First encounters: Carmel Winters and Karen Kiernan

‘When we meet it’s fun, warm, loving’

Carmel Winters and Karen Kiernan

Carmel Winters is a playwright and film-maker whose 2010 debut film 'Snap' won awards at international film festivals and whose play 'B for Baby' won the 'Irish Times' Theatre Award for Best New Play in 2010. Originally from Kanturk, Co Cork, she lives in Ballydehob, west Cork, with her partner

When I met Karen first I'd just arrived in San Francisco and knew no one. I'd heard of this Irishwoman around the same age. Karen was renting a room in her flat. I went along and met a matriarch who had recreated a family in a large shared flat. There was a box room going and I thought, being Irish, I'd stand a chance, but I didn't get it!

A theatre company in the Bay Area was interested in a play of mine and I was trawling for Irish actors, noticed Karen's qualities and wondered would they translate into a particular role. There was extraordinary talent but she just held the room. It was a work inspired by the Kerry Babies; feelings ran high – and Karen was the anchor.

Our friendship really landed back in Ireland. I came back in 1991 and our worlds connected: we were both in stable long-term relationships and entered into a very mischievous stage of our relationship: we’d great fun. There was a lot of bonding over food. I love food: I grew up in Kanturk, the youngest of 12, with a mother who was outrageously adventurous in her cooking, for her generation.


Karen and I both lived around the Phoenix Park. Then, 12 years ago, I moved to Ballydehob. Karen comes down with her partner and son, the most divine five-year-old. My partner – she’s an artist – has 23-year-old triplets and grandchildren.

Luckily we like each other’s partners. Karen’s partner, a writer, is a very close friend. Our friendship is profoundly family-oriented. Both of us have the capacity to let the other fly off and accept them back fully. We don’t get worried when we don’t hear from each other. When we do reconnect, there’s a catch-up, not even a need to say certain things. It’s a mature friendship in that way.

People talk about friendship as a constant: we recognise the up and downs and ebbs and flows of sexual relationships but I think friendships are as complicated and intricate as every other major relationship in your life. I deeply value my friendships, they really matter and I try to be a good friend.

The new play, Best Man, is intensely about family. Through the vehicle of comedy I'm dealing with inheritance, what we pass on. It's a celebration of imperfectly crafted human beings who do their absolute best, but sometimes with appalling consequences. I have one motivation – the work has to enlighten and illuminate in the most healing way.

Karen Kiernan has worked in the community and voluntary sector for more than 20 years, for organisations including Eco-Unesco and the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA). She has been director of One Family, one of Ireland's leading organisations for one-parent families, since 2001. She lives in Dublin with her partner and son Cúan (5)

I went to TCD, did botany, then did an MA in women's studies. Later, I got a visa to work in the US. It was the 1990s, there was no email or internet and I can't remember if somebody wrote me a letter by way of introduction . . . at any rate, a mutual friend said I should meet Carmel.

She put a play on and cast me in it; we became good friends after that. It was the first time I’d ever acted and it was amazing. I’ve never acted since but it was very interesting and great fun. We were both in our early 20s. I worked in a lot of places in San Francisco, did a lot of community health/women’s health training, worked in a centre for emotionally distressed teenage girls. I stayed for three-and-a-half years.

When I got back here, we lived near each other and had great parties and food feasts in her house. We had loads of fun – there’s always an element of fun with Carmel.

I worked with Well Woman briefly, then with the IFPA [Irish Family Planning Association] before joining One Family. The landscape has changed for one-parent families, the discourse has changed, but they’re tolerated, not accepted, and self-esteem is a massive issue: they’re constantly told, you’re not good enough, you’re not a real family. And that goes from the parent to the child: it’s why we do Family Day, which celebrates family diversity.

In some ways Carmel and I do the same work, but completely differently. She’s painting a picture, I’m writing a report. She’s very good at the human side of dark characters.

She doesn’t stereotype people. We’re both interested, in a very non-judgmental way, in families that struggle. Carmel and I’ve got similar values: we both realise life is messy, people are complex.

I have a partner and a son, Cúan, who’s five. He loves Carmel, finds her very exciting. She’s got a lovely, bubbly energy; is very child-friendly. We go down to visit her in west Cork maybe once a year: Carmel’s very much about nature, she’s into food, the environment, picnicking, camping, things I wouldn’t be so good at – I’m much more of a city person. We’re not constantly in touch with each other, that’s not the kind of friendship we have, but whatever basis we built it on, it’s stood the test of time.

For a few years after I went into One Family 12 years ago I didn’t keep in touch with friends; I was so busy, I didn’t mind my friendships.

What’s good with myself and Carmel is that we see each other and connect. When we see each other it’s fun, warm, loving, there are no negatives.