higgins’s whimsy or even surrealism has been honed in recent years, evolving into a deeper bank of writing that often focuses on immigration and a sense of awayness, of trying to understand the context that surrounds you when you move, and when everyone else is moving too. That theme of immigration and migration is a frequent one for Higgins, but in assessing her own experience, it’s one that she expands outwards, gravitating towards the stories of others, where people are trying to make something of themselves, do their best, yet often face the kinds of obstacles that limit freedoms and reduce lives to where they travel to, not who they are.

“Growing up in Cobh, we learned a lot about the people that left, the migrants from the worst times in colonised Ireland’s history, and that always fascinated me,” she says. “Leaving one life behind, overcoming obstacles, starting anew – there is such a strong narrative in every migrant’s story. Those factors, as well as moving to the US myself, sparked my initial interest in migration as a framework around which to better understand what was happening around me, and where I fit in. The deeper I looked and the more I learned, I began to understand that migration is a lens to look through at all of the biggest challenges we face today; global warming, growing inequality, Covid-19. When you combine any or all of these crises with birthplace, citizenship and the freedom to move, it becomes this tangle of hundreds of threads to follow.”

Increasingly, Higgins has focused on the systems in place that create conditions migrants have to navigate. “Take a border,” she says. “Often it is an invisible line decided by someone a long time ago, who may never even have been to that place in their life. And we are all just supposed to agree that, yes, this is the border, there lies a different state, and here we are, and yes, there is a famine here but we must die here quietly now because we all agree we are not allowed to step over the magic invisible line decided on by a stranger many years ago. It is, and I say this after careful consideration, absolutely crazy.”

There are diversions in the new book too, such as an episode induced by eating a box of “artisanal candy” that turned out to be cannabis edibles that she turns into an allegory about the precariousness of mental health, among other things. Often the essays begin as something gentle, easing the reader in, before star-wiping to display layers of meaning. Higgins’s work – tender, funny, serious – is always about human stories, rather than just stories with humans in them. Sometimes those human stories are hers, sometimes it’s a bunch of border police, sometimes it’s historical figures moulded into statues.

One essay stands out. Misneach and Rumors of War unearths the connections between the statue of a teenage girl on horseback by John Byrne that stands outside Trinity Comprehensive School in Ballymun, and another in Richmond Virginia called Rumors of War, where another teenager sits on a horse, and the anti-colonialist and anti-racist connections that swirl around them both.

What was interesting about Extra Ordinary was how Higgins held the quiet aspects of her performance so beautifully

“Life goes around in circles, it does,” Higgins writes, “but sometimes those circles spin so hard they transfer something new to the next round. I want to hold America’s face when it lights up with a fever I’m afraid will set her whole self aflame, and tell her that there’s not an easy answer except to fight and to win and to get free, in all the ways that a person can be free.”

In recent years, acting in other people's work has seen Higgins star in the 2019 film Extra Ordinary, and the Kevin Barry play Autumn Royal. Her stage presence and her charisma on screen has a magnetism that doesn't just pull audiences in, but also pulls other artists towards her. Extra Ordinary, Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman's comedy horror, was developed with Higgins chosen for the lead from the start. Barry wrote Autumn Royal with Higgins in mind. While Siobhán McSweeney played the role of May on its Irish run back in 2017 ("She's brilliant," Higgins says), the play came back around to Higgins, in one of those magic windows where live art could happen in 2021, when it ran at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan.

“I still can’t believe it happened and that we did it,” she says of the five-week rehearsal and the ensuing six-week run. Higgins used to resist theatre and its air of importance, in part because stand-up is so casual and embraces opportunities to be off the cuff. “This was a deeper, harder thing,” Higgins says of the play. “I was talking to Kevin about acting. You know, I’m not a trained actor and I really wanted to get it right.” She asked him for ideas and advice, which he gave “in a real laidback way”. One of the things he mentioned was something Stephen Rea said once, “that someone pulls a lever and his brain switches into a character and into a world. That was really useful for me, because I’m [May, the character] trapped in a house with my brother. At the beginning of the play there was a sound effect that happens,” and she used that as a trigger to go. “It was a huge learning thing for me. It was one of the best work experiences I ever had. You know how it is with writing, you write something and it has this strange afterlife. People give you feedback a year and a half after you’ve written it. Social media is a thing. Comedy used to be that way, but now it’s all takes and commodified. But with this: it happened, and the pandemic stopped happening.”

In Extra Ordinary, Higgins sold the gags and the slapstick well, even as the film's intentionally bonkers aspects ran away a little as it reached its climax. But what was interesting was how Higgins held the quiet aspects of her performance so beautifully. She had a depth that felt that this character had more to say, to do, to feel. Others thought so too: Extra Ordinary is now being adapted by Maya Rudolph and Natasha Lyonne for a series by American network TBS.

In the context of the pandemic, many are re-evaluating their interactions with the world in terms of the things that matter and the things that can be shed, such as social media, about which Higgins offers: “For creative people it’s so destructive. It’s a distraction. I sound like I’m writing a think piece in 2008 or something.”

In Michaela Coel’s speech from the 2021 Emmys, which resonated with many writers, she said: “In a world that entices us to browse through the lives of others to help us better determine how we feel about ourselves, and to in turn feel the need to be constantly visible, for visibility these days seems to somehow equate to success – do not be afraid to disappear. From it. From us. For a while. And see what comes to you in the silence.”

'Today, if someone doesn't like my work, or a piece of work I do doesn't get the response I'm hoping for, I actually feel so psyched'

Higgins says, "Simone Biles was really the one for me", referring to the American gymnast withdrawing from certain competitions at the Olympics. "Athletes have to be so public too, to sell their personality. She was the one for me, where I was like: that is so brave and so cool. I literally felt something shift in me: it doesn't f***ing matter. For her, she would have been in danger if she kept going. I think for a lot of us, women who are out there grinding, I don't know how best to put it, but you're not always proving yourself, and you have to pay for it [somehow]. It's a self-preservation thing, too, to step back – and again, not so you can just do something incredible, but literally just step back and see what happens. This is me speaking aspirationally! I still have loads of ambitions."

“Act fast,” she says of holding on during the early stages of creative work, “sketch out the idea that’s flashed into your mind, or tell a collaborator about it, or just speak it all into your phone. In my 20s I had tons of ideas but could always think my way out of them by listing all of the ways they could fail. Then I figured out that plenty of people will do that for you, plenty of people will explain why you can’t do something, so you really need to just try. Today, if someone doesn’t like my work, or a piece of work I do doesn’t get the response I’m hoping for, I actually feel so psyched. It’s hard to explain but, basically, now I think it’s good to mess up and keep trying, because I’m not making stuff to feel validated. I’m writing and making stuff because I need to, and if it was perfect every time that would mean I was being too cautious.”

As for conjuring creative ideas themselves, “I wish I knew the formula. Sometimes I wake up with an entire show in my head, or a perfect joke. Other times I’m out hiking and I can’t get back to my laptop fast enough because of some connection my brain has made between two different things and I need to explore it. When I’m backed into a corner, I can often write my way out, but I don’t think that is the healthiest route for me as a person, as it’s so stressful, so I hope to become calmer and more organised as time goes by. I can picture myself as an old lady just placidly writing absolute bangers from some small house by the sea, and all the locals being quite nervous of me because the only time they see me is when the tide is high and I’m staring at it and humming tunelessly.”

Like many writers, Higgins loves writing on train journeys. “I feel like I’m already being productive because I’m getting from A to B, so any work I do is a bonus. There is an ever-changing landscape to glance up at. The sound of a train is excellent white noise, and you’re not obliged to look at your phone, so you can just do your work.” Irish train journeys, specifically, she misses. The journey between Dublin and any other city being around two to three hours “is an excellent block of time to sink into some solid work”.

'Back in Ireland I cannot even get the national broadcaster, RTÉ, to read a script set in Ireland'

Trains, she says, are calming, unlike air travel, "where I'm convinced some of my molecules get lost in the atmosphere because I'm hurtling so quickly through it." She wonders if RTÉ would "commission a show where I sit quietly on the train to Belmullet and just look out the window, then write on my laptop." What would this show be called? "Hold the Mayo – the idea being I never get to Mayo? I just get to sit on the train and write like those old people on the boat in Love in the Time of Cholera."

Identity in terms of nationality and place concerns Higgins’s work so much. How does this translate personally as the classification of being a “new” emigrant starts to fade over time. Being Irish somewhere else is a common circumstance, and it has also provided Higgins with a lens through which some of her writing is filtered. But it’s never about fish-out-of-water stuff, or “aren’t people differences gas”, especially when Higgins’s personal philosophy seems to present the world as one big tank, albeit one with levels worryingly rising (she previously co-hosted the climate crisis podcast Mothers of Invention with Mary Robinson).

On her relationship to the Irish State now, Higgins articulates an irony in how she is supported by Ireland abroad, but when that relationship is brought closer, things change. It's as though the connection to Ireland emigrating artists have is given much more slack as they travel away, but the same metaphorical rope, that both ties and leads, snaps with tension when it draws closer to the island.

"The Irish consulate is incredibly supportive of Irish artists and writers abroad," she says. "They invite me to things and come see my shows and share my stuff on social media, and when Michael D and Sabina Higgins were in town, I was invited to a lunch, and that is all so nice."

She thinks people are aware of her various successes, and they are, especially other female writers and those working in film and television here. “It’s curious though,” she says, “because back in Ireland I cannot even get the national broadcaster, RTÉ, to read a script set in Ireland. Like I literally personally emailed the head of comedy and the head of RTÉ a script set in Ireland and they assured me they would read it and then just didn’t even read it or respond. This is not a personal gripe, truly it’s not. I am doing fine, that script is now in development in the US. The reason I bring it up is that what I am experiencing, I think, is common for two groups of people: Irish people abroad who get opportunities they are not offered at home, who are then treated as some kind of miracle when they manage to do well after emigrating. The second group obviously is women, who are consistently overlooked and undervalued in Irish media, which is also why so much home-grown content is bad. The amount of talent wasted and potential unfulfilled bums me out, to be honest, and I don’t know how to fix it for the women stuck in Ireland.”

She's holding back from delving into another big project just yet. There's a sense that she's at ease, letting things happen, and happy

Nothing Higgins says is coloured by resentment, she’s merely observing the details of her experience, and it’s a common one. Later, in a phone conversation, she cites the departure of the hugely popular radio presenter Louise McSharry from 2FM as more evidence of the lack of the broader Irish media industry’s acknowledgement and appreciation of Irish female talent.

One of the reasons Higgins potentially didn't get her dues in Ireland, is, of course, basic sexism. But one can only hope that's changing. It does at least feel that the humdrum era of Irish comedy is no longer relevant. It's hard to see where the meat-and-two-veg lads can exist at a time when Joanne McNally is leaping ahead, or Deirdre O'Kane is maintaining her queendom, or a new generation of comics are eviscerating the government in the kinds of sharp and hilarious sketch videos posted to social media that morphed the form during the pandemic era. And yet, the biggest successes Irish women have experienced in writing comedy television in recent years – Aisling Bea, Sharon Horgan, Lisa McGee – appear to have been met (industry-wise) with receptiveness, opportunity and excitement elsewhere first.

Creatively, Higgins continues to expand. She’s holding back from delving into another big project just yet. There’s a sense that she’s at ease, letting things happen, and happy. The title of the collection, gleaned from a tragedy, is maybe also a private thought of Higgins, as the cover sees an illustration of her sitting in a subway carriage, staring ahead with a smile.

"Hannah Arendt wrote and spoke about 'amor mundi' or love of the world," says Higgins, "which is not just blindly accepting the world (and people) and not outright rejecting the world and people either, rather trying to really see it as it is and understand it."

Read More

Recommended