Rosaleen Linehan: I told my son, ‘I hope I don’t embarrass you.’ He said, ‘Too late’

The effervescent octogenarian is gearing up for her new show, Backwards up a Rainbow

Rosaleen Linehan, a woman with a permanent glint in her eye, is sitting in her back garden in Blackrock, Co Dublin. She’s telling the story of how she came to be limping. The limp was caused by a saga involving throwing clothes for washing down from one landing to another and then a fall. “I was scared about doing the show anyway, and now I’m doing it as a limping lump,” she says, laughing.

There have been many shows in Linehan's more than 60 years in theatre. The one she's preparing for now is Backwards up a Rainbow, which will feature stories and songs written by her late husband, the writer and Irish Times journalist Fergus Linehan, with music by Rosaleen. The title comes from one of the couple's most famous songs: Soap Your Arse and Slide Backwards up a Rainbow. "All you need is some hope and a fresh bar of soap and a slippy backside," the song goes. (Go to YouTube and watch a beaming Linehan sing it on a vintage Late Late Show for Gay Byrne. I defy you not to smile.)

Many of the songs – I Wish Was a Protestant, for example – were written in what she calls “the dark ages ... when the Catholic Church had the crozier in our marriage bed”. The pianist Conor Linehan, the youngest of her four children, accompanies her in the show, which is directed by Conall Morrison.

I didn't really sleep last night. I'm always worried. I think most actors or actresses are scared they will get found out, either on the stage or otherwise

I can’t believe this veteran of stage and screen is really scared. It’s a “natural performer’s fear”, she says, “like the fear of walking out naked on stage”. She’s also a bit afraid of what she might say in this interview. “I didn’t really sleep last night. I’m always worried. I think most actors or actresses are scared they will get found out, either on the stage or otherwise ... I said to my son Hugh recently, in relation to this interview, ‘The most important thing is that I don’t embarrass any of you.’ And he immediately said, ‘Too late’.

“Are you hiding something, Rosaleen?” I ask. “Is that why you are worried?”

“You mean the affair?” she says, laughing mischievously. “Could you imagine? Dear God.”

Last month she had a very small celebration of what would have been her 60th wedding anniversary. Fergus died in November 2016. She still talks to him a lot. “I don’t really think he’s gone. Not at all. I have him upstairs in his study, and I have little chats with him, especially when I lose things ... I lose things constantly.”

The effervescent octogenarian, who has worn the same chic bob for decades, returns to the nerves she’s experiencing. She’s worried about how much of herself to give and wonders what her parents would have thought. She grew up in a house on Appian Way in Dublin, where the Rosary was said every evening. “We had lots of nice things. We weren’t poor, but things were tight.” Her mother, a Belfast woman, was 46 when Rosaleen was born.

Unlike many creatives, she swears she had “the happiest of childhoods”, except for one thing. “My mother didn’t think I was very good looking...” You grew up thinking that? “Oh, I still think it ... My mother taught me a lot of things, and never slapped me or anything, but that was always in the air.” Fergus, she says, “thought I was beautiful and would try to pull me out of it”.

'My mother didn't think I was very good looking.' You grew up thinking that? 'Oh, I still think it.' Her husband, she says, 'thought I was beautiful and would try to pull me out of it'

She went to school at Loreto College on St Stephen's Green, where she learned to play the double bass. Her project this year is to track down the name of the manager of the old Hibernian Bank in Ranelagh who, when her mother went looking for a job there for whip-smart young Rosaleen, instead offered to pay for her to go to UCD, where she eventually joined DramSoc and met Fergus. "Isn't that amazing?" Her father, Dan McMenamin, was in his 50s when his youngest child was born. He was a Fine Gael TD for Donegal for more than 30 years.

The house was always full of country cousins, and she spent long happy summers in her father’s home county. I ask which part of Donegal. “Do you know Donegal well?” she asks. “No,” I admit. “You fool,” she accuses, with those twinkling eyes. “Fanad is the most beautiful beach in the world.”

She’s a former Miss Donegal and one of the original sea swimmers. She mentions a song Fergus wrote for her, about how she was happiest in the water. “He knew the other side of me,” she says. What side? “I always had a temper, chasing people upstairs and giving out stink to everybody,” she says, sheepishly.

It does not seem plausible that this woman, in her denim shirt, all verve and theatrics, is actually 84. “Yes, that’s right,” she says, before breaking into a rousing chorus of “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 84?”

When Linehan played Mammy in Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan she told a reporter: 'Mammy is in bed for the play, is 90 and an alcoholic. So I don't have to do much research'

No other performer alive in Ireland can boast anything like the CV Linehan has accumulated. She started with Maureen Potter at the Gaiety, before breaking box-office records with Des Keogh in the revues she wrote with Fergus. She has played in everything from Shakespeare to Beckett at the Gate, knocking audiences dead from the West End to Hollywood. In 2008 she received a special tribute award at the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards. That night the director Joe Dowling paid tribute to Linehan’s “extraordinary performances” as Feste in Twelfth Night, Kate in Dancing at Lughnasa, Kathleen Behan in Mother of All the Behans, and Rose in Gypsy. “That great genius of comedy became, over time, one of Ireland’s greatest actors,” he said.

How did she make that switch? She remembers, while in her comic phase, going to watch actor friends appearing in serious, straight theatre and thinking, I could do that. Back in 2009 she visited her doctor to see if he’d approve of her travelling to Australia to be part of Enda Walsh’s The New Electric Ballroom. The doctor took one look at her chart, noted her age and said, “Really, Rosaleen, you should be at home knitting.” Reader, she legged it to Perth. Ten years later she played Mammy in Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan and told a reporter at the time: “Mammy is in bed for the play, is 90 and an alcoholic. So I don’t have to do much research.”

She found the lockdowns “dreadful”, despite many visits and “red-riding-hood food hampers” from family. “On bad evenings I’d have a measure of vodka and a glass and half of wine ... and I might go a little, you know, Niagara Falls over the measure,” she laughs. The very occasional swear word slips out as she chats. “Don’t put that in or I will be shot,” she says. I tell her that at 84 she’s earned the right to say what she pleases, but she’s keen to be a good example for her grandchildren. “Fergus never cursed.” She loves the actor Maggie Smith and quotes her: “I got through my life and my career without taking my clothes off or saying f**k.”

Not long ago she was thinking about her in-laws and said to her son Conor: 'Do you know, I think, looking back, the Linehans thought I was a bit vulgar.' And Conor said, 'Well you are, Mammy?' We laugh our heads off at this

Her father might have been a Fine Gael man, but she is no fan of the current Government. She reckons, because of the housing crisis and other issues, there will be “a bit of a revolution”. Really? “I think there has to be in this country,” she says, sounding sad. “I got my beautiful little grandson to read out the Proclamation [of Independence] over the summer. He’s 14. I said to him, ‘Now, I want you to stand up there and read that.’ And he read it out. And it just encapsulated everything that’s gone wrong. We’re not there any more. Those aspirations have not been achieved.”

How does that make her feel? “Well, I feel a bit old to do anything about it ... I’ve never been an activist. I’ve never felt actors should be, really. Except for Jane Fonda. And, by God, she did it.”

We’ve been chatting for nearly two hours, and I tell her, before I go, that I don’t think she mentioned anything to be worried about during the interview. She’s not convinced. Not long ago she was thinking about her in-laws and said to her son Conor: “Do you know, I think, looking back, the Linehans thought I was a bit vulgar.” And Conor said, “Well you are, Mammy?” We laugh our heads off at this.

The thing is, Rosaleen Linehan gives vulgarity a good name. Don't miss this chance to see Ireland's greatest living show-woman tell the story of her truly extraordinary life.

Backwards up a Rainbow, produced by Lovano and Landmark Theatre, is at the Pavilion Theatre, in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, from Wednesday, September 15th, to Sunday, September 26th. It will be livestreamed on September 24th, 25th and 26th, and available to watch on demand from Monday, September 27th, to Sunday, October 10th. Tickets are on sale here

Róisín Ingle

Róisín Ingle

Róisín Ingle is an Irish Times columnist, feature writer and coproducer of the Irish Times Women's Podcast