In her 90s, my grandmother Kathleen Behan was persuaded by her son Brian to record her memories on to tape. Around the same time, she recorded the ballads and rebel songs she’d sung throughout her life, several written by her brother Peadar Kearney, who wrote the lyrics of the Irish national anthem. The memories became a book, Mother of All the Behans, and the songs an LP, When All the World Is Young.
I had wanted to be an actor pretty much since I could speak and had worked in the profession since gaining my diploma (no degrees in those days) from Central in the 1970s. But it wasn’t until I started research for my play Brendan at the Chelsea that I became properly aware of quite how much theatre there was in the family DNA – PJ Bourke, actor-manager at the Queens Theatre; Maggie Bourke, (Kathleen’s sister), theatrical costumier; Peadar Kearney, stage manager for the Abbey company – as indeed another of Kathleen’s granddaughter’s, Tara Furlong, is today.
After Mother of All The Behans came out in print my father offered me the theatrical rights to free of charge, suggesting I should play Kathleen as it would “help my career”. Now, when it’s much too late to thank him, I see what a generous act that was but at the time I dismissed it as a bit of an insult. Did he not realise that my career was doing very well without his help and besides, couldn’t he see I was way too young? Well, to be fair to me, I was too young at the time; now time has done away with that particular difficulty for me.
At around the time Dad was making his recordings of Kathleen up at the Sacred Heart Residence in Sybill Hill, I was working at the Lyric in Belfast and making fairly frequent visits down to see her. On a couple of occasions I took along my new boyfriend Dermot, now my husband of 37 years. He made a good impression on her. On one occasion she wanted to offer him a glass of something (people used to take her in diluted whiskey disguised in medicine bottles so the nuns wouldn’t confiscate it) but she couldn’t find anything so Dermot went down to the car to fetch a bottle we’d just bought.
She said, “Isn’t he lovely? Lovely manners. Lend me your arm, Janet. I’ll just pop to the toilet while he’s gone, freshen myself up.” Then, with a girly, winsome smile, “Not that I suppose he cares!” Ninety-three, partially blind with an artificial hip but she still had an eye for the fellas. Her death, a couple of years after that visit, upset me terribly – not just because she meant so much to me but because, such was her spirit, it had simply never occurred to me that she would, or even could, die.
At the back end of the last century Mother of All the Behans was made into a stage play by Peter Sheridan, with Rosaleen Linehan, and then in a later production, Eileen Pollock, playing Kathleen. I saw both performances and they were both excellent, hard to follow. In recent years I’d looked in the mirror and wondered if it was now time to think about following them, so when I was asked if I’d do something for our local Wordfest, I re-read Dad’s book and asked director Jessica Higgs, who’d previously worked with me on my solo show Why Shouldn’t I Go, if she’d help.
During rehearsals I angsted endlessly (and, for Jess, probably quite annoyingly) about whether or not I, a mere diasporan with and English mother to boot, was Irish enough to play Kathleen. Was I even entitled to try? But, then I thought, there are a few things in my favour. I knew her, I loved her – and we share that DNA.
Because of the pandemic, we rehearsed on Zoom. Then restrictions were eased in the run-up to Christmas and everything was set fair for a performance at the local arts centre, but the second wave hit and we were locked down once more. However, serendipitously enough, my TV director husband Dermot Boyd was locked down too. So grabbing what we had to hand, we turned a corner of our living room into a home for Kathleen and made a film instead. I hope she’d be pleased with the result.
A few days ago I posted a picture of 70 Kildare Road, Crumlin, on a Facebook page called Dublin Down Memory Lane. Kathleen and her family moved into that little corporation house in the 1930s, when it was brand new, and she lived there for more than 50 years. Currently my post has 1,059 likes, 163 loves and a comment from pretty well everyone who ever lived in Kildare Road, nearly all of whom knew her or knew of her and they’re all chatting away to each other at a virtual street party. Kathleen would have absolutely loved that.
Kathleen and Me will be available day and night throughout Brighton Fringe 2021, May 28th-June 27th. Tickets, £9 each, are on sale now, via this link. Purchase one full price ticket and you can share five more with friends at the discounted price of £6.75.